The Vizard Foundation
Art Collection of the 1990s
Australian Art and Artists from the Decade

Chris McAuliffe

An '-ism' free zone: Australian art of the 1990s

Underpinning the Vizard Foundation Art Collection of the 1990s were two simple assumptions: that the collection could tell the story of Australian art in that decade, and that the art works within it could tell the story of Australian culture and society. Conversations among committee members dwelt on the directions being taken in contemporary Australian art, with the aim of establishing a collection representative of the media and practices of the 1990s. This is what the logic of museums and art history demanded. Likewise, discussion of acquisitions focused on how art works would address, or provoke reflection on, the social and historical mood of the late twentieth century. This is what the artists, with their persistent themes of personal identity and the Australian experience, demanded.

That, at least, was the plan. The problem was that one of the clearest hallmarks of the decade was the resistance on the part of artists, critics and curators to the very idea of a grand, encompassing narrative. Artists worked in diverse media, grappled with multiple issues simultaneously and reserved the right to change direction as they saw fit. Critics, driven by the emergence of postmodern theory in the 1980s, were sceptical of their ability to connect multiple artists, events and ideologies into a neat, causal narrative. And curators abandoned the strict chronological presentations of conventional museum practice in favour of thematic presentations that made speculative connections between art works and loosened up the familiar categories of style and period.

This resistance to conventional categories and systematic narratives was not a symptom of fin-de-siècle doubt. It reflects a number of factors—some material, some conceptual—emerging in the 1990s or carrying over from the previous decade. In one sense, the diversity of Australian art in the 1990s was a product of sheer growth. There were more artists, more art schools, more galleries and an expanded art market. Contemporary visual art was a risky business, with success limited to a small minority, but there was always someone ready to open a short-lived gallery, publish a magazine or commit to one of the lowest paid professions in the country.1

The interpretation of art also changed in significant ways, further contributing to the sense of diversity and proliferating trends. In museum displays, art history courses and art historical publications, the analysis of history and culture was informed by new intellectual models which favoured pluralism and multiple paths of interpretation. While art museums and educational institutions might not have abandoned the idea of great art, they could no longer assume that it would only be found in the studio of a white man working in Sydney or Melbourne.

Conceptions of Australian culture were thrown wide open. At the beginning of the 1980s, it was suggested that the Australian 'obsession' with defining national identity always brought us back to the question, not to an answer: 'There are no prizes for getting it right. There was no moment when, for the first time, Australia was seen "as it really was". There is no "real" Australia waiting to be uncovered.'2 By the 1990s, Australian artists had integrated this attitude into their practice. They proposed multiple versions of Australian identity (often based around personal experience), became fascinated with analysing the symbolic structures of public versions of national identity, and became increasingly wary of any attempt to manipulate or contain this identity.

This suggests a consensus on the status and meaning of Australian art in the 1990s—that it be fluid, open-ended and pluralistic—even if that consensus was, paradoxically, one in which everyone agreed to be different. This was not entirely the case, however. There were still familiar hierarchies: painting remained the most popular medium; Sydney and Melbourne remained the centres of the scene; and the big names of the Heidelberg School and the Angry Penguins continued to dominate museums and salerooms. Above all, the very seriousness of contemporary art remained difficult to establish. Art world scandals and talkback radio controversies were more likely to capture the popular imagination than in-depth discussions of the complexities of contemporary art. Conservative politicians warned Australians of the dangers of heeding 'cultural élites'. And the new relativism, which attempted to assess each form of culture on its own terms, was frequently met with claims that rigorous benchmarks of quality needed to be reinstated.

Such debates, often displaying a thinly veiled suspicion of contemporary art, encouraged a certain defensiveness among artists. Withdrawing into their own territory, artists encountered equally heated debates on theory, policy and artistic practice. Making distinctions—between good and bad, innovative and conservative, worthy or undeserving art—was still important; although who got to make such distinctions was continually questioned. But for all this debate—whether inside or outside, left or right, relativist or absolutist—no one would identify a distinctive movement or spirit of the 1990s. There was no shortage of tendencies or directions, but one of the striking aspects of the 1990s is the disappearance of 'movements' and '-isms'.

