Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts
14 May – 17 July 2022
Hatched 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the national graduate exhibition. Noting the origins of Hatched in 1992 is worthwhile, not only to celebrate the longevity of the exhibition—an amazing achievement in and of itself—but to invite a comparison between two moments of uncertainty within Australia’s artworld. In 1992, emerging out of the ‘recession we had to have’, the Australian art community was left to ponder the very future we inhabit today. In response to such economic disquiet, Artlink published the special issue The Artworkers Guide to the Economy, inviting critics, gallerists, political analysts, and members of the Australia Council to respond to the question of how Australia’s ‘art industry’—a term that was very much in dispute then, if more accepted today—could reimagine itself.
Revisiting these texts published thirty years ago, one is struck by how little the fundamental problems have changed. Peter Anderson noted that a key challenge for the artworld is finding quantitative and qualitative means for displaying the value of the arts. Brian Tucker argued that artists barely noticed the recession of the early nineties, since ‘the arts economy, visual, performance, or writing, is in a permanent state of recession and artists have adjusted their lifestyles to suit’. The problem, as Tucker diagnosed it, was an austere funding climate that promoted the ‘survival of the biggest’, in that the larger and more entrepreneurial institutions would always be better equipped to articulate their value and dominate funding opportunities. Left out, lamented Tucker, are the smaller arts groups, and funding for youth arts education—i.e., those parts of the artworld that build audience capacity and a national sense that the arts matter and are worth defending from funding cuts. Tucker’s claim of a permanent recession for artists was only bolstered by arts economist Nelson English’s observation that a 1989 report showed 80% of artists survived on under $15,000 per annum. So, while Greg McCarthy argued that the recession of the 1990s was at least in part a result of the peculiar nature of economic growth in the 1980s—characterised by ‘fluctuating economic growth, declining real wages and rising profits, high inflation and an incautious rush to credit financing’—the austerity conditions experienced by artists were sadly conventional.
The situation in 1992 resonates strongly with the one facing artists, and especially younger and emerging artists, in 2022. The peculiar conditions described by McCarthy have only become more entrenched, as poor economic and wage growth, skyrocketing profits, and the destabilising influence of financialisaton have become structural features of the economy—and the return of high levels of inflation has caused many to fear a return to the stagflation crises of the 1970s. As academic Ben Eltham and artist Catherine Ryan note, research published in 2017 suggests that the median income for Australian visual artists is $12,000 per annum, meaning that, if this data is reliable, the situation has only further deteriorated for the typical Australian artist since 1992. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have only intensified the ‘bigger takes it all’ approach to arts funding criticised by Tucker, with large commercial festivals, and eye-catching spectacles—such as a LEGO model of Jurassic World, which received $670,000—attracting the bulk of the Morrison government’s Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) funding. As Jo Caust, academic and leading arts consultant put it to Crikey, Indigenous-focused events received very little [RISE] money, and large commercial entertainment projects the government believed would bring the most jobs and the most audiences had been prioritised. Just as in 1992, the difficulty of articulating the value of the arts, other than as an extension of hospitality and tourism, can be seen in the meagre support received by the vast majority in the sector. Although, and as Mark Banks and Justin O’Connor state, as forty years of neo liberalisation have seen even ‘essential services such as health and education’ struggling to maintain their status as public goods, it is perhaps unsurprising that art’s social value, as opposed to its commercial value, is poorly understood. Indeed, the failure of the sector to create a compelling narrative around art’s own inherent value has only placed it in further competition with other sectors and industries—with art typically emerging from such contests as the loser.
Given such economically and emotionally depressive conditions, the sheer strength of the works in Hatched feels somewhat miraculous. To quote Hatched curatorial fellow Miranda Johnson, this year’s artists engage with ‘the existential threat of climate change, truth-telling in relation to the dark history of colonisation, the importance of family for healing and comfort, and the shifting nature of our relationships with digital realms’. While it is impossible to respond to the great number of works in a showcase the size of Hatched, the majority of the works selected in 2022 embody a desire to critically reflect on identity and belonging in a world rife with injustice. Ilona McGuire’s Our Lives and Livelihood and Kyra Mancktelow’s Sitting Down Place embody the political resilience and defiance of First Nations archives. As art historian Jessyca Hutchens notes, archival art is often framed in contemporary art discourse as the search for what is marginal or overlooked within institutional memory. For First Nations peoples, and for First Nations artists more specifically, ongoing processes of cultural dispossession and violence means that artists ‘may require creative and imaginative processes that resist aspects of the archive, or attempt to get out from under it, to symbolically lose the archive rather than to ask it to reveal something’. Perhaps we can read both McGuire’s and Mancktelow’s works in this vein, insofar as they attempt to resist and creatively reimagine the archive. Our Lives and Livelihoods assembles objects that resonate with McGuire’s own, and her ancestors’, experiences of resistance and survival under colonisation. Depicting a domestic vignette, Our Lives and Livelihoods speaks to the importance of the social reproduction of resistance to injustice, as the music of the Warumpi Band and Coloured Stone, and traces of the legacy of activist Joe McGinness, are invoked in a space ‘resembling the homes of [McGuire’s] Noongar and Kungarakan families’. The installation cleverly reflects the ways First Nations peoples have utilised a range of different media—traditional, new, and digital—in order to counter the hegemonic archives of colonisation.
