Fifteen futures: part 1

We always look to the future with a sense of wonder, ambition, hope and fear. Impossible to capture, the future is elusive and unfathomable. Any attempts to represent it in the present become immediately dated.

At this moment we are collectively reckoning with a state of radical uncertainty about what our future holds. In this rapidly changing world, Art Gallery of NSW staff have responded to 15 works in the collection that explore predictions and possibilities, visions of utopias and dystopias, science fictions and imminent realities.

Whether it is the comedy of the outdated in past projections, or the anxieties and hopes about what is around the corner, these works compel us to think about the future and the passing of time.

Anna-Bella Papp

Anna-Bella Papp, Untitled (artist residency) from the series Plans for an unused land 2018. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mollie Douglas Bequest Fund 2019. © Anna-Bella Papp

Lisa Catt, assistant curator, international art

Anna-Bella Papp works from the series Plans for an unused land  2018

Lately, I have been thinking about what it means to make a plan. Amid all this chaos, it feels near impossible to look to something let alone look forward to anything. I find this unsettling. Is there still possibility in extreme uncertainty? What is to be made of fragile thoughts in a fragile world?

The ceramic sculptures of Anna-Bella Papp reassure me. The 11 sculptures from her series Plans for an unused land were acquired for the Gallery’s collection last year. Made from unglazed clay, the works depict a sequence of landscapes that read like architectural plans. These pictures are in fact part of a planning process, with each sculpture putting forward a proposal for the future. The artist is set to inherit a plot of land in Romania, and on each tablet, she documents what she might do with this land. Could she start an artist residency? Grow a field of rhubarb? Build a wind farm? She puts her hands and imagination to work, drafting her future in clay, trying to find its possible shapes.


Anna-Bella Papp

Anna-Bella Papp,
Untitled (rhubarb field) from the series Plans for an unused land 2018. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mollie Douglas Bequest Fund 2019. © Anna-Bella Papp

Anna-Bella Papp

Anna-Bella Papp Untitled (wind farm) from the series Plans for an unused land 2018. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Mollie Douglas Bequest Fund 2019. © Anna-Bella Papp

These sculptures may look compact and modest, but they are full of speculation. They are a collection of drifting ideas that become more than the sum of their parts. Each contains a line of thought that extends far into discursive and imaginative places, clearing space for possibility.

And here is where the reassurance lies. There is clarity to be found in searching for the edges and outlines of what’s ahead. There are always possibilities. The picture does eventually appear.

Laurie Nelson Mungatopi

Laurie Nelson Mungatopi, Bob Apuatimi, Jack Yarunga, Don Burakmadjua, Charlie Kwangdini, Tiwi artist, Pukumani grave posts 1958. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of Dr Stuart Scougall 1959. © The Artists’ Estates, courtesy Jilamara Arts. Licensed by Copyright Agency

Erin Vink, assistant curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

Laurie Nelson Mungatopi, Bob Apuatimi, Jack Yarunga, Don Burakmadjua, Charlie Kwangdini, Tiwi artist, Pukumani grave posts 1958

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a different sense of time, place and space. Our art holds connections between stories, language, landscape, songlines, clan systems and nations. Underpinning our material culture is the continuity of rich histories of Indigenous knowledges. Because of this unique way of knowing, it is impossible to look to the future without considering the past.

The Pukumani grave posts by Laurie Nelson Mungatopi, Bob One Apuatimi, Jack Yarung, Don Burakmadjua, Charlie Quiet Kwangdini and a Tiwi artist are often celebrated as the very first commission of Aboriginal art undertaken by one of Australia’s state galleries. It was a defining moment in Australian art, when galleries began to move away from viewing Indigenous cultural material through an ethnographic lens. Yet the real success story here was that these six Tiwi artists, in knowing their culture was at immediate risk, had the foresight to work with a collecting institution to preserve their culture for future Tiwi generations. In their original context, funerary tutini are left outside by graves to decay. The creators of the Pukumani grave posts changed aspects of their design to make the poles suitable for a long life of display.

Our Ancestors responded to the threats of Christianity, mining and colonialism, reacting to a rapidly changing world much like we are today. That we can say we come from the oldest living culture on earth is due only to our Ancestors’ adaptability. While the future is an unknown, I feel confident our knowledge-holders can move through this uncertainty by taking cues from our Old People.

