When co-curators Johan Lundt and Aileen Burns mined the Institute of Modern Art’s archives, they found an access point to a pivotal time in Brisbane’s material and political history in the 1986 exhibit Recession Art and Other Strategies. That show was created at time when there was very little market for Australian art, and the artists featured all made works within an economy of means: from basic materials and in a modular way. That way, if they sold their work in Australia or abroad, it could be packed down and shipped off easily. ... IMA’s current show, Material Politics, takes its inspiration from Recession Art to explore how the last three decades of socioeconomic growth, rapid gentrification, increased mobility, the rise of digital technology, and lasting colonial legacies have continued to impact the materials used in Australian art. This collection of new and commissioned works emphasize the way artists use everyday materials to articulate their inherent politics.
In “Foundations II” (2017) by Quandamooka artist Megan Cope from North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah), oyster shells are mounted on cast concrete and arranged in a 10×10 grid on the gallery floor. Traditionally, oyster shells are used to make middens — mounds of discarded refuse that mark human settlements for many First Nation groups. The concrete references the drudging and sand mining on Stradbroke Island that has led to the removal of many of these middens, but here, each shell stands upright on its cement block as if in defiance. These materials represent the destruction of significant heritage site and express the politics of extraction and displacement. Cope subverts this common modernist aesthetic (the grid) by using it to project colonial violence on the landscape.
The curators of Material Politics didn’t need to look back, although I understand the impulse to excavate the past to feed the present. This exhibit became refracted through the access point of 1986: Timely political issues placed in a contemporary context take on different resonances today, and artists’ materials aren’t driven by economic constraints as much as they bring to life the politics they assert.