An '-ism' free decade sounds appealing, suggesting an open and individualistic art world, but it doesn't mean that contemporary art was free of agendas. On the contrary, the art of the 1990s was so self-conscious about its social, historical and intellectual status that it seemed to be perpetually looking over its shoulder. Perhaps because artists felt besieged or belittled, perhaps because they were aware of the pressures of structural and institutional growth, perhaps because their intellectual context stressed relational rather than independent meanings, Australian contemporary artists constantly triangulated their position. This self-consciousness produced distinctive relationships to the past, with artists persistently dissecting existing images and ideas about art. It encouraged constant reflection on the role and status of art, especially its ability to contribute to the understanding of Australian experience. It produced distinctive ways of working, whether in the appearance of individual art works or in their presentation as projects and systems. And there were distinctive ways of perceiving the location of art, whether as a global market, a regional field, or a professional position. In all instances, art was conceived of as highly fluid; the movement and mutability of art and its meanings was emphasised at the expense of the traditional conception of art representing timeless values.

So, while a definitive picture of the decade in art cannot be presented, there are certain prevalent strategies or localities that are consistently prominent. What they point to is not so much a distinctive path as a dynamic—an indication of where and how artists sought to establish the purpose and meaning of their activity.

'Identity' was one such prominent peak. Typical of the decade, the word had a stimulatingly ambiguous meaning. While its classical meaning implied stability—'remaining the same one'—identity became a code word for the relativism of the 1990s. Identity was something adopted, constructed, enacted … and changed. As such, it embodied the paradox of a cultural field determined to avoid the declaration of a singular 'big picture', but adamant that artists could still make a 'big statement'.

The term 'identity' occurred regularly in the policy papers and acquisition reports of the Vizard Foundation Collection and, indeed, continues to appear in the essays and artists' statements in this book. In part, identity was used in a reactive sense. It challenged a set of expectations of the role of art; in particular, the commonsense assumption that art, since it represents a nation's values and aspirations, would show a people what they are. This didactic, even nationalistic, view reflected the broad humanism underpinning state art policies and institutions. For artists, it was not without its problems. It assumes that there are commonly held beliefs, or commonly understood meanings, that are 'out there' in Australia for artists to find and represent. This tends to focus on the safer regions of historical art or achievements in the arts (grand old men and prize-winners) rather than encouraging any challenging reflection on what 'we' are right now. The idea that art would amount to an affirmation of commonly shared values also ran counter to one of the defining characteristics of the contemporary art scene: its expectation that art should value experiment, and challenge rather than sustain consensus. Here again, the awkward position of contemporary art in the 1990s becomes apparent: artists were reluctant to join in any official 'celebration of a nation', but at the same time they hoped to contribute to an understanding of Australian culture, primarily by goading audiences into questioning conventional wisdoms regarding 'our' values.

Of course, even if it was a focal point in defining art, identity was articulated as an 'issue' in many different ways. For Indigenous artists, the assertion of identity was central to a strategy of reclamation and empowerment. This strategy entailed reconnecting with suppressed traditions or histories, returning to local languages and ceremonies, and resisting the assimilation of Aboriginal culture to western visions of the 'primitive' or the 'noble savage'. For other artists, drawing on the liberation discourses of the 1960s and 1970s, identity meant occupying and defending the new spaces won by feminism and gay and lesbian activists. For others still, identity meant recognising the hybrid experience born of twentieth-century migration and resisting the monoculture implicit in terms like 'the average Australian', 'the battler' or 'one nation'.

Before they were inclined to speak for the nation, artists wished to speak for themselves. Often this meant that they spoke against a narrow definition of national identity by speaking of the ways in which their own experience fell outside it. Artists offered opportunities to understand the Australian experience, but often these were provocative rather than reassuring. This places artists in a difficult position. Seen as critical of the norms of Australian identity, they can be dismissed by conservatives as representative of the 'chattering classes': perennial nay-sayers with nothing to offer but negativism. In cultural terms, if art's difference from convention is overemphasised, there is a risk that art will exaggerate its distance from the social sphere and return to the exile of avant-garde separatism.

