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Anne MacDonald studied at the Tasmanian School of Art, completing a Master of Fine Art in 1983. The following year she began lecturing at the University of Tasmania where she currently coordinates the Honours and Postgraduate Coursework programs at the Tasmanian College of the Arts.

MacDonald has mounted nineteen solo exhibitions and participated in over one hundred curated, survey and museum exhibitions. Her work is represented in major collections of contemporary art including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. She has been awarded eight Australia Council grants including new work grants and residencies in Paris and Barcelona, and is the recipient of numerous Arts Tasmania and University of Tasmania research grants.  

For over three decades MacDonald has traversed the vanitas still life genre, with the aim of extending historical approaches by exploring the symbolic potential of objects within a contemporary cultural context. The photographic still life builds on the long history of vanitas imagery in art, and also brings with it the additional association of the photograph as memento mori. Photography has a unique connection with still life and death, due to its ability to arrest time and literally still life. Photographs also contain a realisation of loss by recording a past moment that no longer exists. They are a melancholic reminder of time’s inexorable passing. MacDonald draws on these associations to create elegiac metaphors for the ephemerality and mutability of existence.

MacDonald’s sources are literary as well as art historical and social. Miss Havisham’s ruined wedding cake in Charles Dicken’s novel Great Expectations is referenced in MacDonald’s large-scale photographic works Vanitas and Wedding Cake 1995.

MacDonald continued her investigation of the themes of entropy and decay when photographing Victorian floral grave decorations for her installation Ornament 2008. In this work she considers how funerary ornaments are like photographs, in that they still life, yet eventually fall prey to time and slowly disintegrate, becoming premonitions of death rather than evocations of eternal life.

MacDonald’s interest in floral ornamentation is related to a long-term fascination with funerary bouquets and wreaths. In Lily 1995 and Petal 2000, she photographed blooming and withering flowers and isolated petals; capturing the fragile evanescence of flowers as a poignant symbol of mortality. 

Photographing petals, MacDonald saw visual links to fabric as well as flesh; rose and iris petals displayed creases and folds, gladioli and lilies draped and unfurled, and the delicately crumpled petals of newly opened poppies reminded her of crushed silk. She realised her petal photographs referenced the funerary bouquet as well as the funeral shroud, and ultimately the corpse. This led to the creation of Annunciation 1994-5, Cloth 2004 and Silk 2005-6, in which draped, stitched, stained and tattered silks form another metaphor for the body and mortality.

The experience of motherhood focussed MacDonald’s interest on the ephemerality of human existence. Unlike the slowly evolving adult, children change rapidly, almost from week to week. For MacDonald the brevity and unrepeatability of childhood is a powerful memento mori. Her symbolic language shifted from traditional still life tropes such as flowers and silk to metaphors drawn from childhood.

In Pink 2011, MacDonald examined the abundance of the colour pink within the consumer culture of girl’s toys. Created as accessories to children’s fantasies and imaginative play, the role of children’s toys extends beyond mere ornament and artifice to become powerful accoutrements to the transitory and impressionable childhood world. Chosen for their symbolic references to youth, femininity, cuteness and sweetness, MacDonald's pink toys raise questions about monochromatic, one-dimensional and type cast representations of femininity.

MacDonald investigated children’s birthday parties as symbols of loss and impermanence in Party 2013. Children's parties are important social rituals, and on the surface of things, joyous and festive celebrations of life. However, on another level, they are elegiac indicators of time’s inexorable passing. In Party, MacDonald chose to focus on the aftermath of the child’s birthday banquet, where the tumultuous chaos and exuberance of the day is replaced by the dull realisation that another passing birthday is over and yet another year of childhood gone.

Children’s birthday parties focus heavily on sugar-laden treats. This led to MacDonald’s current project Sugar, in which she continues her exploration of childhood, consumption and mortality. Sugar first appeared as a symbol of luxury in 16C desert and confectionary still life paintings. No longer a luxury, sugar is ubiquitous in food and has been found to be addictive, with the toxic effects of high sugar consumption recently gaining wide media attention. It is an irony that we celebrate each birthday with sugary cakes and sweets that potentially hasten life's passing. Sugar highlights the excessive amount of sugar in children's diets today, which despite its adverse health effects, is still promoted as a reward or celebratory treat.