Beginnings and endings in art and life

Growing up in Brisbane in the 1980s, I remember businessman Alan Bond and the America’s Cup sailing competition frequently mentioned in the nightly news—Bond was determined to win the race. In 1988, I received the Australian Bicentennial Medallion given to school students and visited all the pavilions at Expo 88 in Brisbane, which hosted over 15 million visitors for its laser displays, parades and more. Big money and big politics seemed to shape everything.

Harnessing the vibe of this time, curator Gemma Weston has used political philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay, ‘The End of History?’, as a loose conceptual backbone for an exhibition of work from the University of Western Australia art collection. Part of Fukuyama’s central idea was that history should be viewed as an evolutionary process. Applying this to works created between 1985 and 1995, Weston asks us to consider how artists have responded to this evolution across the decades.

Simon Gevers, Suburb, 1993-94, clay and chipboard, 21 x 91.5 x 65 cm.

“There are a few works that represent specific events,” she explains. “The 1988 Australian Bicentennial is a key subject for some, while artists who were working in Western Australia were very animated by the phenomenon of Alan Bond and WA Inc. However, what the exhibition is trying to do is to understand the mood or the psychology of the period. When exhibited together, there’s an interesting consistency in the subject, form, and scale of these works.”

The mood that dominates reflects climate anxiety, art and activism, and the role of the artist in documenting the moment. Weston also points out the prevalence of cranes and machinery in work by Western Australian artists, indicating the repeated bursts of industry and development frequently occurring in Perth. “There was a time when an industrial boom in Perth related to the America’s Cup, and a whole lot of venture capitalism,” Weston says. “The city skyline was being dramatically redrawn, as it is again now.”

Emma Buswell, Once upon a time in… , 2021, acrylic wool, plaster, acrylic and fixings, dimensions variable. The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Leah Jane Cohen Bequest, 2023 © the artist, photography Courtesy the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art.

As expected from a state collection, there is a high number of Western Australian artists included in the exhibition. Sculptor Stuart Elliott is well known for his multi-layered industrial constructions that look like archeological relics from a forgotten steampunk city. In more figurative work, Susan Flavell and Derek Tang each contemplate the search for personal identity and belonging. Flavell’s Mother of all Parades, 1991, is a multi-panel painting depicting various creatures— owls, snakes, elephants, dogs—morphing in and out of human form to create a personalised mythology, while Tang’s painting of a timeworn, one-armed war veteran, Old Soldier, 1988, contrasts the reality of conflict with the hope for a unified and inclusive society.

Weston points to Emma Buswell’s Once upon a time, 2021, as a work that illustrates the timeline the exhibition follows. Like a white scarf hanging from the ceiling, two long swathes of fabric are covered with knitted images resembling postcards. Up close, one can see the images document snapshots of West Australian history—the demise of businessman Alan Bond; Bob Hawke’s time as prime minister; the 1987 stock market crash—mixed in with references to Buswell’s personal history. Weston says Buswell describes her work as The Simpsons meets the Bayeux Tapestry. “The sheer scale and deliberate ridiculousness of Once upon a time really feels in tune with the way Western Australia creates its state identity. It’s almost like a history painting as it offers context for a lot of works in the collection.”

Helen Maudsley, The Arrival, 1965, oil on wood panel, 39.1 x 41.7cm. Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, The University of Western Australia.

Presented concurrently with The End of History is Origins, an exhibition of work from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. Taking a different approach to Fukuyama’s end of history concept, curator Lee Kinsella used it as a prompt to think about where history ends and begins. “I swung from economic, political and legal concepts to consider the materiality of bodies—the physical reality of humans as they begin and end.” Selecting mostly figurative works to illustrate this, Kinsella looked to two major themes—family and the domestic environment. “Perhaps it is because we so readily try to create a story around depictions of the human form. We create narratives to make sense of what we see, drawing upon our own experiences and expectations.”

Origins is a quieter collection than The End of History. Along with many portraits, Kinsella has chosen works representing the small details of everyday life, encouraging the viewer to reflect on our beginnings within domestic environments. Helen Maudsley’s 1965 painting The Arrival is a zoomed in abstract view of shelves or balustrades within an interior. Captured from unexpected angles, Maudsley has manipulated the scale of her objects, so they appear as a labyrinthine configuration of staircases. “Finely controlled in their realisation, the forms operate as symbols or way finders, inviting viewers to step into the picture plane to attempt to make meaning and find logic,” says Kinsella.

“We create narratives to make sense of what we see, drawing upon our own experiences and expectations.”

A somber yet tender work is Katthy Cavaliere’s photograph, Afterlife, 2011. In the foreground is an hourglass filled with her mother’s ashes, resting still at the base rather than flowing freely. In the background, the shadow of the artist watches over the remains of her mother. When Cavaliere made this work, her mother had recently lost her battle with ovarian cancer, an illness that would go on to also claim Cavaliere’s life in 2012. A poignant reflection on mothers, life and the body moving from the physical world to the unknown, Cavaliere’s work speaks of our own evolution through time, reminding us history won’t end unless it begins.

The End of History and Origins
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

The University of Western Australia
18 May—17 August

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Briony Downes