I am struggling to articulate my response to the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy, which ends next Sunday. I’ve visited three times now. It’s a big show. Each time I’ve spent around two hours in there. It definitely has the sense of a journey. There are some interesting echoes or counterpoints as you wander through the exhibition. As you enter, Shaun Gladwell’s hypnotic Approach to Mundi Mundi plays on a loop, a slow, silent video clip following a motorcyclist riding a curving stretch of road in the Australian outback, arms raising to a Christ-like pose as he cruises the central dividing strip, leather-gloved fingers fluttering in the slipstream, arms subsiding as the film’s focus blurs and fades. Landscape, religion, isolation, rebellious outsiders. In the penultimate room of the show, Fiona Foley’s 11 minute film Bliss shows continuously: a vast field of white poppies bobbing and swaying in a rushing wind, a bright blue sky, seed capsules like heavy bulbous heads on tall stems, the lonely sound of the wind, and short stark extracts from The Way We Civilise by Rosalind Kidd superimposed on the lyrical images. Opium as a means of subjugation. Complex troubled histories. Early on in the exhibition, a display case holds three truly repulsive examples of mid 19th century silverwork (an inkwell, a candelabrum and a trophy – more than simply aesthetically offensive); contrasting with the delicate and witty moulded sardine tins of Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris at the end of the exhibition.
The first time, there’s too much to see, it’s overwhelming and exhausting. By my third visit, I know the rooms that I want to spend most time in. The first main room displays some stunning work by Indigenous artists. A 2007 painting by Doeren Reid Nakamarra, laid horizontally in the middle of the room, ripples and vibrates with energy. Warlugulong (1977) by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri is intricate and layered, a deep red star burst at its centre, tracks, footprints, bone shapes scattered across its surface. Ngayarta Kujarra (2009) by the Martumili Artists sings out from the wall, a sparkling salt-white plain bordered by brightly coloured dotted patterns. Further on in the exhibition, I’m drawn to the two Clarice Beckett paintings Morning Shadows and Passing Trams, Melbourne, early 1930s, foggy suburban desolation. Eric Thrake’s Brownout (1942) has a similar feel, while The Car (1955) by John Brack is angular and jaunty with a manic edge. One of the biggest thrills in the show is to see four of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings (from the series of 26). These are high impact paintings, fiery, subversive and compelling. Big Orange (Sunset) by Brett Whiteley, painted in 1974, and John Olsen’s Sydney Sun (1965) are both vibrant, optimistic explosions of colour. I love Olsen’s in particular, suspended horizontally from the ceiling so you gaze up into its amber and blood-orange squiggles. And then, in the last few rooms, there are pieces by contemporary artists, challenging and engaging with European and Indigenous cultures and histories, such as Robert Campbell Jnr’s hard-hitting 1988 painting Abo History (Facts) and Possession Island (1991) by Gordon Bennett. This, and more, and I leave the exhibition for a third time, still thinking about place, attachment to land, to a landscape, choices and how much we are (or are not) defined by our backgrounds, by where we grew up; and the role of art in helping us to negotiate some of these issues. An on-going cultural conversation.