Kyra Mancktelow’s Sitting Down Place feels like it is driven by a similar desire to pluralise the archive, and to draw attention to the ongoing act of resisting the destruction of First Nations culture. The haunting quality of the recreated colonial uniforms, suspended and floating, could be read as illustrating the frozenness of trauma, and the suspension involved in repressed history—given the extent of the colonial violence and injustice in Australia that has been repressed for so long. As a form of truth-telling, Mancktelow’s works remind us of the sheer ubiquity of colonial repression, whilst also signalling agency and the possibility of intervention.
Jacquie Meng’s paintings revel in the chaotic overlapping of ‘east and west, human and non-human, and real and imagined’. Various expressions of belonging careen across rich surfaces in unexpected and energetic figurations. Meng’s artist statement reveals that the cute and kitsch are central to her work, and these paintings seem to resonate with the garish jaggedness of ‘90s youth visual culture—and especially the imagery of children’s toys and animation, such as the Garbage Pail Kids, Nickelodeon, anime production companies like Toei Productions, and the work of Peter Chung. As cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has argued, cuteness—and its associated feelings of diminution and powerlessness—is never far away from feelings of aggression and destructiveness, as can be seen in the desire to squeeze or ‘gobble up’ the cute object. Meng’s works play with this tension between aggression and passivity, and between pleasure and menace, in a way that speaks powerfully to the fragmentation of online culture. More specifically, her paintings draw on the eclectic maximalism of hyperpop, the bricolage of memes and imageboard aesthetics, and online spirituality and wellness communities. Not only do these paintings powerfully play with cultural and geographical diaspora, but also the communicative and technological diaspora produced by periods of rapid acceleration and stagnation of online visual culture.
Erin Hallyburton’s minimalist installation—comprised of clay, shortening, sunflower oil, cheese, tallow, steel and soap—makes visceral the discourses of fat. While fatness has a long historical connection to culturally prejudiced notions of animality and poverty, the Trump years seemed to heighten the use of fatness as a marker of danger and excess. As Christopher E. Forth has noted, during Trump’s time in office, the 45th president’s size, and the imagined size of his voters, became something of a metonym for American selfishness, irresponsibility, and dangerousness. For Trump himself, too, fatness was a favoured putdown, especially with regards to women who criticised his policies or outbursts. During the early stages of the COVID-19 lockdowns, fatness became a means of discursively marking much of the population as deserving of what Lauren Berlant has referred to as ‘slow death’—insofar as anti-vaxxers and libertarians, but even some liberal progressives—identified fatness as a marker of personal irresponsibility, and one that could be used to naturalise the uneven distribution of vulnerability in society. A common refrain on social media since 2020—and one that seems disturbingly close to a kind of health fascism—is the argument that those who are ‘responsible’ with regards to fitness and diet should not be inconvenienced to protect those who do not comply with the ‘correct’ health regimens. Against this background, Hallyburton’s sculptures impressively hold forth the materiality of social inhospitality. While these works draw much of their impact from process and material, their aesthetic similarity to the forms of hostile architecture allow them to inhabit space in a manner that is both reflective and troubling.
While the scope of Hatched 2022 defies encapsulation in a single review, the impacts of COVID-19 can be felt throughout the exhibition, as a range of works resonate with feelings of digital alienation, and the home as a site of both sanctuary and separation. While most works engage with questions of social justice and identity, Hatched feels neither moralistic nor solipsistic. Instead, the artists selected for 2022, drawn from art schools from each state and territory, have all produced works that feel open ended, even if motivated by clear moral and political impulses. These are thoughtful, courageous and responsive works overall, nevertheless, it is genuinely difficult to predict where these progressive energies will go given the austere and precarious environment into which these artists are emerging. The intensification of right-wing reaction in Western liberal democracies—expressed in growing hatemongering around trans people, rampant racial injustice, the elimination of women’s rights to bodily autonomy, and the rolling back of state support for disabled people—will only intensify the artworld’s emphasis on social justice, and its precariousness in increasingly polarised societies.
