Australia at the Royal Academy

Iconophilia is pleased to post the text of Ian McLean’s talk given at the Royal Academy symposium on November 1st, 2013.

‘Anxious identities: Reinventing Australia in a changing world’

A child of the Enlightenment, the conception of Australia was inadvertently set in train by the Royal Society 245 years ago, coincidentally the same year that the Royal Academy was established. I say inadvertently because the Royal Society had its eyes on Venus, not Australia. An afterthought of Cook’s secret mission to explore the South Pacific after the transit of Venus, Australia was unintended and unloved from the beginning. Be that as it may, the result was its birth as an idea and eventually a nation.

Beginning with these thoughts is my way of acknowledging this venerable institution, the appropriateness of the exhibition ‘Australia’ being here, as well as a mentor, Bernard Smith. He believed Australian art began under the sign of the Royal Society not the Royal Academy, by which he meant it was about nature and science, not neo-classicism and fine art. I think he put too much weight on this difference. For me they were essentially the same institution: each an arm of the Crown and Empire. Nineteenth-century Australian art is a happy alliance of neo-classicism, naturalism and science, and so has a natural home here, in Burlington House, which the Royal Society and Royal Academy shared for 100 years. Half the art in this exhibition, the first half, really belongs to it. It is the art of Empire, not Australia, which conveniently narrows my topic to the other half of the exhibition.

I will focus on identity in contemporary Australian art – i.e. art made after 1970, which also includes most of the Aboriginal art. While the exhibition kept these two aspects of Australian contemporary art separate, their relationship goes to the heart of our topic.

As the exhibition bears witness to, the Australian artworld’s cosmopolitan embrace of what not long ago was other, is also met with some diffidence. It reflects unresolved differences between Aboriginal notions of Country and Western notions of landscape, and other conundrums that continue to trouble Australian discourses of identity.

In the Australian context, and indeed a British one, an exhibition organized around the theme of landscape also closely tracks changing discourses of identity. One reason that critics could not make much sense of the contemporary art rooms is that the single most important artwork that changed the way landscape and so identity was conceived by Australian artists after 1970 was omitted. This was Christo’s Wrapped coast (1969). Wrapped coast, completed 44 years ago almost to the day (October 28), draws our attention to what lies beneath the land rather than to its scape, to the ancestral energies of the place or what Aborigines call ‘country’. There is no doubt that Wrapped coast has become an important part, even icon of, Australian art.

Less iconic but equally suggestive is Richard Long’s one hundred mile walk in outback Australia in 1977. It reinforced this new way of conceiving landscape and engaging with country. Christo and Long, you might object, are not Australian artists. This is partly the point of the cosmopolitan contemporary, which is not delimited by national signifiers of citizenship. Besides, many of the artists in the exhibition were not, by this definition, Australian. For the first 100 years of Australia’s existence its European artists primarily understood their identity in terms of race and Empire, not as Australian.

If the exhibition had been organized around the theme of identity and not landscape, it would be most usefully divided into 3 not 13 sections:

  • Empire Art – 1788-1918 – colonial period
  • Australian Art – 1918-1970 – modern period
  • Post-Australian or Cosmopolitan Art – 1970 – contemporary period

Being Australian didn’t really become a subject in Australian art until after World War One, i.e. in the period of Australian modernism. Ian Burn, the most original commentator on this period, believed that its artists answered a collective ‘psychological need’ to represent the ‘idea of Australia’. They produced, he said, a type of landscape painting that was ‘held up as a mirror for a “national” psyche’.[1] They did this by imbuing topography with a metaphysical feeling. Rather than being an object of scientific study or purely phenomenological experience, as it had been in the days of Empire, it became a site of what Martin Heidegger called ‘dwelling’ – by which he meant a quality of ‘being there’ that resulted from the folding together of what he dubbed ‘human, god, earth and sky’ into a particular place. After the 1930s, central Australia became this favoured site of Australian being. For many Australians, its folding was most powerfully expressed in the landscapes of the German-born artist, Hans Heysen. By the 1960s, at the end of this period, Drysdale, Nolan and Williams were considered its masters.