Neither of these positions—persistent negativity nor aloof autonomy—are the ambition of the artists in the Vizard Foundation Collection. The challenge put forward in the identity politics of art of the 1990s is one asking Australians to develop rather than debunk their culture. Precisely how this was to occur is discussed in detail in essays focusing on specific art works. Typically, however, what artists did was offer audiences an opportunity to triangulate their own position by presenting them with a number of different discourses—personal, social, art historical, political—to be weighed up against each other in an art work. Put simply, artists had a lot to say but knew that merely declaring their position was not going to displace others, or convince viewers to adopt it. What they had to do was put forward a number of different voices, allowing viewers to sort through and assess a number of different positions. Hence the tendency towards composite works (collage, montage, series, sequence), the peopling of art works with characters (figures representing ideas, epochs or identities) and the prevalence of reference and citation (artists 'speaking in tongues' in order to lay out diverse takes on an issue).

This insistence on reflection on Australian history, character and mythology did not arise entirely from within the realm of art. What is striking about the 1990s is the extent to which Australia's history and values were publicly discussed, often in ways that focused on symbolic representation. The Bicentennial of European settlement in 1988 set in train debates on politics and cultural relations that continued through the next decade. Significantly, many protests against the Bicentennial by Indigenous Australians were highly theatrical, establishing a pattern in which controversies over history and identity focused on symbols and images. In 1992, the Mabo High Court decision recognised traditional land ownership; this following closely the foundation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991. In that year, the formation of the Australian Republican Movement and the Dili massacre, prompted what was to become a decade-long debate on democracy and representation in the region. Preparations for the staging of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 also ensured that the symbolic representation of a nation and its aspirations would continue until the very end of the decade. The carnivalesque representations of Australian history at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games ended the decade as it had begun, with public debate as to the merit and accuracy of national symbolism.

Addressing the issue of identity in art turns on what artists are expected to do (speak to us about ourselves), their expectations of themselves (challenge us to reassess ourselves), the limits on what they could do, and their response to those limits (what we are prepared to let them say to us). These issues tend to subsume the specific content of an art work within the broader sphere of culture, in the largest sense. But an assessment of the art of the 1990s also needs to reflect on what artists did—how they worked and what they made—as well as what was made of what they did in the national arena. There was an assumption at the outset of the collecting process that during the 1990s there would be an increase in the use of new media, especially digital technologies associated with video, photography, computer software and the Internet. In hindsight, this does not appear to have been the case, at least not directly. All the same, artists' practice did change in subtle but significant ways.

Interactive computer technologies—so-called new media arts—did not sweep all before them in the 1990s. But artists were certainly conscious of the textures and effects of digital technologies, especially as these were seen as directly connected to debates over identity and national symbolism. Signifiers of media culture—montage, image manipulation, slick surfaces, consumerist fantasies—regularly appear in the art of the 1990s. Not surprisingly, the glossy, hyperreal surfaces of digital photography became more prominent at the end of the decade. But equally significant is the emphasis many artists placed on the handling of material—drawing, carving, painting, printing, taping, stitching, scraping—suggesting a determination not to surrender art to industrial and technological manufacture.

Art is not a contest between media, however; more striking are the subtle responses to digital technologies that artists made from within conventional media. Some artists began using the computer screen as a sketch pad, using software in the stages prior to the traditional hand production of a painting. Others adopted layered and 'cut and paste' compositional techniques, acknowledging the prevalence of a Photoshop mentality even if the software wasn't actually used. Accepting the manipulability of the image and the centrality of image reproduction to 1990s culture, artists moved beyond the flatbed effect of the printing plate—which had been identified in the 1960s as a hallmark of postmodernism—to the new fields of the scanner, the screen and the inkjet printer.

This fascination with seams, surfaces and layers echoes the debate over identity. Just as images were now seen as manipulated composites, so too was subjectivity. Setting aside the notion of integrated wholes, artists focused on grafting images together, on staged scenes and on the ways that incongruities are melded into a smooth surfaces. In this way, the production of art works became a metaphor for perceptions of Australian history and identity as a patchwork. Processing and editing became the dominant metaphors for artistic practice. And likewise, in another echo of media culture, artists began conceiving of their oeuvres in terms of suites, series and campaigns. Groups of works were named and packaged, not in a cynical marketing sense, but in recognition of the way that the strategic circulation of an image laid the foundation of its authority. And again, given the repeated 'packaging' of Australian identity in the 1990s, the ways in which art works were made echoed perceptions of the nation.