As is attested to by the seemingly endless publication of articles about the artworld’s ‘wokeness problem’, the right cynically draws on progressive policy in order to justify cuts to the arts and to feed its online outrage mills. James Macpherson provides a recent example of this tactic in the Spectator, writing in response to the announcement of the National Gallery of Australia’s Gender Equity Action Plan that
if those in charge of the National Gallery truly want to be equitable then they should display work by everyone who submits something. And to be honest—judging by what I’ve seen in modern art galleries—it’s almost as if this is the policy. Or, of course, we could just defund them and then see how important woke intersectionality is to art when commercial realities bite.
Beyond the manipulative framing of progressive issues to stoke reactionary sentiments, young and emerging artists who desire social change face strategies of co-option and neutralisation from established institutions. As has been well articulated in recent books such as Asad Haider’s “Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump”(2018) and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)”, there is nothing inherent in the exploration of progressive issues that inhibits incorporation by powerful established interests. As Táíwò argues, the energies of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 were in many ways appropriated by the institutions of American empire—such as the CIA’s pivot towards a more progressive marketing campaign in 2021, and the Democrats’ simultaneous affirmation of racial justice and their nomination of Joe Biden, one of the authors of the disastrous 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Bill. Within Australia, Kevin Rudd’s support of the disastrous Northern Territory Intervention (rolled out by his predecessor John Howard in 2007), Julia Gillard’s defence of the ALP’s move to place single mothers on Newstart, or the Albanese’s governments unwillingness to commit to a raise of the Newstart rate, are all similar examples. To be blunt, many progressive institutions in Australia have a legacy of utilising the rhetoric of social justice, whilst being hesitant to institute major progressive reforms. Within the Australian artworld, while various institutions continue to solidify their progressive bona fides, the sector is built on an enormous amount of unpaid work and the exploitation of the precarious and passionate. Here, the artworld is not alone, as, indeed, the broader economy is increasingly driven by precariously employed staff who feel exploited—whether health care workers, teachers, construction workers—and the psychosocial hazards of burnout and overwork are ubiquitous. Accordingly, those arguing for social justice, and for greater recognition of marginalised voices, will have to tarry with the structural inequities and injustices in the sector—inequities and injustices that need funding to be systemically addressed.
This pincer movement, one that sees radical energies neutralised by progressive institutions and used as a catalyst for explosive rage by reactionary institutions, does not appear to be abating. For this reason, younger and emerging artists committed to social and ecological justice in all of its forms will struggle against many challenges—from the dangers of co-option to outright attacks from right-wing and conservative forces hostile to the existence of art—other than as a site for the production of a homogenous national identity. Coupled with aforementioned economic precarity, such pressures engender the subject position of homo promptus. As the Australian sociologists Rosalyn Black and Lucas Walsh explain, homo promptus was a term first used by Cicero to refer to someone ‘prepared and ready to do whatever needed’, but has been adopted by Black and Walsh to refer to ‘the individualised and entrepreneurial self that is produced and expected by contemporary education and labour market forces, and actively cultivated by the young university student in response to these forces and discourses’. The increased burden of debt, the emphasis on internships and menteeships, and the competitive nature of the art sector is only intensified by the struggles of earlier generations who have not been able to move into senior positions, as millennials and gen-Xers have similarly experienced career disruption through, amongst other things, the recessions of 1991 and 2008. Taken together, these factors form the crucible of what Black and Walsh call entrepreneurial or situational responses to the future. With growing pressure to find individual solutions to structural crises, individual artists are, following the model of homo promptus, pressured to either treat the future as the culmination of a series of instrumental activities that can be planned and executed—hence, entrepreneurial—or as something fundamentally unknowable that requires simple acquiescence from the individual—hence, situational.
Against such pressures, exit strategies seem to be embraced at a local and global level. Globally, the speculation is that artists will increasingly leave major cities in the hope of escaping skyrocketing rents and housing prices and the unsustainable cost of living. As Pablo Larios has commented in Mousse, ‘in the arts sector, we once tracked visibility through the itinerary of galleries and the topography of important, taste making shows. Now neither seems as important or as taste making. The canon’s rope is frayed, and the big galleries show the same things […] the actual tastemakers are numerous, and you probably haven’t heard of them’. An open question is whether younger and emerging artists will increasingly grow frustrated with the lack of opportunity and recognition in the mainstream artworld, and instead opt to build their own niches and communities. While it is unlikely that such micro spaces will offer greater stability or prosperity, they will most likely offer greater autonomy and purpose. No matter how progressive, just, or equitable the major spaces are, austerity can only mean reshuffling an ever-shrinking deck. Already positioned as outsiders, it is perhaps unsurprising that artists are increasingly producing their own spaces without patronage or funding, ‘with one starting seemingly every few weeks’, writes artist George Egerton-Warburton in Spike. Often situated in backyards, share houses, or even in disused toilets, spaces like Guzzler, Meow, Asbestos, Savage Garden, and Disneyland Paris—to name only a handful—allow communities of artists, often young and emerging, to share their commitment to contemporary art outside of overwhelming anxieties about relevance and engagement. There are, of course, no illusions about the limitations of such a model. As Egerton-Warburton notes, ‘evidently there’s turnover. Things change, people leave, and leases run out’.