This was also when Australia’s artists first looked to Aboriginal art for inspiration. Indeed, there was an Arrernte branch of this modern landscape school, its leader being Albert Namatjira, whose paintings were even more popular with the general public than Heysen’s.

If landscape art in the Age of Empire was made under the sign of science, in the Age of Australia it was made under the sign of metaphysics or philosophy. This is one reason why Burn, a former member of the British conceptualist collective Art & Language, was so interested in this landscape school, despite the nationalist impulse losing momentum after 1960. Burn was amongst the first generation of post-Australian artists – those artists who lost interest in making Australian art and inaugurated the contemporary period.

Burn’s empathy with the modern landscape school, which is evident in his late work, suggests certain continuities between the modern and the contemporary. For example, Christo’s and Long’s Australian art could also be called metaphysical landscapes. However, unlike the modern landscape school, their art occupies the place in ways that resonate more with Indigenous than Western traditions – in that they are ground paintings performed on the landscape, and have ritualistic aspects to their production. In 1981 Suzi Gablik perceptively diagnosed this turn away from Western traditions as the ‘spiritual eclipse’ of modernism, arguing that ‘the current crisis in art is a moral, and not an aesthetic, one’.[2] She had just published an assessment of Australian art in Art in America, in which she praised Aboriginal art and artists working in the vein of John Davis’s ‘”low-tech”’ … materials of nature’ that resembled ‘aboriginal ceremonial sticks, shamanistic prayer arrows or healing wands’.[3]

Gablik wasn’t the only influential critic thinking along these lines in early 1981. In the first ‘Australian Perspecta’ Biennial of contemporary art, also held that year, Bernice Murphy included three collaborative Western Desert paintings. Like Gablik, she pointed to ‘the recent concern in [Australian] art with the environment, archaeology and anthropology’, and what she called ‘a mythopoeic consciousness … works which focus on a ritualistic, tribal and sub-rationalistic connection with the environment’.[4]

The exhibition occurred just after Marina Abramović and Ulay returned from several months living with Aborigines in the Australian desert. Out there, said Abramović, ‘I got the idea of how the art in the future can exist’[5] … and I must say for myself I expect very much from the contact with Aborigines.[6] They were seeking the secrets of telepathic communication, and their discoveries became the basis of their extended Nightsea Crossings performances in the 1980s, the first of which occurred in the Art Gallery of New South Wales immediately after their desert sojourn. In 1983, in Amsterdam, they included Aboriginal and Tibetan shamans in the performance.

None of the above mentioned artworks are in the exhibition, but without such works you can’t understand the radical shifts that occurred in the contemporary period, from the conception of landscape to that of country, and from an identity focused on myths of the Nation-State to the post-national cosmopolitan ethos of the contemporary, in which Aboriginal values gained a new resonance. It is the big story on which his exhibition is silent.

Yet, curiously, the exhibition is at the same time a symptom of this re-orientation of how identity was thought after the 1970s. The most obvious symptom is the excessive number of Aboriginal paintings. There was none in the previous large exhibition of Australian art in London 50 years ago, at the tail end of the modern period. The catalogue proudly proclaims that Aboriginal art comprises 50% of the art made after 1950. It is excessive because Aborigines number little more than 2% of the population – as Reko Rennie’s large mural at the entrance of a recent exhibition of Indigenous contemporary art taunted all those who entered. The excess is also evident in the anxiety of the editors of the catalogue to always distinguish between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian art. A major innovation of recent times, also evident in this exhibition, is the persistent use of the qualifying term ‘non-Indigenous Australian’. Previously the term ‘Australian’ had always been considered sufficient.

