The National 2017

Exhibition Review : The National at the Art Gallery of NSW

My reactions? Ernest, many social issues, not much fun, no contemporary photography, installations, some painting, and a feeling that you may have seen much of this before.

This exhibition is a slice of contemporary art being mainly based around the use of media and installations. Much of the work addresses selected serious messages; those messages were dominant; with an emphasis on being about ‘the message’ rather than being an engaging art object.

Given that the theme seemed to be about addressing social issues – it was observed that works that addressed more controversial Australian issues were not selected – refugees etc.

This exhibition presents a particular slice of contemporary art – there was not much that was new – and a lot of what is happening in contemporary art was absent.

There is a lot that is happening in painting, in ceramics, in photography etc that is not represented here. Yes some artist were using photographs–being used to illustrate–but they were not photographs produced as art objects in themselves.












and then there were children’s activities – look we can make contemporary art!


and people posed to be photographed.

What the gallery said: The first of three biennial surveys presenting the latest ideas and forms in contemporary Australian art. 

Over three editions in 2017, 2019 and 2021, The National will profile a mix of emerging, mid-career and established artists from around the country and practising overseas. New and recently commissioned works encompass a diverse range of mediums, including painting, video, sculpture, installation, drawing and performance.

So what that means is that if you are interested in any of the wonderful contemporary photography being produced in Australia (or internationally) then do not go to this exhibition looking for any of it – there’s none. The permanent photography space has been used for The National, so for the period of The National there is no dedicated photography exhibition.

The exhibition occupies much of the lower floor alongside the Kaldor Exhibition area. Some of The National is in the main foyer; a point I suspect many will miss as they walk straight through to the escalators to descend to the lower floors.

Given the expectations that were built up around this exhibition, I expected a lot more new work – or at least new directions in work. This is a safe exhibition.

Having walked through the exhibition twice, having tried to engage more, I checked out the catalogue in the shop and could see that there was more of the same at the other two venues (although the MCA did look a little more enticing).

It had started to rain heavily – so I was not going to walk to the MCA – instead caught a taxi to see contemporary photography by Elaine Campaner at Gallery 9.

As for the tile – ‘The National’ – I think Melbourne and Brisbane and Canberra have not much to worry about just yet – this is very much a Sydney Biennale light. As for being ‘national’ – that could be said of much of the work in the gallery  – it is already a national collection – and the work in the Kaldor Galleries has more of an edge to it.

My recommendation: If you are in Sydney and curious – please have a look–and it is free (no entrance fee). If you are not in Sydney, I am not so sure it would be worth it unless you have other reasons to visit. And if you do head to the AGNSW, always remember that you could also take in several other worthwhile exhibitions.

I hope to get back to Sydney to see the other works in the MCA and Carriageworks – but as above – this would have to be in conjunction with another reason to visit Sydney.

Here’s a link: The National– open till 16 July 2017.

and.. here’s a review-report from Andrew Frost of The Guardian.

Link to John McDonald’s review – a must read – click here

A review by Sasha Grishin – click here

A link to the National at the MCA




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