The absence of any governing '-ism' did not mean that Australian artists had lost sight o the dominant styles of twentieth-century art—in particular, those styles and media that lent themselves to an assessment of a culture of fragmentary symbols and surfaces: pop art, cinema, surrealism, photorealism, collage and realism. In the 1980s, such citations of past styles were undertaken in a spirit of ironic pastiche. By the 1990s, artists were concerned to establish a repertoire of tactics that would allow them to respond more directly to the contemporary pressures of technology, globalisation and cultural conservatism. Most of these tactics assume that an art work's meaning arose in a non-linear fashion. Meanings weren't baldly stated or thought to be naturally comprehended. Instead, meanings arose out of lateral connections and associative leaps. This reinforced a sense of difference within Australian identity: local languages and subcultural symbols challenged viewers to encounter new cultures. In addition, the art works suggested that understanding culture meant understanding how its symbols were put together and the kinds of work necessary to decode them.

A striking characteristic of the works in the Vizard Foundation Collection is their determination to communicate; or even better, to both speak and speak about speaking. If there are allusions to the specialised languages of art, or to the languages of less familiar cultures and contexts, these are intended to invite rather than to obstruct a viewer's engagement with them. Combining multiple languages, the art works allow viewers to adopt or rehearse a variety of positions: 'What would it be like to be ...?', 'What would Australia be like if ...?'

If artists felt somewhat defensive, given the relative lack of attention paid to their work outside specialist circles, there was no denying that the contemporary art scene was expanding in the 1990s. At the start of the new millennium, there were 370 visual art and crafts courses on offer at universities; 514 commercial art galleries sold $218 million of art; and there were at least 21 000 visual arts and crafts professionals in the country.3 Auction houses moved into the contemporary art market, art schools offered Master's degrees and and doctorates, and artists found themselves reflecting increasingly on what it meant to be a professional.

For many, this was a form of institutionalisation that ran counter to the tradition of the artist as outsider. Indeed, it is a measure of the changing professional context that, in 2002, the value added to the GDP by visual arts and crafts was $160 million.4 The sum itself is substantial; but, more to the point, no one would have thought to argue for the value of art in such pragmatic terms at the beginning of the 1990s. Arts administration was caught up in the rise of neo-liberalism, with business models and corporate sector strategies entering the arts sphere. Once again, artists had to ask whether they should fall back on the avant-garde rhetoric of autonomy, or develop strategies that would allow them to adapt to a new environment without surrendering their ability to challenge it when necessary.

One significant response was to turn professionalism into self-management. Artists ran exhibition spaces, produced catalogues and journals, and staged exhibitions and established websites. Significantly, such activities focused on networks and relationships as well as art. Artist-run spaces became something more than an initial step on a career path. Artists became cultural brokers, connecting with writers, designers, sponsors and curators in Australia and around the world. With this emphasis on ideas and relationships, traditional geographies dissolved: an artist in Melbourne was just as likely to work with another in Hong Kong as in Sydney; generational divides loosened, with established and emerging artists involved in joint exhibitions. With this came a recognition that success did not arrive out of the blue (as the many highly publicised art prizes of the decade implied); rather, it was something built out of process and practice. A positive side to the emphasis on professional practice has been the way in which artists have combined the development of a career profile with the establishment of grass roots infrastructure. While the resources available to contemporary artists were still tenuous, the end of the 1990s seemed light years away from the early 1980s, when a photocopier was the height of technology. On the negative side, an increasing emphasis on tertiary credentials left many artists concerned at the way in which state education policies shaped the status of their profession. Because they were operating within what can now be termed the 'culture industry', artists returned once more to the question of whom art was for. The primary audience for artist-run spaces is other artists. But a successful artist-run space acts as a feeder for the commercial gallery sector. An art school exists to train artists but must now also answer to federally determined policies on research quotas and curriculum standards. In taking control of a segment of the arts industry—whether in an Indigenous arts cooperative or an inner city art space—artists had to negotiate certain risks (elitism or assimilation) in order to achieve freedom to move in their own direction. But, as the old saying goes, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance: the opportunities offered by an increasingly professionalised art world were to be balanced by increased awareness of the policy frameworks within which artists operated.

At its outset, the Vizard Foundation Collection responded to artists' suggestions that collecting art would be the best way of supporting them. If the question were asked now, artists might nominate infrastructure, marketing and the acquisition of business skills as a new form of support, reflecting a remarkable professionalisation over the course of a decade. This is not to suggest that the defining quality of the art of the 1990s was the development of a corporate mindset. All the same, the attention artists gave to the way they defined and organised themselves was significant.

