When I visited the National Gallery of Australia, the JMW Turner blockbuster was on. People were queueing for tickets to view a collection of stunning proto-Impressionistic works of European scenes by the master of light. The huddled masses shuffling by the Turners and the cavernous, relatively empty, expanses of the gallery ex-Turner set up a nice contrast, and perhaps captures the balance the NGA must maintain. The ability of blow-through foreigners who say zero about Australia – or if they do, it’s as a target for comparison – and yet gather the crowds is set against the more sober, prosaic and less popular local collections which aim and hope to capture a definitive view of our nation. In a way, it’s a symbolic tension; local v global with an element of cultural cringe peppered in. It says much about us and how we sit in our world.

The NGA is a big place and its huge spaces work hard to be human. Parts of it succeed, while others don’t. That’s probably to be expected. It feels a little like you’re inside something alive which is a boost for a place lots a kids are often forced to shuffle through it their parents’ or teachers’ wake on their obligatory Canberra trip. Alive, but does it live? More importantly does it think?

In the three-point agenda of the NGA outlined in its latest annual report, the term “national collection” occurs in each. The most general one suggests, “Develop and maintain a national collection of works of art.” What is a national collection? The relevant Act suggests it means all works of art that are owned by the Gallery from time to time other than a work of art that is acquired, commissioned or produced by the Gallery for the purposes of sale.” Sure it is. But what is a national collection? What does it say and who’s vision does it reflect? Seems the finer points of the NGA’s purpose are left to interpretation. That can be dangerous.

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A national collection, like any collection, says a lot about the collector. In this case that is, or should be, us. So, who decides for us? The NGA board has 9 members and it is they who, between them, decide on what is a national collection. The board is chaired by serial philanthropist and not-for-profit board member Tim Fairfax, member of that exalted clan. The remaining members are the usual suspects of business, investment and foundation leaders. A fairly impressive bunch by the kind of accounting measures often deemed of high value on board selection, with a lot of understanding of the Australian experience. But actually reflective of the broad Australian experience? Nup.

What political vision does this group push out?

One work struck me as a possible answer to that and as a telling comment on the politics of the NGA.

Peter Kennedy’s >A Language of the Dead is a series of words etched out in blue neon, gathered on a wall. There are words like Imperialism, Ideology, Progressive, Revolution, Communism. As an old and damaged lefty, if this is indeed a language of the dead, then we are all doomed. Perhaps the artist is saddened by the passing of these loaded terms, as a lament of the “end of history.” But, its in neon, like an ad. Seems like he’s saying that these words haven’t disappeared, they’ve just been co-opted by the consumer society. And we are all dead as a result.

What I find interesting about this work being at the NGA is that it may suggest the intrinsic value of such political terms, but only if you really think about it. If you take this work at face value – and let’s be honest, many will – then it reads like an epitaph, a statement of fact: these things are dead, so get on with paying taxes and buying stuff like you’re supposed to. On this reading, they come across as old and musty. Dead like the title says.

This ambivalence is a common feature at the NGA. It can be read as both iconic – read conservative – and iconoclastic – read progressive. I think this is done relatively successfully and reflects a layered and nuanced vision of Australia: one that’s for The Thinkers perhaps, and one that’s for The Numb-outs.

The danger is that the Numb-outs are probably more prevalent and the view pitched to them is likely to be more commonly accepted.

Another example is two paintings which are relatively close in space and period; John Brack’s The Battle, Charles Blackman’s The Cigarette Shop. Again there are two possible reads here. Each can be read as cloying peons to conservative values such as the omniscience of victory and the mythology of nostalgia. However, there is a critique also of a dehumanised, soulless environment where struggle and history have become eviscerated of their human qualities.

Similarly, we might find a useful balance in viewing the Modern Australian works, such as those above or , say James Gleeson’s remarkable The Citadel, and those from the colonial and federation periods. The more idyllic, and stunning, landscapes of early landscapers, like for instance, Martens, Buvelot, Guerard, Heysen and Glover come across as expressive of a simpler period politically, when questions were fewer and answers more bucolic and simplistic. Here, truth is a fine gully, a sweeping mountain view or a peaceful pastoral. Truth is the human – white, male – victory over nature, its taming and its subversion.

Compare to the more confident takes on life by the Moderns, such as in Nora Heysen’s self-portrait. And note also the preponderance of foreign painters in the earlier periods, arcing forward to the Turner exhibition to some extent.

You hope that an institution like the NGA says something real about us. I don’t think we want fakery or lies, myths or worst of all politically spun rubbish. Frankly, its hard to avoid. But, what I think we want is to be challenged to think about who we are, to be respected enough to not be force-fed but to be allowed to wander through our imaginations and our ever changing opinions. A thinking nation wants visions that give us the many levels of who we are.

I’m not sure what people visit a place like this for if its not to think. Many of those I spied seemed soporific and disengaged. It raises the question as to what a place like this is supposed to do if the population it serves is carrying the baggage of quick-fix consumerism and brain-dead reality TV? You have to come here to think and a cultural institution like this should allow you the room to do so.

The NGA does this. Not perfectly, but it does it.

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The writer visited the National Gallery of Australia as a guest of A.C.T Tourism


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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