Editorial: Looking to the Future Through the Past

Daniel Mudie Cunningham

What a big year 1980 was in Australia. It commenced as a leap year on a Tuesday. Not sure why, but that has a nice ring to it. Stuff that happened that year included the birth of the first test tube baby; the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain; the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Victoria; SBS commenced national transmission; Queensland defeated New South Wales in the inaugural State of Origin; John McEwen, the eighteenth Prime Minister of Australia died a month or so before the re-election of Malcolm Fraser as Australia’s twenty second Prime Minister for a third consecutive term.

Cover Illustration
Clemens Habicht
Graeme Sturgeon 2013

Aside from Fraser’s significance in Australian political history, our art history was augmented by his formation of Artbank. Three decades in operation and going strong, Artbank is an important snapshot of our recent art past. Artbank’s collection of some ten thousand works represents as much the successes as it does the failures of Australian contemporary art during this period of time. And surely that will be the case for the next thirty years to come.

"Sturgeon by name, sturgeon by nature."

Sturgeon by name, sturgeon by nature. As much as we think of Sturgeon as a conceptual statement — it’s one thing being a big fish, it’s another if you produce caviar — the name given to our magazine bears the imprimatur of founding Artbank Director Graeme Sturgeon, whose legacy is remembered in Peter Timms and Lou Klepac’s poignant tributes to the man.

In honouring Mr Sturgeon’s important contribution thirty something years after Artbank’s formation, we felt compelled to look back at this period of time as a way of looking to the future through the past. A thirty year period represents a generation. As such, Djon Mundine and Catharine Lumby’s contributions present varying narratives of how contemporary art in Australia — in Indigenous and non-Indigenous contexts respectively — has been shaped during this time.

Most established contemporary artists making their mark today would have been born in the decade or so preceding 1980. Andrew Frost in his profile on one such artist, Hayden Fowler, writes: “Kids born in the 1960s and 1970s always knew the end was nigh. We were the bomb generation.” This paranoia may not be explicit in the work of Patricia Piccinini and Caroline Rothwell, yet in their respective conversations with Jacqueline Millner and Tim Flannery we see how the artists’ concerns with either genetics or geoengineering are very much a byproduct of an age where the end indeed could be considered nigh.

Echoes of this anxiety could be read into Kate Bernauer’s digital photograph Field (2013), where various people are placed within a dystopian landscape, seemingly oblivious to its ominous implications. In contrast, the work of younger artists profiled in Sturgeon takes a turn towards absurdist humour with Kenny Pittock, George Egerton-Warburton and David Capra. No less serious in the rigour brought to their work, these artists are indicative of art practices today that merge the performative with play. While a quotidian focus is evident in Pittock’s whimsical project Five Hours, Ten Works, photo essays by Bo Wong (WA), Garry Trinh (NSW) and John Tsiavis (VIC) find magic in the otherwise potentially mundane streetscapes through which their cameras travel.

Sturgeon arrives at a time when Artbank has reconceptualised its visual identity with a new brand, thanks to Collider. With that in mind, Brad Haylock examines the role of branding in cultural organisations, especially those whose business is in the visual. There is no point in a brand if you don’t first stand by your name. Naming our magazine after a name was an impetus for thinking about how important a name is to the identity of an artist. Emma A Jane’s witty article names and shames some such artists.

Establishing a new print magazine seems like a tiny anachronism in our current digital age. Sturgeon in part comes out of nostalgia for the materiality of the printed word. Yet in commissioning for these pages, it became apparent that much of the content looks to the future through the past, without becoming shipwrecked by sentimentality. In Sturgeon the journey is just as important as the destination. Just ask James Fardoulys, twentieth century taxi driver turned self-taught painter par excellence.

Daniel Mudie Cunningham
Editor, Sturgeon


Read in full via the online issue