In the background, the artist Gunybi Ganambarr poses alongside his engraved galvanised steel work Milngurr; in the foreground, detail from his installation Buyku as seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales
Credit: Shot on iPhone

The task of surveying Australia’s contemporary art practice is an unenviable one, spanning as it does multitudes comparable only with the scale of the country itself.

Five months ago, three of Sydney’s premier arts venues entered into the first iteration of an ongoing collaborative venture with an aim to showcase the work of 48 emerging, mid-career and established Australian artists. This coming weekend, the last venue standing – the Art Gallery of New South Wales – will close its doors on the first of three instalments in The National: New Australian Art, and if you haven’t made it down to its earlier residencies at both Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art (their share of the exhibition closed in June), now is your last chance to do so.

Curated by Anneke Jaspers and Wayne Tunicliffe, artists still exhibiting as part of The National at AGNSW engaged with the prevailing theme of social change across lines of colonisation, identity, culture, gender, history and technologies both old and new. On a recent return visit to the Gallery, I was struck again by Death Zephyr, an installation by the artist Yhonnie Scarce, who has created hand-blown glass yams and other objects invoking bush food to address both historical events and the government policies that continue to shape the lives of Aboriginal communities. The installation, striking in its monumental scale and execution, came from the artist’s research into the British nuclear tests conducted at the Maralinga site in South Australia in the 1950s and 60s. In a statement, the artist reveals that she twice visited the site in an attempt to understand the (quite literal) fallout of those tests on the region and its occupants, who have been displaced from the contaminated land. Likened to a ‘grim reaper’ and an atomic cloud, its resonance with both the land which inspired it and the atrocities inflicted on it  – glass, of course, has been used as an invocation of what happens when the sand of the desert is crystallised by the heat of a nuclear blast – is incredibly striking.

Megan Cope’s RE FORMATION part 3, (Dubbagullee) uses hand-cast cement Sydney rock oyster shells to dispute the myths and methods of colonisation
Credit: Shot on iPhone

The work of artist Gunybi Ganambarr from Gängan, in remote northeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, is another standout. Ganambarr works across incised rubber, bar and steel to create intricately patterned pieces that conflate sacred clan designs with contemporary found materials discarded from the local mining and building sites that have created land rights struggles in Yolngu Country.

Another striking installation from the Melbourne-based artist Megan Cope of Quandamooka Nation works to achieve a similar effect in a neighbouring gallery. RE FORMATION part 3, (Dubbagullee) sees the artist constructing a large mound of hand-cast cement Sydney rock oyster shells atop black sand and copper slag in a mock recreation of the mounds of discarded organic matter that would accumulate in Aboriginal communities and were used by colonial settlers to create cement and mortar to be used in construction. Through the work, Cope debunks the notion that Australia was terra nullius through the implied history of these man-made structures and the sites that they occupied for tens of thousands of years – namely Dubbagullee, known today as nearby Bennelong Point.

Entry to The National at AGNSW is free. The exhibition will remain open until Sunday, after which time you’ll have to wait a further two years until it returns to both the Gallery, the MCA and Carriageworks. You can find out more information here.

Tile image: Kesh alphabet (installation view), 2017, Emily Floyd, aluminium, two part epoxy paint, steel fixtures, screen print on paper, Atelier and Contemporary Collections Benefactors 2016 © Emily Floyd/Courtesy of AGNSW/Felicity Jenkins

Cover image: Death Zephyr (installation view), 2017, Yhonnie Scarce, hand blown glass yams, nylon, steel armature, courtesy of the artist, Melbourne and this is no fantasy + Dianne Tanzer gallery © Yhonnie Scarce/Courtesy of AGNSW/Felicity Jenkins