The art of the 21st century constantly expands the frameworks of inclusion, tracing new histories and geographies. The idea of art history as a singular progressive current of stylistic developments has been increasingly questioned and challenged. Rather than heralding ‘the end of art history’, this contemporary condition is generating much more complex formulations of history. In place of a unified history of modern and contemporary art defined in Europe and the United States, there is a widening awareness of the many historical and geographic contexts for contemporary art practice. The forms, concerns and strategies of art today not only refer to multiple modernisms, but also draw on longstanding aesthetic heritages, and reflect upon flows and borrowings between overlapping cultural histories.
Many of the artists represented in the ‘21st Century’ exhibition engage with broad historical frameworks and merge the distant and recent past with the present when exploring the conditions and complexities of our time. Richard Bell is renowned for his statements ‘Aboriginal art: it’s a white thing’ and ‘Australian art: it’s an Aboriginal thing’, which provoked debate about the referencing of Indigenous art in the work of many contemporary non-Indigenous artists, and the rise to international prominence of Indigenous Australian art. Rashid Rana uses digital photography to compose a large image from smaller images, recalling traditions of miniature painting across the Indian subcontinent, while also drawing attention to colonial histories and the impact of consumerism and waste. Bill Henson’s Untitled 2008–09 invokes 18th-century European notions of the sublime, in which nature is experienced as overwhelming in its power.
His photograph orchestrates light and dark to create an image of profound mystery.
The traditional European genres of landscape and still life underpin works by Arlo Mountford, Jana Sterbak and Ricky Swallow. Mountford composes a video panorama based on three paintings by the Flemish painter Pieter Breugel the Elder (1525–69), one of the first European painters to focus predominantly on landscape. Jana Sterbak’s From here to there 2003 is a ‘dog’s-eye’ view of the landscape along the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal, filmed by Stanley, a Jack Russell terrier fitted with lightweight camera equipment. Ricky Swallow’s meticulously carved sculpture Killing Time 2003–04 draws on European still-life painting, in which tables laden with exotic fruits and imported foods were created as displays of wealth as well as metaphors for earthly transience.