Australian artists of the 1990s operated in ways that were distinct from the previous decade, although many strategies had their origins in the 1980s. Artists were more cosmopolitan; they were more likely to travel, work and exhibit overseas. But international activities were also of a different scale. Artists were more likely to work at the lower and middle orders of art scenes around the world, developing projects and establishing networks rather than seeking star status. And, most significantly, they moved beyond the traditional London–Paris–New York axis, preferring instead to work in Asia or in the regions of Europe rather than centres. Artists were more professional; they were more likely to accept some of the institutional aspects of the art scene—the market, the press, the public sector, the museum—as part of their environment.

Artists of the 1990s were more involved in public discourses; they did not seek to establish themselves as 'public intellectuals' or as the 'conscience' of the nation, but neither were they locked in narrow aesthetic debates. In their persistent address to the history and formation of Australian identity, artists remained uncooperative: they did not passively reflect Australian identity, nor did they seek an official status as a kind of poet laureate to the nation. They did not claim an authoritative position; they were neither seers nor pundits. Instead, artists in the 1990s adopted the role of the commentator, issuing provocative reflections on the current version of nationhood.

Above all, Australian artists of the 1990s were ambitious, as the work discussed elsewhere in this book shows. This ambition is especially evident in the agendas that the artists set: reconciliation, globalisation, the environment, national and personal politics are all addressed. The art is not laden with issues merely because academics and critics were involved in its selection. The issues are often there because the artists of the 1990s responded so effectively to the enormous burden of ideas inherited from the decades immediately prior. The social, intellectual and political upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s forced artists—among many others, of course—to address a seemingly impossible set of challenges. They were to throw wide open the idea of identity, abandon the security of an anchorage to tradition and to produce images both striking and analytical, even as the image itself became the centre of a tug of war between sundry technologies and ideologies. In doing so, they have made Australian contemporary culture stronger, more inclusive and more expansive, even if the comfort of '-isms' is now denied to us.

  1. In the 1990s, the median income of the Australian visual artist actually dropped, from $18 000 per annum in 1986 to $15 300 in 1996 (Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts, Report of the contemporary visual arts and craft inquiry, Commonwealth of Australia, 2002, p. 59). The very name of the federal government department now responsible for the visual arts gives a remarkable insight into the place of art at the end of the 1990s.
  2. R White, Inventing Australia: images and identity 1688 - 1980, Allen & Undwin, Sydney, 1981, p. viii.
  3. Report of the contemporary visual arts and craft inquiry, pp. 33, 37.
  4. Report of the contemporary visual arts and craft inquiry, pp. 43.

Chris McAuliffe is an art historian, art critic, curator and museum professional. He took a BA (Hons) and MA from the University of Melbourne and a PhD from Harvard University with a dissertation on postmodern theory and the visual arts. Dr McAuliffe taught art history and theory at the University of Melbourne (1988-2000).

From 2000-13 Dr McAuliffe was director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, managing a collection ranging from classical antiquity to contemporary art and an annual exhibition program of Australian and international art. In 2008, with the support of philanthropist Basil Sellers, he established the Basil Sellers Art Prize, one of the richest art prizes in Australia. He has served on numerous boards and committees within the arts and museum sectors, including the Council of the National Gallery of Victoria, the Australian pavilion of the Venice Biennale, Arts Victoria and the Vic Urban public art panel.

Exhibitions curated by Dr McAuliffe include We who love: The Nolan slates (University of Queensland Art Museum, 2016), America: Painting a Nation (Art Gallery of NSW, 2013), Game On: Art and Sport (Ian Potter Museum of Art, 2006) and See Here Now: the Vizard Foundation Collection (Ian Potter Museum of Art, 2003).

Dr McAuliffe has published numerous articles on Australian and international art, with a focus on artists' engagement with vernacular and popular culture, including suburbia, sport, punk and rock music. Principle publications include Jon Cattapan: Possible Histories (Melbourne University Publishing, 2008), Linda Marrinon: Let Her Try (Thames and Hudson, 2007) and Art and Suburbia (Craftsman House, 1996). He is currently a research partner in the ARC-funded project 'Fringe to Famous' which explores the passage from underground to mainstream in Australian cultural industries.