Since completing a Master of Fine Art in 1983 at the University of Tasmania, Anne MacDonald has mounted twenty solo shows 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 project 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 work Wedding Cake 1995.

The cemetery has provided a rich source of imagery for MacDonald’s investigation of the themes of entropy and decay. For her installation Ornament 2008 she photographed Victorian floral grave decorations. 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 Petal 2000, she photographed blooming and withering flowers and isolated petals; capturing the fragile evanescence of flowers as a poignant symbol of mortality.

While 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 day-to-day. For MacDonald, the brevity and unrepeatability of childhood is a powerful memento mori. Her symbolic language shifted from traditional still life tropes to metaphors drawn from childhood.

In Party 2013, MacDonald investigated children’s birthday parties as symbols of loss and impermanence. 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 2016 project Sugar, where she continued 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 treats 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.

During her investigation of childhood and material culture MacDonald also became interested in the way in which gender is constructed and encoded during 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 girlishness, cuteness and sweetness, MacDonald’s photographs of pink toys raise questions about monochromatic, one-dimensional and type cast representations of women.

MacDonald returned to her investigation of gender colour coding in Pink & Blue 2018, questioning why we attribute gender specific colours to baby products. Is this practice merely to increase consumption or does it also reflect a simplistic and arbitrary pink-blue world view of femininity and masculinity?