On one level the excess of Aboriginal art in the exhibition reflects the new pride that contemporary Australians have in ‘their’ Aboriginal art, which at official levels is now considered Australia’s greatest cultural contribution to the world. It has become an indelible part of how the Australian nation is badged There are amazing statistics proving how much it outsells non-Indigenous art on the international market. However, this success is not reflected in the artworld. Have you ever seen an Aboriginal artwork in Tate Modern or for that matter Tate Britain? No wonder British critics found something disturbing in the inclusion of Aboriginal art. One otherwise sympathetic British critic believed that ‘there is no doubt an element of penance in the way that Australia has elevated Aboriginal art in the last twenty years.’[7] Others, however, were far more dismissive. The award-winning critic Waldemar Januszczak called the cream of Western Desert painting selected from Australia’s state art galleries, ‘tourist tat’. ‘These spotty meanderings’, he said, are ‘dull canvas approximations, knocked out in reduced dimensions, by a host of repetitive Aborigine artists making a buck … out of a tremendous indigenous tradition … the Australian art world has managed to create what amounts to a market in decorative rugs.’[8] Brian Sewell agreed, calling them ‘the stale rejiggings of a half-remembered heritage’. For Januszczak it confirmed how ‘lightweight and provincial’ Australian art is.

It has been suggested to me that the moral strain of this criticism, as if the critic is bearing witness to some transgression, is a familiar refrain to the Australian ear, which has had to endure England as its judge for over 200 years. Like all scolded children, the high moral ground of the disapproving mother is brushed aside as the lack of love or, more tellingly, the refusal to see herself in her progeny.

How then should we respond to the British consensus that Aboriginal art is not a legitimate part of the contemporary art scene? To be avoided is the counter-cringe accusation of European provincialism and the legacy of colonialism in the British psyche – though such reactions are less common now. The idea of Britain as a motherland has little if any currency today. Neither is the British critics’ appalling ignorance of the Australian scene unexpected. One of the ironies of globalization is that Australian art is less visible in Britain today than it was fifty years ago. Many of us believed that the sheer quality of Aboriginal art was enough, but clearly it wasn’t. These critics might be ignorant of Australian art, but they are not ignorant of contemporary art. We would then be better to use their criticism to understand the limits of our own assumptions about Aboriginal art. Are we, like the Royal Academy, also being conned? Are we, as these British critics seem to think, the victim of a scam?

The scams we most often read about in Australia are unscrupulous dealers luring Aboriginal artists to mass-produce paintings for a pittance. While there is plenty of Aboriginal ‘tourist tat’ on the market, none of it is in this exhibition. There is another altogether more interesting business model at play here. Most of the Aboriginal art in the RA was made in art centres administered by relatively invisible non-Aboriginal people who, much like a good dealer, ensure the quality of the work and push the best artists to meet the needs of the upper-end of a market that has been nurtured and developed for many years. The nature of these cross-cultural relations is mysterious and opaque. Given the history of colonialism, is it any wonder that the wider artworld is suspicious?

Australia too has its Januszczaks and Sewells, especially amongst urban Aboriginal artists. The Brisbane collective ProppaNow also disavows the authenticity of remote Aboriginal painting – indeed they feel it even more keenly. Vernon Ah Kee, self-declared ‘urban Aboriginal’ artist and represented in the RA show, called Western Desert painting ‘a white construct’. Its artists, he said, have ‘been sterilized, cleaned. It’s like laundering money … it disgusts me … that’s the difference with urban artists, we’re not going to fall for that type of thing.’ Fellow collective member, Richard Bell, agrees: ‘We’re the ones doing the real dreamtime paintings, you know, our art is the authentic Aboriginal art. Because we’re talking about our experiences now, which will in a couple of hundred years be the fucking dreamtime.’[9]

There is then a strange British and urban Indigenous consensus. Further it recognises rather than evades an historical hurdle, a difference, which cosmopolitan discourses of the contemporary repress. This difference underpins the current politics of Aboriginal contemporary art, sharply distinguishing it from contemporary art more generally, be it from Australia or elsewhere.

For example, if in the global cosmopolitan makeover of the contemporary, national identifiers have largely disappeared from art, Aboriginal ones have intensified. Unlike the cosmopolitan ethos of most contemporary art, Aboriginal art seems to suffer from an obsessive narcissism, as if Aboriginality is the centre of its being and thus meaning. The burden of Indigenous contemporary art is the compulsion to protest (declare) its Indigeneity.

