Contraband by Taryn Simon
Contraband comprises 1075 photographs taken at US customs and the United States Postal Service’s international mail facility at JFK Airport in New York. American photographer Taryn Simon talked her way in to catalogue the suspicious or contraband items seized from passengers and packages over a seven-day period.

A dead bird, wings strung up, beak agape, lies on a blue-and-red lined envelope. Alongside this, images of similar oddities: butterflies, bongs, animal bones, dried foods, semiautomatic weapons, alcohol and cigarettes.

In this liminal space, the bird and the durries, a duck tongue and a counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbag are all equal, and Simon records each on clear white backgrounds with the same unblinking precision.

This show has been exhibited all over the world, but it makes more sense here in Australia than anywhere else, where customs authorities have a military-like presence at airports, and reality show Border Security has a loyal following.

Contraband is at Anna Schwartz Gallery until May 18.


Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor
At age 11, Alexander Calder gave his parents two sculptures for Christmas, little sheets of brass bent cleverly into caricatures of a dog and a duck. They could’ve come from any point in the late artist’s career – like in 1950, when he was 52 and created the sheetmetal sculpture Performing Seal, an abstract form given animal life; or in 1972, aged 74, when he did the same for a flamingo.

Calder’s work gives life to inanimate material in striking ways in all of the 90+ pieces in Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor, a new retrospective at the NGV. Born in Lawnton, Pennsylvania, Calder was an abstract artist best known for inventing the mobile, and for his huge public sculptures dotted all over the world. For Calder, his work was entirely abstract and free of meaning, its purpose to be beautiful and to dramatically break space.

Alongside oil paintings and ink drawings, there are plenty of mobiles in here – large, hanging structures of metal, wire and paint, swaying gently, collaborating with gravity and air. I had a strong urge to step up to them and make them spin, as Calder would’ve done. There’s a strong continuity right through the show, from childhood to old age, and from line drawings to paintings to sculpture, with the mobiles looking like 3D ink drawings suspended in the air.

Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor is at NGV until August 4.


The Doing by Kirsty Budge
The end of a long-term relationship informed Kirsty Budge’s The Doing, a reflective show of 11 paintings about reimagining the self, and getting on with it.

Budge quotes Amy Poehler in her artist statement: “You do it because the doing of it is the thing … The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.” Budge’s new home and studio, a light-filled Toorak apartment, appears in many of the paintings. It’s a self-determined space in which she can take control, much like the work itself.

Each piece forms part of a patchwork adding up to a portrait of Budge’s identity. Structurally, they recall comic books, complete with captions and inset panels.

Alongside self-portraits, there are several references to cult comedies (including Nighty Night and Best in Show), modernist art (Manet’s Olympia) and punk rock (Viv Albertine from British punk band the Slits). A pot plant, which gallerist Daine Singer tells me is the other party in Budge’s longest-ever relationship, is given star treatment.

The Doing is at Daine Singer until May 11.


Remain by Hoda Afshar
Hoda Afshar’s portraits of asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island may be familiar. Her shot of Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist and award-winning author of No Friend But the Mountains, won the 2018 Bowness photography prize. And if your commute takes you past The Substation in Newport, they’ll soon be even more familiar. This exhibition of six of Afshar’s images takes place on the 2.4-metre-high billboards outside it, right by the train tracks.

The portrait of Boochani captures a gaunt, ghostly figure standing in front of an open flame. Boochani wrote in The Saturday Paper in November that the image scares him. “I do not see myself in this picture,” he said. “I only see a refugee, someone whose identity has been taken from him. Just bare life, standing beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.”

Other refugees pose with other elements: Emad’s features are obscured by falling dirt; Ari braces himself as water is poured over his head. With the federal election looming, these billboards provide powerful illustrations of the legacies of both major parties’ policies.

Remain is at The Substation until May 5.


Public Meeting by Tom Nicholson
The first thing that caught my eye in Tom Nicholson’s show at ACCA was a single seed in a ziplock bag. It’s taped to the front of a framed card, where text in English and Arabic reads, “I begin here, with this eucalypt.”

This is part of Comparative Monument (Ma’man Allah) (2012-14), a work about the links between Jerusalem and Australia. Seeds have been collected from each of the 69 eucalyptus trees in a cemetery in Jerusalem and placed alongside text and images exploring the connections between the two places.

This crossover of ideas, media and stories is indicative of the rest of this dense and theoretical show, much of which comments on Indigenous relations and history. Nicholson is a major voice in Australian contemporary art, and the work in Public Meeting is about the hidden stories and histories behind visual ideas.

There are big visual gestures, but each work requires a bit of brainwork to decipher. Take the pile of exactly 3520 bricks in the corner of a room. These are the proposed materials for a monument to John Batman’s 1835 treaty with the Wurundjeri people, which inadvertently acknowledged Indigenous sovereignty over the land. Had the treaty been properly recognised by the Crown, we might have a very different history. The monument remains unbuilt.

Gorge Photograph is a series of six charcoal drawings on paper accompanied by a text-heavy booklet. Evening Shadows is a collection of copies of the 1880 painting of the same name by Henry James Johnstone, the most copied painting in Australia, juxtaposed with text explaining another significant and overlooked moment in colonial history. The ideas take some unpacking, but once they’re out, it’s a complex and rewarding tangle.

Public Meeting is at ACCA until June 16.