Australianness and the New International Style.

Oliver Watts

What does a global citizen look like? Perhaps the picture of Justin Bieber sitting on a private jet the second after his pet monkey Mally is confiscated, sums it up. Bemused Bieber’s defence was that for most of the time he did not know what country he was in let alone when he crossed a border. For this citizen, the globe is what Michel Foucault called heterotopic, it is a placeless place where Jack Sparrowlike celebrities move from port to port without a care. The global artworld represents this hyper-community quite neatly: travelling from art fair to art fair; from Biennale to Biennale; from hotspot to hotspot. Larry Gagosian took this to its natural conclusion when he opened a gallery, designed by starchitect Jean Nouvel, located near Paris Le Bourget Business International Landing Strip.

Against this background it is hard to think that nations, let alone a national art, exist at all. But it does persist, at least in the rhetoric of politicians and institutions, but in a way that seems like ‘the lady doth protest too much’.

Gordon Bennett
Explorer II 1991 (detail)
Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 164.5 x 132.5 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 1992

Vincent Namatjira
Cook’s Dinner Party 2015
Synthetic Polymer paint on canvas, 94 x 126 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 2015

For institutions like the National Gallery of Australia (whose 2015–16 Tom Roberts exhibition claimed to be “for all Australians”) and indeed Artbank (a collecting program for exclusively Australian produced art) the issue is a pressing one. In the global economy any nod to an ‘Australian art’ seems about as stale as a lamington stuck between a strudel and a tiramisu on the cake counter at Starbucks.

While recently researching a piece on Gordon Bennett, I came across a provocative throwaway line from Rex Butler. In a review of Gordon Bennett’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria he wrote: In fact, we might say that with the current passing away of the historical moment of reconciliation the very idea of Australia disappears as well. The problem of national identity seems less and less to interest a younger generation of Australian artists, who are more concerned with global issues… Bennett in this light can strike us as the last “Australian” artist. And this exhibition would be a retrospective not only of Bennett but of a whole tradition of art in this country. (2007)

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