How do you solve a problem like “Australia”? Royal Academy curator on the pain and pleasure of ‘nation shows’ – interview

Curator Kathleen Soriano reveals the drives and difficulties behind “Australia” at London’s Royal Academy of the Arts.

The first survey show of Australian art in London since the mid 1900s opened at the Royal Academy in on 21 September 2013. Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy Kathleen Soriano discusses her curatorial vision for “Australia” and the public’s reception of the show.

Charles Meere, 'Australian Beach Pattern', 1940, Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy, London

Charles Meere, ‘Australian Beach Pattern’, 1940, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm, in ‘Australia’, at The Royal Academy, London. Image courtesy the Royal Academy.

Kathleen Soriano was appointed to Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in January 2009, and since then she has brought collections of works such as those of David Hockney and Van Gogh, as well as survey shows, including Mexican art from 1910-1940 and Soviet art and architecture.

In September 2013, Soriano presented a collection of work from Australia. Organised around the theme of land and landscape, the exhibition comprises work spanning a 200-year period. Reviewers of “Australia“ have noted the presence of lesser-known Aboriginal artists alongside Impressionists educated in London and internationally acclaimed artists such as Sidney Nolan, as well as highlighting the inherent problems of making an exhibition that is arranged around a particular region. UK-based critics such as Waldemar Januszczak delivered scathing reviews, invoking counter claims of colonialist rhetoric from Australian artist John Olsen.

In this interview with Art Radar, Soriano discusses the impetus behind curating “Australia” and reveals the difficulties of curating a ‘nation show’.

Arthur Streeton, 'Fire's On', 1891, Oil on canvas, 183.8 x 122.5 cm, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy, London

Arthur Streeton, ‘Fire’s On’, 1891, oil on canvas, 183.8 x 122.5 cm. Image courtesy the Royal Academy.

This is the first exhibition dedicated to Australian art in London since the mid 1900s. What made you think that the time was ripe for another?

It started about twenty years ago, when I first visited Australia. I couldn’t understand why there were so many talented artists that I had never heard of before. Whilst I had expected to see and be surprised by the indigenous art, I hadn’t anticipated meeting the non-indigenous artists like the colonial artists or the impressionists, or some of the more recent artists, such as John Olsen and Brett Whiteley.

Some of the artists were English, a couple of them were Royal Academicians: one of them trained in the Royal Academy School; people were sending back paintings to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition on a yearly basis. I didn’t understand why I hadn’t heard more about these artists. Over the years of being going back and forth between Australia and the UK, and in different positions in my professional life, I always looked for more opportunities to show this work to a British audience.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the Royal Academy in 2009 that I realised this was the only place to have a proper survey show. It is only there where you have the scale and the space, plus, the Royal Academy has a long tradition of survey shows.

Rover Thomas, 'Cyclone Tracy', 1991, Natural earth pigments and binder on canvas, 168 x 180 cm, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Rover Thomas, ‘Cyclone Tracy’, 1991, natural earth pigments and binder on canvas, 168 x 180 cm. Image courtesy The Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The making of a ‘nation show’ is wrought with issues of essentialisation and idealisation of a group of artists and their work. How did you address these issues when you curated “Australia”?

It was pretty soon after I had decided to make the show that I realised I needed a much tighter focus. I needed some principles on which to make my selection. I also realised that if you were looking for work that was as quintessentially Australian as one could possibly ask for (in the way that one wouldn’t normally ask for a quintessential British painting or a quintessential French painting), the distinctiveness of Australian art often comes through in the way the landscape is depicted. This is partly down to the palette, the light (you’ve got artists like Howard Taylor who talks about how the light in Australia flattens everything out), and the monumentality and uniqueness of the landscape.

The other reason why the theme struck me as being a useful one was that it described indigenous art, as well. Indigenous art actually began by being drawn onto the landscape, then moved to the body as part of ceremony, and then eventually onto bark and canvas. Here was a great connection between the indigenous and non-indigenous art that would allow them to sit side-by-side without anything being forced.

One of the things that did occur to me early on was that I’ve just described the biggest cliché that there is, but I did immediately test it on some of the younger artists, indigenous and non-indigenous, artists like Shaun Gladwell, who is based in London and Berlin, and Christian Thompson who is based in London. Their answer to the question of cliché was, yes it is a cliché, but it’s real, and it’s right at the centre of our practice. It informs the way most Australian artists approach their work.

