Australian Perspecta is a biennial event which began in 1981 as an initiative of the Art Gallery of New South Wales to showcase contemporary Australian art. For the first 15 years of its history its focus was a large survey exhibition held at the Art Gallery of NSW itself. In recent years the event has been jointly hosted by a consortium of cultural organisations across Sydney and has increasingly incorporated a number of separately curated exhibitions as well as video, performance, radio, internet and lecture programs.
The 1999 Perspecta takes this pluralistic tendency to an extreme, including no less than 76 artists, 15 curators and 30 speakers, all of whom have been invited to focus on the theme 'Living Here Now - Art and Politics'. The breadth of its remit made the show feel more like a festival than a cogent curatorial project. Co-ordinator Wayne Tunnicliffe went some way toward questioning the value of public dialogue in the exhibition 'Talkback', which he co-curated with Hetti Perkins. The artists in this show are concerned in different ways with how personal histories and intimate experiences might be effectively voiced in a public arena. Raquel Ormella's banners and placards, for example, suggest a conviction and commitment to social reform, without managing to express anything more than personal insecurity and doubt with statements such as 'Where to from Here?' and 'I'm Worried that I'm not Political Enough'. Evoking a completely different tradition of cultural practice, Tunnicliffe and Perkins included the indigenous carvings of Pedro Wonaeamirri whose totemic poles are reminders that art has a special capacity for making secret or sacred sentiments evident in a public realm without neccesarily engaging in representational politics.
Blair French explored the ways artists negotiate connections between public and private spheres in the exhibition 'Agency', at the Australian Centre for Photography. The seven artists in this show all deal with social subjects from a position of personal intervention. Justene Williams, for instance, uses a disposable camera to document elderly players in a suburban bingo hall. Printed at life size, these grainy snapshots of people in deep concentration imbue private lives with Stoic qualities. Sandy Nicholson similarly uses the amateur everydayness of the camera to introduce eccentricities into photographic conventions. Furtively snapping his photographs in office-block elevators, catching blurred details of shoes, suits and skirt hems, Nicholson contracts the cool terrain of corporate imagery into his own tetchy psychological space.
Linda Michael offered a more explicitly political contribution with 'Preamble' at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The title of the show refers to Prime Minister John Howard's recent attempt to draft a preamble for a new Australian Constitution; a gesture which provoked lively debate around the nature of our national identity. Adam Cullen's Basquiat-style paintings of national icons and graffiti slogans reframe Australia's white-trash convict heritage in a sardonic light, while Tony Schwensen picks up on the vernacular of cricket commentary in order to highlight the comical competitiveness and larrikin behaviour at the heart of white Australian culture. Derek Kreckler's video loop of folk hero Ned Kelly stumbling his way through the bush with a white cane in hand, is a poignant image of Australia's desperate attempt to find itself.
'Perspecta 99' follows in the path of many biennials, offering a large, quirky survey of contemporary practice rather than a purposeful statement. To its credit, the show attempted to develop discussion around issues that are timely, but when so many people are talking at once, the subject of conversation tends to get lost.
First published in Issue 50