meridian: focus on contemporary australian art

Curators: Rachel Kent, Russell Starer and Vivienne Webb
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
28 November 2002 - 23 February 2003

In an exhibition as eclectic in the art practices it presents as 'Meridian', it is difficult to provide an analysis which accounts for all of the work on show. The main unifying link in the exhibition was the fact that most of the artists are designated as 'mid-career' Australian artists. This collectivity addresses an issue for which, on occasion, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has been called to account-the tendency to focus on themed shows, international artists and the newer ranks of Australian artists. This approach has left a whole generation (or two) of Australian artists out of the loop, despite the fact that they are working within the parameters of contemporary, conceptual art practices. Meanwhile, the curatorial claim which is developed in the catalogue essays, that the uniting thesis of this exhibition is the focus of all these artists on 'ideas and concerns which have shaped the world in which we live, and perceptions of our place within it', can also provide a point of access to this work.

Perhaps because of its diversity, Meridian was quite a visual and conceptual pleasure to experience. On show at the same time as Ron Muecke's incredible craft-those uncannily real-life figures-this exhibition had a subtlety which could not compete at a populist level. However, an audience interested in reflecting on such things as history, time and place, materiality and the diversity of Australian art practices, echoed by a diversity of place-rather than spectacle-could find much to engage with.

The work of the eighteen artists was generously curated into the first three levels of the MCA, so that each artist could exhibit a representative sample of their work. Michael Riley's huge banner photographs, reprinted from his simply graphic 2000 digital series titled Cloud, were installed, in collaboration with the Festival of Sydney, along the front of Circular Quay station, in a nice collusion which tapped into the underlying concept of place and space.

Peter Kennedy's suite of works creates connections between intensely personal issues and universal political concerns. The neon lights of People who died the day I was born-April 18, 1945 (part 2), with their etched text, chillingly conjure up images of death, of the arbitrariness of it, and the way that the life-shattering facts can be truncated into the least noteworthy of news stories in the media. There is an existential gaze herefuelled by Kennedy's personal experiences of mortality and its threat-a thoughtful attempt to understand how something so profound to those up close and touched by it, can be so ruthlessly detached from its emotional impact when transformed into a pragmatic reportage of the facts.

Bea Maddock's Terra Spiritus... with a darker shade of pale 1993-1998, is a marathon project of circumnavigation-a beautiful, lyrical installation, a cross-sectional mapping of the shores of Tasmania in a series of ochre tinged and hand-finished prints, almost forty metres in total. This mapping retains the Aboriginal names for the various geographical landmarks and reaffirms the overturning in 1992 of the concept of Terra Nullius. This presentation of the work-less intimate than the artist originally intended-turns on its head the viewer's relationship to the shores of the island. In a twist we are inside, as the coastline travels the four walls surrounding us, and we, the viewer, become the island .

Both Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu (Kitty Kantilla), whose canvasses are vibrantly dynamic with the patterns she learned from her father, and George Tjungurrayi, whose shimmering optical effects still speak of the dreaming of his ancestors, represent traditional Aboriginal art practices as they continue in the present. Fiona Foley's work draws on traditional iconographies and stark historical facts to create a more conceptually political practice, her use of titling like Fuck me harder and On the blanket 2 and text like 'I forgot to tell you I leant to tie a hangman's noose from a white man', reinforcing the visual component.

George Popperwell's apparently whimsical, yet seriously discursive, objects, like his toy-town in which we can see the internal structure of the materials, seem also to speak of process, of materiality, of feel and texture, as well as of hidden secrets. Other interesting works to consider were Robert Hunter's sublime white paintings, minimally meditative, yet full of the tension of discovery; Aleks Danko's shocking lime green installation which obliquely shouts his discontent with the Australian political scene, John Dunkley-Smith's multi-projection and interactive installations, and Jurek Wybraniec's intensely chromatic photographs of the hyper-everyday and his pegboard constructions linked graphically by the colours pink and yellow, the domestic world referencing the abstract.

Meridian's stylish and informative exhibition catalogue contains thoughtful essays on the general themes of the show-materiality and abstraction, the Australian 'place' and art practices within it. The exhibition explored diversity of practices and location, and successfully drew these together to allow them to function in the exhibition space as they do in the world.