Dorothy Napangardi, 'Sandhills of Mina Mina', 2000, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 198 x 122 cm, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Dorothy Napangardi, ‘Sandhills of Mina Mina’, 2000, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 198 x 122 cm. Image courtesy The Royal Academy of Arts, London.

By placing artists like Sidney Nolan alongside Albert Namatjira and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, you hint towards a diversity in artistic practice and in Australian society.

This was another thing that emerged from the theme; the story of land and landscape tells the story of Australia and the story of people’s encounters with each other – the indigenous and the non-indigenous. The development of Australia since 1788 is all about that story of the land: the taking over of the land, the farming of that land, whom the land belonged to, the fear and loathing of that landscape, how dangerous it was, but also how much creation there was in it. It is central to national identity: the macho-nature of the individual stockman out there on his horse fighting against the odds.

Shaun Gladwell, 'Approach to Mundi Mundi', 2007, Production still from two-channel HD video, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Shaun Gladwell, ‘Approach to Mundi Mundi’, 2007, production still from two-channel HD video, in ‘Australia’, at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Whilst you are approaching these significant social and political issues for Australia, you might also be said to be contributing to a dominant trend in curating.

I’ve been disenchanted with the presence of outsider art being so much brought into the contemporary art field recently. I used to be the director of Compton Verney, where we have the biggest collection of folk art in the country, so we are very familiar with using folk art in that context. Funnily enough I had never thought of the joining of the indigenous work with the non-indigenous work as bringing in ‘outsider art’. The Aboriginal work that is exhibited was produced by people who were artists first and indigenous people second. They are not representative, ethnographic bodies of work.

We have the problem that, as Europeans (and certainly as English people), we don’t have the tools to read or judge the quality of the Aboriginal works, which is why people who have reviewed the show are very quick to pigeonhole the indigenous art as something separate, and more akin to craft rather than art, forgetting of course that there are many different kinds of Aboriginal art, as well.

Eugene von Guerard, 'Bush Fire', 1859, Oil on canvas, 34.8 x 56.3 cm, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Eugene von Guerard, ‘Bush Fire’, 1859, oil on canvas, 34.8 x 56.3 cm. Image courtesy The Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Did you see the contemporary artists participating in this greater narrative which you had created between the other works?

No, I used the narrative, the principles of land and landscape, to give me a basis on which to make the selection, but that framework is not rammed down people’s throats as they go around the exhibition. The works of art are presented in their own context. One of the things I didn’t want to do was to make the works slavishly be part of this narrative. They are standing there because I feel that they’re important artists who have made important work that I think a British audience should see.

Tom Roberts, 'Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west', c.1885-86, reworked 1890, Oil on canvas on composition board, 51.2 x 76.7 cm, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Tom Roberts, ‘Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west’, c.1885-86, reworked 1890, oil on canvas on composition board, 51.2 x 76.7 cm. Image courtesy The Royal Academy of Arts, London.

For you, this show has been in the making for decades. Have you noticed any dominant directions or trends occurring in contemporary practice in Australia since you started researching the area?

People often ask me this question, while at the same time asking me whether I can see how wrong it is to effectively lump a group of artists together under a nation. I don’t think they see how those two things have been similar!

What I have noticed is that all artists are now operating in a more global field, which makes it much harder to identify a nationalistic practice that I can point out. In that context, I would say that there are two strands in which Australians are particularly strong: one is in video work; the other is a particularly Melbourne-based activity, which isn’t really represented in the exhibition, which is sculpture-based. There are artists working in the Ron Mueck tradition (who is also originally from Melbourne), but you also have artists like Patricia Piccinini who are playing with scale, with the human form, which is somehow mutated. These objects are vaguely familiar, but when you get closer to them they are dystopian or rather unnerving.

The greatest hope for me is that over the next fifteen or twenty years we see more one-person shows or movement shows of Australian artists in this country and across Europe.

Sidney Nolan, 'Ned Kelly',1946, Enamel on composition board, 90.8 x 121.5 cm, in 'Australia', at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Sidney Nolan, ‘Ned Kelly’,1946, Enamel on composition board, 90.8 x 121.5 cm, in ‘Australia’, at The Royal Academy of Arts, London

Hannah Sender


Related Topics: Australian art, museum shows, Asia expands, interviews, land art

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