This is why, in the 1990s, with the appointment of Indigenous curators in State art galleries to head their newly established Indigenous art collections, Indigenous art increasingly became a parallel universe. It sounds a warning to those who might get too enthusiastic about art being the route to a postcolonial reconciliatory Australian identity. As one Indigenous curator, Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, bluntly put it: Australia is ‘essentially still a divided nation’.[10] Indigenous curators and critics generally posit this division as an essential condition, like a stain, which permeates all aspects of the Australian nation; an irreparable split that must be endlessly negotiated. This is not a divide that they alone imagine. It is the great defining divide of contemporary Australia. Why do these few 2% now occupy so much space in the nation’s consciousness and its art galleries, but occupy it so uneasily?

While this unresolved question currently shapes the conception and exhibition of Australian art, and especially Aboriginal contemporary art, there is nothing contemporary about it. It has cut through the Western reception of Aboriginal art for longer than we can remember. Aboriginal art may have finally made it into the fine art museum but we still see it largely segregated from mainstream art, as in the NGA and NGV – Australia’s two largest State art galleries – and the current RA exhibition. Recent attempts to reconcile this divide in State art galleries remain on the formal rather than conceptual level, or simply appear gratuitous. It’s also a divide that Indigenous curators continue to repeat. No wonder Iseger-Pilkington feels ‘the ever-strengthening grip of ethnographic prescription’.[11]

Iseger-Pilkington believes that the branding problem of Indigenous contemporary art is the ethnographic connotations of the first term. ‘How do we’, he asks, ‘re-brand ourselves in a world where our Indigenous brand has become so synonymous with the context and content of our work?’[12] While anthropologists have moved on, Indigenous curators have seemingly stepped into their place. However, he problem stems from the divide that frames their every move: it is this divide that amplifies the anthropological connotations. This repetition of the essence of colonialism – a divided place – disavows the cosmopolitanism that now defines the contemporary.

Anything can be contemporary art today so why not Indigenous art? The ‘contemporary’ in contemporary art no longer means ‘made in the present’, but like the term ‘modern’ did in the previous century, names a way of being. It refers to a new matrix of identity: the shifting, layered and mixed formations of the non-linear temporalities and spatialities that are transforming the former binary relations of the modern that had locked everything Aboriginal in the box of other. Exhibitions now need to find ways of working with this emerging ontology, which is relational rather than divisive; hybrid, cosmopolitan and collective rather than identity orientated or essentialist.

The contemporary doesn’t do away with divisions; it works them differently. The lament that Australia ‘is essentially still a divided nation’ implies that it doesn’t have to be – as if this is an ideal to aspire towards. However, it is the nature of nations to be divided. All nations are artificial constructs that divide one nation from another and create an imaginary unity across internal divisions. And it’s not just nations that are divided, but also communities, families; even the individual is always more than one. Life, it seems, is founded on division. It is not a matter of being still divided. The Australian nation will always be divided no matter how cosmopolitan it may become.

Contemporaneity of  artists, critics or curators, whatever their background, will be recognized by the cosmopolitan manner in which they addresses the divisive legacy of colonialism. For this to occur the truth of the colonial divide must be the starting point of negotiation – it must be where the conversation begins not ends. The line in the sand has to be crossed rather than re-inscribed if Indigenous art is to be contemporary rather than simply badged as such. While you wouldn’t know it from the RA exhibition, there are many contemporary examples of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists doing this: working together, and sometimes even collaboratively. As I have already mentioned, much remote art is made as part of a larger inter-cultural collective enterprise in which outsider art coordinators, many of whom are practicing artists, play central roles. Their contribution is the great silence or invisibility of the discourse – the classic example being Djon Mundine’s role in The Aboriginal Memorial (1988).

