Joel Sherwood Spring was announced as the winner of the churchie emerging art prize 2023 at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) on Friday night. The Sydney-based Wiradjuri artist took home the $15,000 non-acquisitive cash prize donated by long standing prize money sponsor, BSPN Architecture.


Spring’s video, Diggermode (2022), was selected as the Overall Prize winner by judge Tara McDowell, Associate Professor and Director of Curatorial Studies at Monash University, Melbourne. Spring’s work is on display in the finalists’ exhibition at the IMA alongside works by twelve other finalists from across Australia.


Tracing the implications of extraction and storage, the work addresses the social and environmental ethics of digital technology in constructing, storing, and sharing images, whether in surveillance databases, in museum archives, or online.


Spring has trained artificial intelligence (AI) to create landscapes in the style of acclaimed Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira being torn apart by mining machinery, and to answer questions such as “Who’s your Mob?”.


‘Joel Sherwood Spring’s work is a visually sophisticated investigation into the materiality of technology, through the lens of a constant concern for Country’, McDowell said. ‘Over its almost 23-minute running time, Diggermode traverses the ongoing violences of colonial extractions such as mining and concerns around data.’


‘In this ambitious, layered, and riveting work, Spring asks hard and timely questions about the difficulty of representing oneself within a system designed to control that very representation.’


Based on Gadigal/Wangal Country, Spring’s work considers the environmental damage caused by new technology and data storage, grounding the possibilities of ‘the cloud’ and AI in the context of ongoing colonisation.


‘Can you bring an AI into recognition of itself as being made up of lithium extracted from Noongar Boodja?’, Spring asked. ‘Why is it more socially acceptable to think that an AI has feelings and thoughts than a tree?’


Diggermode asks how materials are implicated in the ways we imagine the world; how we might engage with materials differently if we think about their provenance, where they’re extracted from, and what that means going forward.’


In addition to the overall prize, the Special Commendation Prize of $5,000, sponsored by Fardoulys Constructions, was awarded to Gamillaraay artist Debbie Taylor Worley, and two Sam Whiteley Highly Commended Memorial Prizes of $1,000, sponsored by Madison Cleaning Services, were awarded to Melbourne-based Alrey Batol and Sydney-based Luke Brennan.


Debbie Taylor Worley’s canvas works have been soaked in creeks on her ancestors’ Country, then painted with pigments, ochres, muds, and charcoal from recent bushfires. ‘These six works are beautiful responses to Country, which are also made with Country, a recognition of the knowledge and memories held in creeks and trees’, said McDowell.


Alrey Batol’s DIY cookers and heaters have been created out of recycled and home-sourced materials. Fashioned from clay, crushed glass, homemade cement, and olive tins, the judge described the Phillippines-born artist’s work as ‘humble and playful assemblages that are formally compelling even as they’re fashioned from cast-off, often decaying materials’. One of Batol’s six fully-functional sculptures has been placed in the gallery’s outdoor courtyard, and will be lit every Saturday during the exhibition.


Luke Brennan‘s large-scale oil paintings are densely layered and distressed. Inspired by the processes of deterioration and growth that occur in the natural world, the artist repeats cycles of creation and reduction on the canvas. McDowell described the artist’s abstract paintings as ‘skillfully made and mesmerising to behold, with surfaces that oscillate between feeling microscopic and lunar, sublime and degraded’.


Now in its 36th year, ‘the churchie’ has become one of Australia’s leading prizes for emerging artists, offering a $25,000 prize pool thanks to generous sponsors. It is renowned for platforming the next wave of contemporary Australian artists.


The prize winners were selected from thirteen finalists whose artworks are now on display at the IMA. These artists—whose works span painting, sculpture, video, drawing, printmaking, and photography—were selected from almost 400 entries.


Curated by Sebastian Henry-Jones, curator at West Space, Melbourne, the exhibition provides a survey of the diverse work being created by early-career artists across the country, and examines the theme of context.

Henry-Jones said, ‘All of the artists in the show are linked to the cultural, social, and historic conditions of their lives on this continent, and portray their varied subjects in such rich and critical ways. It’s so exciting to work with artists of this calibre at this early point in their careers.’

Of overall winner Joel Sherwood Spring, Henry-Jones said: ‘It represents some of the most interesting artistic research coming out of Australia and its context today. Joel’s work Diggermode is the fullest articulation of this research, and the multitude of ideas of which it is comprised.’



The 2023 finalists are Alrey Batol, Amanda Bennetts, Dylan Bolger, Luke Brennan, Matthew Brown, Raf McDonald, Corben Mudjandi, Melody Paloma, Roberta Joy Rich, Joel Sherwood Spring, Jess Tan, Debbie Taylor Worley, and Ash Tower.


Gallery visitors are invited to cast their vote in the $3,000 People’s Choice Award, sponsored by Madison Cleaning Services, to be awarded at the conclusion of the exhibition. One lucky voter will win a two-night stay courtesy of Spicers Retreats.


the churchie emerging art prize 2023 is on view at the IMA until 19 August 2023. The IMA is open Tuesday–Saturday, 10am–5pm. Admission is always free.