Despite the gloomy milieu in which Hatched is situated, the exhibition should not only be taken as an opportunity to reflect on the last thirty years of contemporary art within Australia, but also as a celebration of the young and emerging artists who have pulled through some very challenging years to arrive on the national stage. All the work in Hatched reflects a curiosity and seriousness that testifies to the power of visual arts education. Despite ongoing neglect and derision, the field of contemporary art still attracts imaginative, hardworking, and sensitive (mostly) young people who wish to understand and transform the world around them. Importantly, Hatched recognises those desires and abilities, and the decision to split the $50,000 Schenberg Art Fellowship amongst three Hatched participants—a first for the exhibition, with Erin Hallyburton receiving $35,000, Remy Faint receiving $10,000, and Ilona McGuire receiving $5,000—reflects PICA’s attempts to acknowledge and respond to the realities faced by young and emerging artists. At all levels of the Australian artworld, it is clear that there are individuals dedicated to transforming the sector for the benefit of all. The question that remains, however, is what institutional form can allow us to truly work towards that goal in solidarity, rather than as individualised entrepreneurs or as situational members of the precariat.
- ^ Peter Anderson, “Incidental Benefits? Arts Industry Rhetoric & Policy Objectives” Artlink: The Artworkers Guide to the Economy 12:3 (1992): 31.
- ^ Brian Tucker, “The Arts—Survival of the Biggest?” Artlink: The Artworkers Guide to the Economy 12:3 (1992): 28.
- ^ Tucker, 29
- ^ Nelson English, “Arts, Sports Stars and the Depression: Knocking at the Door of the Special World” Artlink: The Artworkers Guide to the Economy 12.3 (1992): 20.
- ^ Greg McCarthy, “The Recession and the Arts” Artlink: The Artworkers Guide to the Economy 12.3 (1992): 16.
- ^ Ben Eltham and Catherine Ryan, “The All Conference Artist-run Initiatives Sub-sector”. Permanent Recession: A Handbook on Art, Labour and Circumstance. Ed. Channon Goodwin. (Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2019): 23.
- ^ Georgia Wilkins, “$730k to Lego: arts rescue package looks like the building blocks of another rort”. Crikey (20 October 2021), https://www.crikey.com.au/2021/10/20/arts-rescue-package-building-blocks-another-rort/
- ^ Mark Banks and Justin O’Connor, “‘A plague upon your howling’: art and culture in the viral emergency”. Cultural Trends 30 (2021): 3-18.
- ^ Miranda Johnson, “Hatched Curatorial Fellow’s Introduction”. Hatched 2022: National Graduate Show. (Perth: PICA, 2022).
- ^ Jessyca Hutchens, “Losing the Archive: Julie Gough at the MAA, Cambridge and Christian Thompson at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.” Indigenous Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art. Eds. Darren Jorgensen and Ian Mclean. (Perth: The University of Western Australia Press, 2017): 296.
- ^ Jessyca Hutchens, 296.
- ^ Hatched: National Graduate Show 2022. (Perth: PICA, 2022).
- ^ Interview with Jacqueline Meng: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1fnwOl3AEc
- ^ Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015): 83.
- ^ Christopher E. Forth, “The Fat Imaginary in Trump’s America: Matter, Metaphor, and Animality” Cultural Politics 16.3 (2020): 387–407.
- ^ Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
- ^ James Macpherson, “Installing ‘Woke’ at the National Gallery of Australia” Spectator (21 March 2022) https://www.spectator.com.au/2022/03/installing-woke-at-the-national-gallery-of-australia/
- ^ Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, (London: Verso, 2018).
- ^ Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022)
- ^ Rosalyn Black and Lucas Walsh. Imagining Youth Future: University Students in Post-Truth Times (Singapore: Springer, 2019): 95.
- ^ Pablo Larios, “The Village People” Mousse (11 January 2022) https://www.moussemagazine.it/magazine/the-village-people-pablo-larios-2022/
- ^ George Egerton-Warburton, “Art Scene: Melbourne” Spike (15 March 2022) https://www.spikeartmagazine.com/?q=articles/art-scene-melbourne
- ^ Egerton-Warburton
Dr Francis Russell is a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin University, co-director of the Curtin Extremism Research Network, and a co-programmer of the art space Nod. With David Attwood, he edited The Art of Laziness: Contemporary Art and Post-Work Politics (Art + Australia in 2020). He has two books forthcoming in 2023, on mental illness and new media, and a book on incels and securitisation (with Eva Bujalka and Ben Rich).