Interconnecting three of Australia’s key arts institutions, The National: New Australian Art has opened at Carriageworks, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). It’s the inaugural instalment of a series set to run biannually over the next six years. The first one features painting, video, sculpture, installation, drawing and performances from 48 artists.

Each location has its own tone and atmosphere, reflecting the individual museums’ broader ideologies. At Carriageworks, artists explore the concept of hybrid identity. At AGNSW, artworks consider the forces of social change; while at the MCA, common elements include conflicts of political power and our relationship to society.

Distinct from the Sydney Biennale and the city’s other multi-venue art events, the idea is to promote and endorse Australian art and artists. Maybe more emblematically too, The National hopes to ignite new conversation on contemporary nationhood, and the anxieties of identity, real or imagined, through the eyes of artists.

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While each gallery’s excerpt of the exhibition is worth seeing in its entirety, here are just a few standout pieces not to be missed.

Ghosts by Alex Gawronksi

To weave a common thread between the three venues, Sydney-based artist Alex Gawronski has forged life-sized imitations of familiar architectural elements from each of the three museums. Called Ghosts, the series is one of the more surprising elements of the whole exhibition. Gawronski’s sculptures are almost like a mysterious portal or transport between them.

At Carriageworks you’ll see a three-quarter scale version of the art deco entrance to the MCA (a piece titled Portal), while an imitation of six of Carriageworks’ heritage-listed, cross-barred industrial columns appear in the foyer of AGNSW (Threshold). A concrete grid ceiling, identical to AGNSW’s, emerges in one of the exhibition passageways at the MCA (Overheard).

At Carriageworks, AGNSW, and MCA.

Changing Courses by Keg de Souza

The walls of Keg de Souza’s structure are built from vacuum-sealed storage bags featuring dehydrated native and introduced species, fast food, “superfood”, and “sort-of” food from a range of migrant cultures. As you step inside you’ll notice lemon myrtle and kangaroo grass, musk sticks, tea, Twisties, Weet-Bix, white quinoa, goji berries and spirulina pills. The artist is interested in the displacement of people and cultural practices as a result of development. Changing Courses reflects on the evolving food culture of Sydney.

Over the course of The National exhibition, de Souza’s cube-shaped tent will play host to three conversations on food, agriculture and foraging, covering Indigenous food culture, edible weeds, and food affordability.

At the Art Gallery of NSW. Events are free, but bookings are essential.

All I Have Are Dreams of You by Claudia Nicholson

Sydney-based artist Claudia Nicholson’s ephemeral shrine to the life of Latin singer Selena Quintanilla is made entirely from fine, brilliantly coloured and glittery sawdust. The piece is a pop-culture interpretation of an alfombra de aserrín (sawdust carpet), traditionally made for religious processions on holy days in Mexico and Guatemala.

Somewhat tragically but ceremoniously, the piece will be danced upon and destroyed in a tribute performance by Amanecer, an Andean folklore group, who’ll also perform Quintanilla’s hit songs.

At Carriageworks.

The Cave by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

In a darkened sector of Carriageworks’ vaulted halls is Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s largest installation to date. Working mostly with ceramics, the artist typically sculpts warped and wonderful totum-like figures and statuettes that outrageously defy race, gender and religion. The Cave features three repurposed, oversized versions taken from his recent National Gallery of Australia exhibition, Mud Men. He admits he did “rough them up a bit” for the more industrial-looking Carriageworks. There’s also a towering pyramid of 1.5 tonnes of unfired clay built on site, and an eight-metre-high, bare-all spray paint, neon-lit self-portrait.

“It was interesting to work on something of this scale,” he says, describing the installation process for The Cave. “It was quite funny, I felt like a tradie a lot of the time because we were on scissor lifts with all these machines, packing clay. It was kind of a different process; it was more collaborative.”

At Carriageworks.

The National is at The Art Gallery of NSW until July 16, Carriageworks until June 25, and at the MCA until June 18.