By Joan Cameron-Smith
After six months of construction, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney has opened the doors of the new Mordant wing. Marking this occasion, the aptly named exhibition Volume One: MCA Collection, a selection of works from the museum’s collection, is a significant marking point – this is a new chapter for the future of the MCA and within the visual arts landscape of Sydney.
Walking up the great wall of stairs from the Circular Quay side entrance, the first gallery visitors will encounter houses the beginning of Volume One: MCA Collections, a selection of works from the museum’s four thousand-piece collection. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Untitled (Body painting series) (1995) is placed near Hossein Valamanesh’s, The Lover Circles His Own Heart (1993) while Ricky Swallow’s Caravan (2008) – bronze cast balloons playing home to barnacles are – are all grouped together. Curated by the MCA’s Glenn Barkley, the hang actively allows for dialogues to be created between works without these dialogues being dictated. One may feel lost at first, with only a few of the works hung with didactic texts, but this allows for greater freedom as a viewer, or rather a greater challenge. No more reading for visitors here: they are encouraged to look, and to look hard. In what is a trend throughout this exhibition, the works jostle and rub up against each other. Viewers may find themselves leaping visually from one work to another, from one medium to the next.
Barkley has not accounted for timelines. The visitor doesn’t travel through time; rather, the works are grouped through delicate themes and their aesthetic nature. It is a smart arrangement – this is a show about contemporary art and there is no luxury of hindsight. With relative newcomers exhibited along with juggernauts of Australian contemporary art, it is evident that this is a show about richness, and about the diversity of contemporary art. This is the main feature of the exhibition – democracy. Some may wonder if the fluid groupings are effective. In some cases is it and then in others perhaps not. Emily Kngwarreye’s Untitled (Body painting series) (1996) and Justene Williams’ video piece Crutch Dance (2011) are such different works that their placement together is an almost abrasive pairing. The former is a series of paintings depicting ceremonial body paint lines that relate to the artist’s dreaming, Awelye, while William’s piece is a mixed media work containing videos of abstract and bright environments that become the stage of odd actions of jumping and running on a treadmill. However, the later juxtaposition of another Kngwarreye piece, Untitled (Awelye) (1995), with the abstract work T.T. (2004) by Ildiko Kovacs is highly effective. Rather than the differences being so overt, the subtleties highlight the material and thematic nature of each work more effectively and with greater complexity. These paintings are not what they seem. Emily Kngwarreye, described as the impossible Modernist, unknowingly straddles her own ancient traditions with that of Western abstract painting. While Kovacs’ paintings are a result of knowledge of Abstract Expressionist painting meeting with Indigenous traditions, the power of both Kovacs’ and Kngwarreye’s work is the use of line, gesture and tonal references in representations of the Australian land. The inclusion of these works highlights the complexities of Australian contemporary painting.
This fluid inclusion of Indigenous art is the show’s other great feature. Not isolated with other contemporary Indigenous artists, works are shown in context with something bigger. That is not to say that the works blend in and are overlooked – rather that they are placed within a varied, complex and multi-layered conversation on contemporary art in Australia. This is no more apparent than in Vernon Ah Kee’s series of beautiful charcoal drawings, Fantasies of the Good (2004). A striking band of men, these portraits depict Ah Kee’s family, relatives and ancestors. The gazes of these men are anything but passive as the faces – over life-sized in scale – stare down at their viewers. They make their presence felt. Later in the exhibition, works by Gemma Smith (her Adaptable pieces, reminiscent of architectural models) and John Nixon’s abstract paintings on hessian and metal are positioned near the large woven works by Mabel Anaka-anburra, Minnie Manarrdjala, and Mary Walatjarra, which use reed to form representations of the natural world. All of these works are a wonder of material transformation.
There are moments were viewers may feel a little daunted. This is most strongly felt in the second room of the exhibition on the second level, where the space feels quite crowded. There are many works to view here and this is where the new building arrangement still shows its limitations – the lack of comfortable viewing spaces. Here some editing would have been beneficial to give the works more space. This is particularly significant when viewing larger scaled works, particularly the Ah Kee work, where more distance from the work, or being able to approach the work head on, would have suited the work’s scale and nature.
Glenn Barkley has actively included video art. Shaun Gladwell’s Storm Sequence (2000), a serene slow motion video depicting the artist skilfully turning and spinning in a pirouette fashion on a skateboard is a notable example. Gladwell, precariously positioned on a concrete platform that juts out over a rocky headland of Bondi beach, effortlessly spins and turns in the rain of a distant yet approaching storm. Composed with the artist in the middle of frame, it is a simple and melodic representation of the beauty of human movement. The depiction of movement is also the key element of Julie Rrap’s work 360˚ Self-Portrait (2004). It is a curious portrait of the artist, as we, the viewers, try to account for the slight, minute, yet troubling, changes of her expressions. Her eyes begin to bulge, tears start to collect but never eventuate, while her skin shifts, falls and returns to normal. It appears as through she is being tossed about. In fact her camera, fixed in front of her face, has captured the slight changes of facial movements as her body is rotated on a giant spinning wheel. Both works are inherently concerned with a representation of movement that only the moving image is able to capture. Both videos are slowed down and are noteworthy pieces that examine their medium’s mechanical and representational powers.
For all the questions that may arise from Volume One: MCA Collection – what does the collection say about the MCA; what is the collection’s role within this institution; what are the thoughts that drive a collection’s creation; what is its purpose? – the main point here is the diversity of works and artists. Rather than one agenda, one emphasis, this exhibition wants to look at Australian cont
 Akira Tatehata, The Impossible Modernist, Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, ed Margo Neale. National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2008.