For three months, Carriageworks – Sydney’s thriving multi-arts centre housed in the old Eveleigh Rail Yards – is giving over its huge main foyer and white-box space in Bay 21 to a broad-ranging exhibition of contemporary Australian art, most of it new.

Exploring “the fluidity of identity” as a loose theme, the work is nothing if not diverse: from live performance to video; from a sawdust carpet to six customised strait jackets representing the reasons women stay in abusive relationships; from imagined Aboriginal flags to metal dustbin lids inscribed with poetry.

The exhibition is part of a new biennial called The National: New Australian Art co-presented by three of Sydney’s premiere visual arts institutions: Carriageworks, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Entry is free.

Aiming to survey “the latest ideas and forms in contemporary Australian art”, the current event is the first of three editions to be held every two years until 2021, taking place in the alternating years between the Biennale of Sydney (which surveys international and Australian art ) and the Adelaide Biennial (which surveys contemporary Australian art).

“The plan is to present over 150 Australian artists during that time with a focus on commissioning and supporting new work, so it’s a really big investment from the three institutions in the Australian visual arts,” says Lisa Havilah, Director of Carriageworks. “To deliver the project we’ve put together a team of curators [from the venues] and Nina Miall and I are the curators for Carriageworks.”

Although The National has been conceived as one exhibition over three sites, the curators have taken “the DNA of each place” into account, says Havilah. “And so, at Carriageworks we are focussed on work that crosses disciplines. There are a number of new commissions that have quite large-scale performative elements to them. Justene Williams, for example, is making a work, which will have over 30 people on stage.”


Jess Johnson The NationalJess Johnson, Worldweb Allthing, 2016, acrylic paint, pen, fibre-tipped markers and gouache on paper, 101 x 73.5cm, Courtesy the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

This year, The National features 49 Australian artists from around the country and overseas. At Carriageworks, there are 17 works, 15 of which are new. The opening weekend features a performance programme on April 1, with Williams’ work included as part of that.

“Justene’s work is strongly influenced by the European Avant-garde, mainly futurism and Dada to a certain extent, but she’s based in Sydney and she’s got this ‘make-do’ aesthetic, where she draws on materials in her immediate vicinity – chairs, hills hoists, whatever is around. So, it’s got this very grounded, domestic feel to it as well,” says Miall.

Williams’ piece for The National will feature performers with fans, dressed in hot pink costumes with accordions built into them. Though the performance will only take place on April 1, the colourful installation created for it will remain for the duration of the exhibition.

One of the key works at Carriageworks is a piece called United Nations by Archie Moore, an Indigenous artist based in Brisbane. “Archie was very interested in a map from 1900 that was produced by an anthropologist and surveyor called RH Mathews, who was one of the first white men to identify what he called ‘Aboriginal nations’ within Australia. It was a critical moment just before Federation and he mapped out these 28 nations,” says Miall.

“It’s obviously an incredibly flawed, misguided document but Archie was interested in its flaws, and he has designed flags for each of the 28 nations based on flora and fauna from those particular regions, which will hang in a processional, ceermonial manner.”

Alan Griffiths The NationalAlan Griffiths. Photo © Peter Eve

Another Indigenous artist, Alan Griffiths, a highly respected lawman who lives and works in the remote Kimberley regional of Western Australia, is creating 15 Balmarra – woven dance boards used in corroborees.

Jemima Wyman who lives and works between Brisbane and Los Angeles, has created a striking piece called Aggregate Icon, using protest imagery – from the Occupy Movement to Pussy Riot – sourced from the Internet.

Jemima Wyman, The NationalJemima Wyman working on Aggregate Icon © Jemima Wyman

“She has collaged them together, using the architectural feature of the Rosetta window or Rose window traditionally found in Gothic churches or cathedrals. It has a very distinctive, politically charged black, white and red palette, so it’s like a modern-day mandala looking at the language of resistance,” says Miall.

Colombian-born, Sydney-based artist Claudia Nicholson will produce one of her alfombra de aserrín, a traditional South American sawdust carpet created using stencils, coloured sawdust and glitter.

This particular one commemorates Selena Quintanilla, a Tejano singer who was shot dead by the president of her fan club in 1995. At a special performance, five Latin American dancers will perform on it, completely destroying it.

Dancer-choreographers Atlanta Eke and Ghenoa Gela will collaborate on a performance project exploring ideas of cultural appropriation, while New York-based Jess Johnson and Melbourne-based Simon Ward have created a five-channel animation called Whole Wide World, with images that Miall describes as being “like portals into another world”.

The National 2017 is at Carriageworks, March 30 – June 25, Art Gallery of New South Wales, March 30 – July 16, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, March 30 – June 18