Summer is heating up and after a year characterised by isolation and confinement, a drive to clear the cobwebs and look at some art might be just what the doctor ordered. Barnaby Smith has selected a range of exhibitions at regional galleries, all within a couple of hours of major cities, to tempt audiences to step outside the metropolis. These shows are replete with social, environmental and historical engagement, risk-taking practices and styles.
The dichotomy of digital culture being both a force for good and a force for ill has perhaps never been starker than at the present moment. Experimenta Make Sense: International Triennial of Media Art, an expansive group show, engages with this conflict in highly innovative ways through a variety of mediums. More than 20 artists from both Australia and overseas present their diverse and often audacious responses to the daunting questions of 21st-century communication, confronting disembodied interactions, algorithms, AI and the general relentless march of technological progress.
The exhibition takes its cue from the biologist Edward O Wilson who said at a public debate in 2009, “the real problem of humanity is the following: we have palaeolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”
Experimenta Make Sense: International Triennial of Media Art
Benalla Art Gallery
11 December – 14 February 2021
Blue Mountains-based artist Judith Martinez Estrada has produced a captivating body of work in recent years, working with photographic montage and mixed media. Her most startling works combine archive prints with antique objects, cut-up text and digital manipulation in thoughtful and surreal ways in order to interrogate history, consciousness, memory and loss.
In Revenant, Martinez Estrada presents a series of new works, created using antique vernacular photography, in which the artist has altered existing photographs to conceal or partially erase human figures. The intention is to explore questions of identity and the fragmentation of self, as well as issues of migration and displacement, and perhaps colonialism too. Revenant is, as its title suggests, a ghostly, otherworldly, fairly sad meditation on time.
Artistic Endeavour: Contemporary Botanical Artists’ Response to the Legacy of Banks, Solander and Parkinson combines contemporary botanical art with colonial history: the show marks the 250th anniversary of HMS Endeavour voyaging along Australia’s east coast.
While celebrating the journey of Captain Cook’s vessel has become problematic when viewed through our 21st-century lens, to its credit the exhibition focuses squarely on the work of scientists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, as well as illustrator Sydney Parkinson. Together, the three men gathered and recorded the extraordinarily diverse range of botanical specimens they found onshore. This show features new works that respond to their research, by artists from the Botanical Artists’ Society of Queensland. Artworks rely on both the traditional modes and materials of botanical art (watercolours, pen and ink, colour pencil and so on) as well as experiments with digital media.
The touring exhibition USE features an extensive array of jewellery and small objects crafted by 17 artists from the Queensland chapter of the Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia (JMGA). The show’s themes, as its title suggests, are the practical uses and techniques of jewellery making, the tools involved and the creative process.
Participating artists offer an eclectic range of works and practices: some create pieces that are immediately recognisable as wearable jewellery, while others create less functional, more abstract items that might be regarded as miniature sculptures as much as jewellery. USE also celebrates both traditional and non-traditional materials, tools and methods. All 70 works showcase remarkable levels of precision, intricacy and attention to detail.
Drew Pettifer’s A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk is another show that features a maritime theme, albeit in a markedly different way to Artistic Endeavour. An overarching mission in Pettifer’s wider body of work is to identify and interrogate hidden histories that are embedded in archival materials and practices.
This exhibition deals with a sodomy trial that came in the wake of the 1727 shipwreck of the Dutch ship, the Zeewijk, which resulted in two boys being sentenced to death by marooning in the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago off the coast of Western Australia. This incident is regarded as the beginning of European queer history in Australia. Pettifer, who travelled to the Netherlands to research the background of the boys and the voyage, presents an exhibition that combines photography with audio and video installation. The artist’s aim is to bring new layers of context and alternative perspectives to our view of Australian history.
Herself is an expansive and varied exhibition, with a firmly historical scope, that celebrates the work of female-identifying artists. Works come from the collection of the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery (QVMAG), and date from 1820 through to 2020.
A wide spectrum of mediums and materials are showcased: along with painting and photography, there is ceramics, jewellery, textiles and even furniture design. The newer works come from Tasmanian artists Pat Brassington and Julie Gough, and Sydney-based artist Julia Davis.
Also on at QVMAG is Ann Zahalka’s Lost Landscapes, a unique show from this leading photo-media artist that recreates historic dioramas housed in the nation’s natural history museums, lending them a contemporary colour and addressing issues of environment and ecology.