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  • Feb 26, 2016

Antipodean Inquiry

TAMARA DEAN, Emerge, 2015, photograph on archival fiber-based cotton rag, 150 × 150 cm. Courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

Australia and New Zealand’s contemporary art suffer from a type of pigeonholing and peripheral isolation. Geographical proximity, shared similarities and incessant cultural rivalry draw these Trans-Tasman neighbors together at heart. Although epicenters of increasingly diverse contemporary art practices, both post-colonial countries remain largely on the cusp of the global art stage, particularly to art aficionados in Asia. At Singapore’s Yavuz Gallery, guest curator Owen Craven from Sydney has rounded up 13 Australian and New Zealand artists in an exhibition underlined by several different thematic ties. Entitled “Antipodean Inquiry,” the exhibition, as Australian art critic John McDonald recently noted, “gives a sense of the vitality of the art being made today in Australia and New Zealand.”

Included among the artists is Sydney-based Tamara Dean, who creates dreamlike photographs that incite reflection on the human spirit and one’s connection with the natural world. Cast in a soothing myrtle green, Emerge (2015) portrays a child, eyes softly closed, floating in a body of water. The child, whose gender is delicately ambiguous, drifts in an ethereal state that draws to mind notions of the womb and the miracle of life. In other works, Dean captures her subjects—usually adolescents—participating in coming-of-age rituals that appear universal, transpiring both nations and nationalities.

Exploring the ability of photo media to nourish otherworldly imaginations, three works from Daniel Shipp’s recent series “Botanical Inquiry (2015– ) present fictional images hinting at a post-apocalyptic world taken over by nature. Shipp’s method of manipulating backlights and repeatedly re-photographing his own prints creates photographic dioramas that exude cinematic drama. Using commonly found weeds and flowers collected near his home and studio in Alexandria, in inner-east Sydney, Shipp layers the plants against suburban backdrops, highlighting the resilience and adaptability of nature despite the edifice of man to be masters of the world.

Melbourne-based Brook Andrew’s immersive installations and photographic works challenge dominant Western perceptions of Australian colonial history, presenting alternative possibilities for interpreting and re-framing the past. Andrew’s two large photographic montages, Possessed VII and Possessed VI (both 2015), uses glass-slide negative photographs of 19th-century Australia; and through an act of distorting and inversing them, the artist generates a composite of multiple landscapes that is at once beautiful and disturbing. By re-interpreting these historic images—that show Australian landscapes at the height of British imperialism, which colonialists sent back to London as proof of their supposed good deeds in the Pacific country—Andrew shows how perceived truth can be far from reality.

BROOK ANDREW, Possessed VI, 2015, silver gelatin print, carbonized frame, 163 × 127 cm. Courtesy Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

JOAN ROSS, Colonial Grab, 2015, still from video: 7 min 38 sec. Courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

While Andrew’s style is direct and deadpan, Joan Ross uses a witty approach to make tongue-in-cheek stabs at Australia’s colonial past. Her digital animation, Colonial Grab (2015), juxtaposes native Australia and its Indigenous people with newly arrived Western settlers dressed in fluorescent yellow—a metaphor for the absurdity of imperialism. At the heart of the video is a poker machine called Colonial Grab, at which the settlers try their luck. The gamble takes them to various sequences and worlds where we see them moving about awkwardly. Comedy similarly surfaces in emerging Melbourne-based artist Lucas Grogan’s satirical, graphic-heavy ink and acrylic paintings, which address the ludicrous facets of today’s art market, particularly the influx of art fairs across the world. Embedded among dizzying psychedelic patterns are flippant texts that make mocking references to the esoteric language often used within the art world to discuss artworks and their concepts.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, sculpture makes a glossy appearance. Among several pieces by Sydney-based Australian-Chinese artist Lindy Lee is her installation of flung bronze, Instants of Unreturning (2015). A part of the artist’s exploration of her Chinese roots, the flung molten bronze, patented in a lustrous soft gold, is a reflection of the Chinese technique of flinging ink. While elsewhere in the exhibition, Melbourne-based artist Penny Byrne—famous for turning kitsch porcelain figurines into gun-wielding political statements—seduces us with Weapons of Mass Destruction (2015), a series of three life-size porcelain AK-47s gilded in 24-carat gold. Underlying the shiny and alluring appearance of the weapons is the reality of their real-world design as a tool of warfare.

Although the exhibition is a group show of “leading artists from Australia and New Zealand,” it is nonetheless not all-inclusive of the vast states and territories that make up the two countries. Unduly heavy on representation from Melbourne and Sydney, the exhibition has an evident lack of artists from elsewhere in Australia and from New Zealand as a whole. Only two of the thirteen exhibiting artists hail from New Zealand, and both are now presently Australia-based. Of the two, André Hemer’s thickly textured abstract canvases negotiate the boundaries between traditional painterly techniques and aesthetics of the digital realm. Meanwhile, using a muted, blue-gray palette and gestural marks, Euan Macleod infuses his paintings with human emotion; the expressive nature of his acrylic paintings reflects his observations of antipodean landscapes. While both are interesting artists in their own ways, their inclusion appears more as a small taste of what New Zealand artists can bring to the field.

Nevertheless, it takes a brave curator to attempt an exhibition covering such vast geography. Avoiding any overarching theme, “Antipodean Inquiry” cleverly uses small ties between individual artistic practices and mediums to bring Asia a glimpse of contemporary art from Down Under.

PENNY BYRNE, Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2015, porcelain with 24-carat-gold gilding, set of three: 30 × 93 × 6 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery, Singapore.

“Antipodean Inquiry” is on view at Yavuz Gallery, Singapore, until March 5, 2016.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific. 

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