18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum

Within a contemporary art landscape replete with biennials, José Da Silva sets out to offer us something contemplative. The curatorial concept and selected artists promise an evocation of sanctuary, but this concept is strikingly expansive among the artists’ practices and many of these sanctuaries have been built against the odds.

The notion of a contemporary art biennial as a site of refuge is appealing, if somewhat unexcepted, in our current climate. Biennials generally brim with curatorial concepts and statements, and often feature a near-overwhelming number of artworks. They are also spaces of social and political dialogue where commissioned artworks are presented to the public for the very first time. But perhaps the most memorable draw their visitors into spaces of interiority even as they engage in and contribute to contemporary debate.

This is what Inner Sanctum, the 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, led by curator and museum director José Da Silva, promises to do: create a space that is “reflective and hopeful” and an experience that is “slower” and “less transactional.” Inner Sanctum follows Sebastian Goldspink’s critically acclaimed Free/State, 2022, a vibrant showing of work by renowned and emerging artists put together during the crucible of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic was the context, but not the focus of Goldspink’s exhibition, and something of its aftermath seems to have made its way into Da Silva’s concept. This biennial invites us to experience an array of inner sanctums—created not only by visual artists but by poets and musicians, that have offered sustenance through times of isolation, trial or difficulty. These are sites of making, storytelling, of kinship with friends and community, of communion with place and ancestors, and of reflection on self and history.

The selection of artists in the biennial is textured and multidisciplinary. It “made sense,” Da Silva reflected, to include poets and poetry in any selection seeking to be representative of contemporary artistic practice. Many contemporary visual artists work with poetry and publication, and many poets work visually and with forms of materiality. Among those showing is poet and artist Jazz Money, of Wiradjuri background, who is acclaimed in the literary sphere but who also creates installation, film, and performance. The biennial will see a new video installation by poet Ali Cobby Eckermann to accompany her sparse, metaphoric verse novel She is the Earth, 2023. A Yankunytjatjara woman who was born on Kaurna land in South Australia, and who along with her mother and grandmother experienced the trauma of the Stolen Generations, Eckermann has developed a writing practice that connects her to Country. It is the first time Eckermann has shown her work in an art museum, but creating work for this context has come naturally to her, Da Silva notes.

Some of the artists in the selection are well known through large-scale exhibitions, among them Vivienne Shark LeWitt and Heather B. Swann, who share preoccupations with allegory, myth, and the fabulous. But a good number of the artists are much earlier in their careers, the upcoming biennial a valuable opportunity to see their work. Clara Adolphs works from found photographs to create paintings that are evocative of the mediation of images in culture and memory. Lillian O’Neil works with large scale and expanded photographic collage, reconstructing environments—and again, memory—from obsolescent print materials.

Several of the younger artists also create work in a figurative mode, but this shouldn’t imply anything straightforward or unassuming about their practice. Christopher Bassi, of Meriam and Yupungathi descent, paints with oils in the canonical genres of representation to enquire into and critique the colonial legacy of those very traditions. Photography and painting are expanded and critical mediums among these artists, just as the bodies represented within them are mediated and varied. James Barth creates work, which is interpolated by digital imagery, but also in close conversation with painting. Their past work includes sensual and layered images of light and shade using photo-printing techniques to explore elements of trans-visibility and self-portraiture.

Interest in the body among the artists goes beyond figuration, even visualisation, as also showing are the artists Lawrence English and Tina Stefanou, who each have a background in music and sound. English’s work evokes a “politics of perception” through sound to initiate new relationships with place. He will present a major new commission activating public bells of Adelaide, a place long known as “the city of churches.” As well, he is collaborating with master bell-maker Anton Hasell to make a new bell, expected to weigh 712 kg. Also showing new work is Khaled Sabsabi, widely renowned for immersive video installation, often comprising painting and sculpture, exploring the migrant and exilic experience. His commission, comprising a series of paintings and a video piece, will engage the senses of sight, sound, and smell, returning to a seminal material in Sabsabi’s practice: coffee. Commissions from English and Sabsabi, alongside existing work by Stefanou, promise spaces in the biennial that generate sanctuary through sensorial, bodily invitation.

Artists who have been active for a lifetime as makers, cultural leaders and storytellers, but whose work and knowledge are yet to be celebrated widely, are included. Among these are senior Tiwi woman Kaye Brown, who employs the kayimwagakimi, a comb made from ironwood, to render finely dotted lines on stringybark wood local to the Tiwi (Bathurst & Melville) Islands (north of Darwin). These lines, in modulating tones of ochre paint, convey jilamara, or designs for body paint, from the skin of the body to the skin of the tree. One of the first stages in Da Silva’s biennial research was contemporary practice from the Tiwi Islands; he spent time at Jilamara Arts in Milikapiti. On Melville Island there is a small seasonal window for harvesting stringy bark, Da Silva explains, and the biennial is fortunate to be showing several large barks painted by Kaye which were harvested by her brother, Kenny Brown, also an artist. A Tutini, or Pukumani, pole created by Kaye, central to the Pukumani or funeral ceremony performed today and in parlingarri—long time ago—will be shown.

George Cooley’s luminous paintings of the Coober Pedy region of South Australia, especially the Kanku-Breakaways of the traditional lands of Antakirinja Matuntjara Yankunytjatjara people, are another example of work created by a senior First Nations figure. Cooley, who is a cultural leader across the Umoona community, brings intimate knowledge of Country to his painterly textured landscapes. Cooley has been active in driving the creation of new art centres, particularly the Umoona Art Centre.

Da Silva comes to the role of biennial curator with over two decades experience working in museums. He spent twelve years at QAGOMA curating contemporary international art, contributing to the Asia-Pacific Triennial, and helming the Australian Cinémathèque. His shows are motivated by concepts but also by connecting with audiences. The inclusion of practices beyond the visual arts (this biennial will also see writer Kate Llewellyn collaborate with the Adelaide Chamber Singers on the performance of a new poem in the galleries) is about creating “magic” for audiences to experience in this exhibition space.

Since 2018 Da Silva has been Director of UNSW Galleries, where he has curated many exhibitions himself and realised them in collaboration with others. Among these exhibitions have been powerful explorations of queer kinship, such as Friendship as Way of Life from 2020 (in collaboration with artist Kelly Doley). The artist Paul Knight, whose quiet and visceral explorations of intimacy in photography and installation will show at UNSW Galleries next year, will also show at the Adelaide Biennial in 2024. The new commission sees conversations between Knight and his partner Peter, fed into an artificial intelligence system so that they continue indefinitely and become disconnected from the artist.

As much as this biennial offers spaces of refuge, many of the artists also engage with difficult experiences, establishing spaces of sanctuary that are carved out against the odds. These are the spaces that are critically important to share, to establish that inner sanctuaries are various and open to all, that one person’s refuge may not always be another’s, but it is in the sharing of such spaces we can connect. Here we can see that this reflective, contemplative biennial is not set to be inward looking at all.

Images courtesy of the artists, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide; Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association, NT; Milani Gallery, Brisbane; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Umoona Arts Centre, SA; Yavuz Gallery, Sydney
This article was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 65

18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum
1 March – 2 June 2024
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 

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