Volume One at the MCA, Sydney

As its name suggests, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney is devoted to contemporary art, both from across Australia and around the world. It’s housed in a rather nice Art Deco style building with a modern extension standing on the Circular Quay, in the historic Rocks District, on the opposite side from the Opera House.

The building used to be the headquarters of the Maritime Services Board and was converted into a Gallery after the organisation was relocated to larger premises in 1989. Its a late example of the Art Deco style, being constructed between 1947 and 1952.

The modern extension, called the Mordant Wing, opened in March 2012, and house the main entrances, reception desk, shop, main staircases and lifts and the cafe and Sculpture Terrace on the top floor.

The design, being modern and radically different from the original Art Deco building created some controversy. But I thougt it worked well, providing a contrast and working well to open up the galleries and allow easy movement between the floors.

I liked the way that the staircase up to the foyer from the Harbour entrance had been used to display a work of art.

The Sculpture Terrace was something of a disappointment. I was expecting to find a collection of sculpture displayed but there was only one work on display. But it did present a good view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and, when there wasn’t a ship in the Cruise terminal, the Sydney Opera House. The cafe was pretty good too.

As my time was limited in Sydney and there was so much I wanted to see and do in the Sydney, I decided not to visit the temporary exhibition of works by Chuch Close, but restricted myself to the works on the top floor from the MCA’s own collection, an exhibition they’d titled Volume One:MCA Collection.

For the first time, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia has an entire floor dedicated permanently to presenting work from the MCA Collection. Discover work by more than 130 Australian artists in Volume One: MCA Collection, reflecting the breadth of Australian contemporary art over the past 20 years.

Highlighting the diversity of Australian contemporary art, this selection includes work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, film and video installations, wall paintings, ephemeral and performative art and a range of cultural voices.

There was a good selection of works, many by indigenous artists while others explored the dispossession of indigenous peoples by European settlers.

This one, for example, We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006) by Daniel Boyd, takes a non-conventional view of the landing of James Cook at Botany Bay.

Boyd’s parody of the British colonial invasion of New South Wales, with its reversal of terms – We Call Them Pirates Out Here – responds to Emmanuel Phillip Fox’s The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 commissioned and painted in 1902, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Boyd’s work takes on the complex histories of the site of Cook’s landing as both a moment of conquest by the English explorer, and the moment of invasion for the original inhabitants.

In Boyd’s painting, as in the work of Fox, we see Cook stepping to shore. Whilst in Fox’s work Cook is the symbol of civilised English culture, for Boyd, Cook becomes a pirate ready to take part in the great colonial land grab. Boyd has inserted the faces of his friends as the ship’s crew, hoisting the flag whilst Cook surveys the scene with his one-eye. Smoke in the far distance is evidence of an inhabited land in direct contrast to Cook’s taking of the land and the later proclamation of it as Terra Nullius. (MCA website)

Particle Paradise (nuclear family) (1989) by Brian Blanchflower is inspired by the Australian landscape.
I particularly liked The Tenderness of Rain (2011-12) by the Chinese Australian artist Lindy Lee. The black paper has been puched with a soldering iron creating an intricate pattern of holes. It was hung just off the wall so that it cast interesting shadows.
Tiger Tiger (1987) by Rosalie Gascoigne is made from found objects – reflective road signs
Many of the works were by Australian indigenous artists.
This series of paintings, Untitled (body painting series) (1996) by Emily Kame Kngwarreye is based on tradiotional body painting designs used in women’s ceremonies.
This display of tiny decorated slippers is a poignant work by Esme Timbery

Constructed from mixed media and adorned with shells, these tiny slippers exemplify traditional Indigenous craft practices of La Perouse, a headland on the shores of Botany Bay with a large Aboriginal population. They form a memorial to the Stolen Generations − Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities by government edict throughout the greater part of the twentieth century. Through their silence, emptiness and sense of expectancy, these shoes bear witness to the children’s absence. (MCA website)

A series of traditional indigenous bark paintings were displayed along one wall.
Pre-dating the 20th century they aren’t “Contemporary art” but given their style means they didn’t look out of place amongst the modern works.
Here the modern artist John Mawurndjul has used the same techniques in his works Nawarramuimul (Shooting star spirit) (1988) and Nialyod (Female rainbow serpent) (1988)
These are just a selection of the many works on display. There were many others. For me the exhibition illustrated just how contemporary artists are influenced by the landscape and the traditions of their native or adoptive homeland and how so called “primitive” art has had a major influence on artists since the mid 20th Century. Just as at the NCV Victoria and the New South Wales Art Gallery, I was particularly impressed by the works by Indigenous art works which are rarely seen outside Australia.



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