Charles Mottram

Charles Mottram, after John Martin, The great day of his wrath 1857. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Parramore Purchase Fund 2009

Anne Gérard-Austin, assistant curator, international art

Charles Mottram The great day of his wrath 1857

I think I stopped watching apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster movies after suffering in silence through Armageddon (or was it Independence Day?). I was left unmoved by a ludicrous, sensational and sickly-sweet drama, and sceptical that a handful of supermen would save me and the planet from disaster.

By contrast, I am awed John Martin’s dystopian, dramatic scenes of apocalyptic woe and biblical catastrophe. The artist’s ability to translate human emotions is so powerful that, many years since the works were made, I am left with an immediate sense of urgency and imminent danger.

The great day of his wrath 1851–53, for instance, which presents Martin’s most cataclysmic vision of biblical destruction, features an entire city being torn up and thrown into the abyss, with groups of helpless figures tumbling towards oblivion. Martin successfully anticipates the manipulative effects of cinema in this print, with its vertiginous viewpoint and the blood-red glow which casts an uncanny light over the scene. His alluring prints never flirt with the burlesque, despite being louder than the noisiest disaster movie.

The spectacle of the apocalypse is embedded in the narrative of popular culture, which makes Martin a timely, even fashionable, artist. His imaginative prints cannot predict with certainty an imminent post-apocalyptic future. But, when we reflect upon humankind’s ruinous impact on the earth, Martin’s prints do speak to our present and resonate with our collective anxiety about what we and our planet will come to.

Katthy Cavaliere
Katthy Cavaliere

Katthy Cavaliere, conceal 1996. National Art Archive | Art Gallery of New South Wales. Katthy Cavaliere archive, gift of the estate of Katthy Cavaliere 2016. © Katthy Cavaliere Estate

Steven Miller, head of library services

Katthy Cavaliere conceal 1996 

When she was diagnosed with cancer, my eldest sister asked me if I would take her diaries. She had begun writing them when pregnant with her first child and continued up to the time of her death nearly 40 years later. She had always been a good writer, but a busy life and four children left little time for developing this talent, apart from what she poured, uncensored, each evening into these little volumes. I was firmly instructed: ‘don’t let them be read while emotions are still raw’.

How to judge the curing of emotions? Four years on, I wish that those diaries had been encased in resin, never to be read again, like the ones in Katthy Cavaliere’s conceal. Keeping a journal can be therapeutic, a place to record life with all its disappointments and asperities. But there is the risk that someone will read what is written and be deeply hurt by it. Cavaliere saved herself, and those she loved, by embalming hers. ‘Private stories publicly untold’ in a moment of perpetual stasis.

It was a defiant statement. As an archivist, I appreciate how the past can help make sense of the present and future. A popular TV program suggests that ‘who do you think you are?’ can be revealed in the archive. Cavaliere’s conceal challenges with the more important question ‘what do you want to be?’ So, burn those diaries or, even better, turn them into works of art, if in any way they become a barrier to imagining a different future.

Yin Cao, curator, Chinese art

Yang Yongliang Infinite landscape 2011 

Whenever I watch Yang Yongliang’s video, Infinite landscape, I think of the first two sentences in the famous poem Spring gaze by Du Fu (712–70 CE): ‘The country shattered, mountains and rivers remain. Spring in the city – grasses and trees are dense’. Du Fu wrote this poem after he witnessed the decline of the Tang dynasty’s capital city Chang’an amid sustained rebel attacks. As sad as it was, one still had hope because nature endures.

At a glance, Yang’s work resembles a traditional Chinese landscape ink painting depicting soaring mountainous scenery. But closer examination reveals that the mountains are composed of skyscrapers, and rivers are substituted with highways, bridges and cable cars. Grass and trees are absent. Instead, cranes occupy the summits of the hills, while workers are busy with construction projects in the foreground. A cacophony of motor sounds replaces birdsong. Vehicles come and go as a giant airship plies the skies over the terrain. And if you are patient enough to watch the whole seven minutes, you may witness a big explosion at the end.

In explaining his creative motivation, Yang said: ‘Urban development both enriches and imprisons city life at the same time … Ancient Chinese artists paint landscapes in order to praise nature, but Infinite landscape states my questioning of modern life’.

As Yang’s video vividly illustrates, global modernisation has created a world where we have left no part of nature untouched. And in altering the world for our comfort and gain, paradoxically we put our very existence at risk.

Yang Yongliang, Infinite landscape 2011. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Asian Collection Benefactors Fund 2011. © Yang Yongliang