UNSW Galleries, Cnr of Oxford St and Greens Rd, Paddington NSW 2021, Australia

John Fries Award 2019: There is Fiction in the Spaces Between

UNSW Galleries, Sydney

21 June - 27 July 2019

Review by Emma-Kate Wilson

‘There is Fiction in the Spaces Between’ connects the 12 artists - who are all finalists in the 2019 John Fries Award - and their nominated artworks through memory, place and personal narratives. Curator Miriam Kelly has produced a curatorial rationale that without intention invokes the sentiment of all the artists. Instead of a ‘prize’ exhibition, what we see at UNSW Galleries is a presentation of what ‘Australia’ looks like today.

The title begins a framework to explore the personal narratives within the exhibition (and the award show that becomes entwined, exploring purpose and just-ness of awarding a winner), that focuses on the ‘best of Australia’s’ early career artists - artists who are creating experimental and provocative works within mainstream institutions. They question and interrogate policies and politics, and, it seeps into the basis of the contemporary Australian art movement. Previous John Fries Award finalists go on to be represented by high-brow galleries and have exhibitions in recognised institutions cementing their place within the cultural landscape.

A quick flick through the catalogue reveals childhood memories that inform the art, alongside mother and daughter duos and sisters, coming together to reveal their relationships through the context of art via stories, memories and all the elements of humanness that makes us, us. These artworks and artists are storytellers, shaping their narratives in a construction for the audience to digest but the exhibition asks, what is the truth of these? And what is the story?

The first room of the exhibition is lit up. The works all seem to speak to each other, and I feel as though I have walked into a busy conversation - colour, shape, materials and size become the voices of the artists. A closer reading tells us that this is a room of only identifying women artists. Not that this defines the works but rather offers maternal narratives to explore and the historical context of generations coming together for individual forms of storytelling.

The bright textiles of Venezuelan-born, Sydney-based, Nadia Hernandez’ work ‘Sangrante Imataca’ (2019), hangs off the ceiling and wall, filling the corner of the room with primary colours and shapes. Words start to form from the shapes, beginning to tell the stories of her grandparents, accompanied by soft Venezuelan music playing above.

Hernandez’ work is placed beside Sydney-based Justine Youssef’s video and photography installation, ‘Under the table I learnt how to feed you’ (2019). The connecting wall links the two artists together. Even though both seem contextually and visually quite different, they tell the stories of families and daughters moving to Australia.

Melbourne-based, Gunditjmara woman, Hayley Millar-Baker’s black and white photo-installation ‘Cook Book Part 1’ (2017-19) covers the other side of the room and is constructed in narratives - with a young girl playing the protagonist. Millar-Baker learnt Aboriginal methods of collecting food and cooking from her grandparents but she plays with a forced humour to deconstruct the reality or story. Millar-Baker deploys techniques of collage and text to add to the narrative and jolt the audience’s opinion of fact and fiction. She uses myth to highlight her position in a society that is acting and pretends to be a post-colonial society.

Sitting beside ‘Cook Book Part 1’ is the colossal painting, ‘Nganampa Ngura (Our Country)’ (2019) from the Iwantija Artists, mother and daughter duo, Betty Chimney and Raylene Walatinna, who are based in the APY Lands in northwest South Australia. Bright colours, and visions of dots and patterns connect the artwork to country and placed insitu to ‘Cook Book Part 1’ offer different perspectives of the Indigenous Australian narrative. The three artists seem to balance a collective Australian sense of identity, while on the other side of the room, Hernandez and Youssef bring their context of migrant heritage.

Left in the room is Australian-artist, Elena Papanikolakis’ ‘Ellipis’ (2019), which sets up a departure from family narratives and reframes storytelling into the materials. The work allows and begins the sense of materiality that flows into the next room of the John Fries Award.

In here, the senses of the audience are, quite literally, transformed as we enter into a dark room. Jenna Lee’s ‘Their words’ (2019) becomes a cryptic expression of the medium Lee used to make her artworks, on a shelf in the darkroom, spot lit to enhance the whiteness of the works. The medium of ‘Their words’ comes from Lee’s collecting of an unnamed problematic publication from London’s second-hand stores. She has destroyed the books and used the paper to create woven and papier-mâché baskets.

Across the room, Melbourne-based, The Ryan Sisters have cast themselves and placed their bodies within their grandma’s (Oma) shopping trolley for ‘Oma’s Trolley’ (2019). Distorting humour and the grotesque, their plastic-esque heads pop up from the bag opening in the corner of the dark room. This theme also comes through within Australian-artist Madison Bycroft’s video installation ‘You’d be prettier if you smiled’ (2019), where she manipulates perceived notions of self and femininity.

The other video artwork in the room, Canberra-based David Greenhalgh’s ‘Information table (forecast for a terrible accident)’ (2019), plays with dominant narratives from pop culture, sourcing imagery for his work from the Public Domain and Creative Commons. ‘Information table (forecast for a terrible accident)’ sets up a narrative that allows for a reading of the other works in the exhibition, of a foresight to predict the unpredictability in Australia’s shaking landscape, where politics and people do not seem to match.

As, The Ryan Sisters use readymades and Greenhalgh uses found imagery, Sydney-based, Worimi man, Dean Cross extends from these notions with ‘Miscarriage I (another woman not believed)’ and ‘Miscarriage II (sometimes camping isn’t fun)’ (both 2019). Cross creates a platform, based on another’s history and experience, represented in the gallery by readymades and found objects: a bed, a book, a cage, sand. He builds towards a narrative that weaves and shifts through the public perception of first, Lindy Chamberlain, who lost her baby to a dingo, and was wrongly-jailed for the murder, but also, the injustices in Nauru and Manus Islands and incarcerated Aboriginal people. The obvious metaphor is explained through Cross’ poster, with black handwriting on a white background with, “A Dingo Ate Your Baby” written across it. This poster has also been displayed across Sydney, as an extension of the artwork, taking it out of the gallery space. Cross uses Chamberlain as a metaphor for the every-person in Australia.

Art and art exhibitions offer mediations on the bubbles that surrounds our worlds. Each artwork in this exhibition has a method that slowly diffuses air from the bubble, one by one. There is fiction in the spaces between but also friction. The exhibition (through the lens of an award show - diversity, winners, selected rather than curated, award money) works to examine - not dismantle - themes in contemporary society.

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