Another classic example, but also largely ignored in the history of Australian art, is the close working relationship between Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee in the mid-twentieth century. These examples suggest that Indigenous art has thrived on the kind of cosmopolitan intercultural space of exchange that today engages the contemporary. More than half a century later Albert and Rex’s friendship and artistic partnership remains a happy memory amongst the Arrrente. However, in the context of the colonial divide, Irene Entata’s friendly scene of Albert and Rex painting together belies the founding divide of ‘Australia’ that makes Indigenous curators wary of the cosmopolitan ethic of the contemporary. ‘We are’, says Iseger-Pilkington, ‘still far from reaching equality’, and there’s ‘“no freedom ‘til we’re equal”’.[13]

Unfortunately, waiting for equality is like waiting for Godot. And equality does not guarantee freedom. Collaboration is rarely between equals; it is where differences meet in a cosmopolitan regard. This promise of the contemporary is yet to be realized in the stories that Australians tell about ourselves, our identity and our art.




Burn, Ian (1990), National Life and Landscape: Australian Painting 1900-1940 (Sydney & London: Bay Books).

Gablik, Suzi (1981a), ‘Modernism and morality’, Art & Text, 1 (Autumn), 43-48.

— (1981b), ‘Report from Australia’, Art in America,  (January), 29-37.

Hamilton, Adrian (2013), ‘Australia’s day in the sun, at the Royal Academy of Arts ‘, Independent, 22 September.

Iseger-Pilkington, Glenn (2011), ‘Branded: The Indigenous aesthetic’, Artlink, 31 (2), 36-39.

— (2013), ‘Sorry: Keeping our histories alive’, My Country I still call Australian home: Contemporray art from Black Australia (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery Gallery of Modern Art), 131-35.

Januszczak, Waldemar (2013), ‘A desert of new ideas’, Sunday Times, 22 September

Moore, Archie (2006), ‘Black Eye = Black Viewpoint: A Conversation with ProppaNOW’, Machine, 1 (4), 2–4.

Murphy, Bernice (1981), Australian perspecta 1981 (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales).

Phipps, Jennifer (1981), ‘Marina Abramović/ Ulay: Ulay/Marina Abramović’, Art & Text, 3 (Autumn), 43-50.






[1]           Ian Burn, National Life and Landscape: Australian Painting 1900-1940 (Sydney & London: Bay Books, 1990) at 8.

[2]           Suzi Gablik, ‘Modernism and Morality’, Art & Text, 1/Autumn (1981a), 43-48 at 43.

[3]           Suzi Gablik, ‘Report from Australia’, Art in America, /January (1981b), 29-37 at 35.

[4]           Bernice Murphy, Australian Perspecta 1981 (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1981) at 13.

[5]           Jennifer Phipps, ‘Marina Abramović/ Ulay: Ulay/Marina Abramović’, Art & Text, 3/Autumn (1981), 43-50 at 50.

[6]           ibid.,  at 46.

[7]           Adrian Hamilton, ‘Australia’s Day in the Sun, at the Royal Academy of Arts ‘, Independent, 22 September 2013.

[8]           Waldemar Januszczak, ‘A Desert of New Ideas’, Sunday Times, 22 September 2013.

[9]           Archie Moore, ‘Black Eye = Black Viewpoint: A Conversation with Proppanow’, Machine, 1/4 (2006), 2–4 at 4.

[10]         Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, ‘Sorry: Keeping Our Histories Alive’, My Country I Still Call Australian Home: Contemporray Art from Black Australia (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery Gallery of Modern Art, 2013), 131-35 at 131-32.

[11]         Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, ‘Branded: The Indigenous Aesthetic’, Artlink, 31/2 (2011), 36-39 at 36.

[12]         ibid.

[13]         Iseger-Pilkington, ‘Sorry: Keeping Our Histories Alive’,  at 132.


#1 Vicki Mason on 05.26.14 at 1:14 pm

Thanks for posting Nigel, a good read.

#2 John Abery on 02.04.15 at 9:46 pm

A well thought out and researched article. A lot of stuff I have not heard about before but I am not really academic in my art endeavors.

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