Exhibition review – Contemporary Australia: Women 0 Comments

Exhibition review – Contemporary Australia: Women

While we have been shivering here in Melbourne the city of Brisbane has been bathed in sun. I know this because I saw it a few weeks ago, I felt it on my skin and I didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t just there for the sun though. I needed to see the ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’ exhibition at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, or QAGGoMA (qwag-goma), as it’s now called.

An entire exhibition of works by female artists is a rare thing among Australia’s large state funded art galleries. This is the second in a series called Contemporary Australia, the first was ‘Contemporary Australia: Optimism’, a successful show which demonstrated QAGGoMA’s talent for presenting contemporary art in an accessible and engaging way. ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’ continues this tradition.

Hiromi Tango’s ‘Pistil’ (2012) at QAGGOMA

The first thing I was struck by was the diversity of materials, particularly found objects. Hiromi Tango’s installation of wool, fibre and artist books fills the entrance hall with a tree shaped hideaway which visitors readily walk through and interact with. Pistil (2012) was commissioned specifically for the exhibition and includes a second installation behind glass. Wool and yarn bind and explode over dolls, branch shapes and strange fibrous protrusions attach themselves to the ceiling. Many hours of winding, stitching and knitting have gone into this installation, and at first it seems to be solely about such stereotypically feminine activities as craft. But there is something unnerving about Tango’s composition. Dolls are tangled among the protrusions and it’s not quite clear if these soft limbs of wool are benevolent or something else. It honestly reminds me of a creature from a Hayao Miyazaki film, rendered expressively in yarn.

The exhibition continues the return to everyday materials with Rebecca Baumann’s Mixed Feelings (2012) another artwork commissioned for the exhibition. Consisting of a printer perched high in the ceiling regularly sending coloured papers down to the viewer this is an unexpected and deceptively simple installation. You can walk all over the coloured papers and depending on when you enter the room you’ll see a completely different mosaic of colour on the floor. At the end of each day the papers are removed and the process starts anew. No two days will produce the same composition of colour. The artwork is a continually changing, unfinished and therefore completely original beast from one moment to the next.

It is surprising and conceptually developed pieces like Baumann’s that make QAGGoMA’s exhibitions so rewarding. You never know what you will see. ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’ doesn’t disappoint.

Installation view of Judy Watson’s ‘in our skin’ (2012)

‘grandmother’s song’ by Judy Watson (2007)

Moving away from the conceptual towards the political is Judy Watson’s in our skin (2012). Watson is a member of the Waanyi people of north western Queenslandand this installation is a very personal exploration of her family, in particular her matrilineal line. in our skin features a video in which Watson recalls her family history, it is a deeply moving composition of words, historical footage and documents from her past. These subtly illustrate the damages done and spirit of survival of the women in her family. Her great-great-grandmother, Rosie, for example, survived a massacre by hiding behind a windbreak. In order to escape the Native Police trackers she weighed herself down underwater with rocks while breathing through a makeshift grass snorkel.

Wax ears have been nailed to the wall and red ochre has been painted onto the floor further symbolising the trials of her family’s past at the hands of the government. The names of significant locations are listed on the wall. It is for the viewer to work out a narrative through the competing methods of display – one scientific and colonial, the other experiential and personal. The unexplained nailed ears were for me a highly unnerving but effective way of engaging with these two discourses.

Completing the installation is a pigment and pastel canvas titled grandmother’s song (2007) a beautiful and calm conclusion to a powerful collection of works. The diverse elements of Watson’s installation really require the viewer to spend some time in this room. I left with a feeling of quiet rage.

Detail of Judy Watson’s ‘in our skin’ (2012)

‘Contemporary Australia: Women’ was a deceptively powerful exhibition. Subtlety abounded in these highly conceptual and technically advanced artworks. Without other female focussed exhibitions to refer to I cannot call this a tour de force, but it certainly was powerful. Perhaps the exposure an exhibition like this brings will see something closer to a 50/50 representation of women in exhibitions more generally. The next Contemporary Australia exhibition will be in two years.

Contemporary Australia: Women was held at QAGGoMA from 21 April – 22 July 2012.

Detail of ‘Pistil’ by Hiromi Tango (2012)

Nikita Vanderbyl blogs about visual art at www.nikitavanderbyl.com.

Nikita Vanderbyl

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