Sydney’s own festival of underground art returns to the city this weekend.

Underbelly Arts was unveiled back in 2007 to reveal our art scene’s more experimental, adventurous and probing side. Featuring a cohort of local emerging talent, previous versions have been described as a sort of antithesis to the Sydney Biennale, with each festival offering a window view into more of the raw, but meticulous and thoughtful artistic process.

Hosted this year in and around the grounds of the National Art School in Darlinghurst, the festival features 21 new projects developed by 116 artists from around the country. Included are pieces created within a public lab program, which worked to divulge the hidden endeavours of exhibiting artists – exposing their lines of thought, and tracing ideation through to exhibition.

Artists for the festival were selected via application – and the flair in each of the fun, interactive, and inquisitive works makes it all well worth perusing. Here are our top picks.

Merch Stand
Collectively, artists Rebecca Gallo and Connie Anthes are Make or Break – a Sydney-based live art project. The pair is interested in exploring artistic labour against market value and art as a curious commodity, as well as the role of audiences and collectors. Previous pieces have included an art-making relay race working only from materials donated by the audience, and another project centred on circulating fictional currencies.

For Underbelly, Gallo and Anthes have spun the concept of theme park merchandise or the museum gift shop on its head, asking if it’s possible to commercialise an artist’s work by offshooting memorabilia. They worked alongside each of the artists within the Underbelly program to produce 988 pieces of limited-edition merchandise, which will be pedalled throughout the festival grounds. Don’t expect to find postcards or key rings – there’ll be bronze pickle forks, 3D printed candles, baby suits, wrist cushions, and other obscure and wonderful items. Proceeds will be shared among the festival artists.

A Shrine for the Horse Headed God of Safe Travels and A Shrine for the Pig Headed God of Celebration
Jason Phu’s works demand attention – and he is an Australian artist on the rise. In 2015, he won the prestigious Sulman Prize with a piece titled I was at yum cha when in rolled the three severed heads of Buddha: Fear, Malice and Death. He’s also been a finalist in the Archibald two years in a row, and this year is a finalist in the NSW Visual Arts Emerging Fellowship.

Phu’s work to date has focused on mixed cultural identities and the translation and mistranslation of culture, drawing from his own Chinese, Vietnamese and Australian roots.

His vibrant, pulsating multimedia installations at Underbelly are fictional gods, made up to symbolise the underrepresented Chinese Australian diaspora, a culture now distinct and evolved from its mainland China origins. During the festival, Phu will bring the shrines to life with a live calligraphy performance using mops.

On the Bundian Way
A part of the Underbelly Lab program, On the Bundian Way is the third exploratory piece created by Fugitive Moments – a collaborative project from Sydney artists Tristan Deratz and Barnaby Lewer. As digital producer at MCA, Deratz is interested in the emotional possibilities of digital technologies.

Lewer’s MA of culture, criticism and curation from Central Saint Martins has seen him work through projects that probe the intersection of artistic process, critical theories, and history.

True to the Underbelly premise, On the Bundian Way is as much about the process of art making as it is about the resulting exhibition. Deratz and Lewer led six artists and thinkers from various fields to walk sections of the Bundian Way – a 365-kilometre track following an ancient Aboriginal walking trail near Eden on the NSW south coast.

Tracing 40,000 years of human life, movement, commerce and war, the project asks if history is able to be revised and if it can be more fluid and malleable in order to open possibilities for the future. Images from the walk reveal the bush’s mottled past – ochre-coloured rock blends with emerald leaves, white branches, and yellow sandstone.

Underbelly Arts is at the National Art School on October 7–8, with an opening night event on October 6 that will feature a number of performance pieces from local artists.

underbellyarts.com.au