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Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State

For Artist Profile 58, Julianne Pierce previewed the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, held at the Art Gallery of South Australia in association with the Adelaide Festival. She found that that Australia's settler-colonial history, the power and authority of the state, personal freedom, and political sovereignty are key concerns of Sebastian Goldspink's Biennial.

The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, a project of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), is the nation’s longest-running curated survey of contemporary Australian art. The Biennial is part of the Adelaide Festival, and since its inception in 1990 has exhibited nearly 500 artists to over one million visitors. 

It is a major exhibition for AGSA, which describes each iteration as “responding to a different theme or premise, acting as the register of the new, the enduring and the urgent issues of our time.” The curatorial direction of each Biennial is guided either by a guest curator or AGSA staff. 

For the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Sydney-based curator Sebastian Goldspink has developed the overarching theme Free/State. Appointed to the role in 2019, Goldspink notes this was prior to COVID-19, saying, “This is not a Biennial about COVID-19; it is influenced by the broader issues of the last few years such as Black Lives Matter, the rebirth of feminism, monu-ments being pulled down, decolonising and questioning historical narratives.”

It is also particularly influenced by the settler history of South Australia, a concept that came to Goldspink after a sleepless night reflecting on the challenge of the Biennial. He says, “The title of an exhibition usually comes last, but Free/State came to me very quickly. Due to my own situation from New South Wales with convict, Irish, and Aboriginal background, I started to think about the settlement of South Australia based on ideas of freedom, individual expression, and optimism.”

Goldspink had also met with Senior Kaurna man Mickey Kumatpi O’Brien, an inspiring and well-known cultural custodian who is telling the history of colonisation through an Indigenous lens. Showing Goldspink a map of Adelaide shaped as a red kangaroo, Uncle Mickey explained how the settlers had inadvertently incorporated Kaurna culture (the place of the Red Kangaroo) into the planning of the new city.  

These early ideas and conversations inspired Goldspink to explore ideas of freedom and the state as a sovereign entity, of Aboriginal sovereignty never ceded, and states of being such as tran-scendence, outsiderness and fearlessness. With the ongoing impact of COVID-19, Goldspink is al-so thinking about how the politics of federal, state and territory governments have come sharply into focus. The differences across state lines are heightened and the concept of Australian national unity is being challenged and re-aligned.

These influences have informed the structure of Goldspink’s Adelaide Biennial. In several previous editions, the exhibition was centred at AGSA with satellite projects in other galleries and site-specific spaces. Free/State will be staged entirely in the Art Gallery of South Australia, as a gesture to bring together twenty-five artists from across the states, territories, backgrounds and cir-cumstances into one space. 

Goldspink comments, “With no satellite locations, the sense of coming into the museum unites the force of disparate artists in mediums and backgrounds into a super team, inspired by the mot-to ‘our differences unite us.’ I am bringing together intergenerational artists and practice and ex-ploring the fundamental impact of artists such as Julie Rrap, Tracey Moffatt and Angela & Hossein Valamanesh.”

The only historical work in the exhibition will be Heaven, 1997, by Tracey Moffatt, a short film that compiles home video footage of male surfers posing, surfing, dressing and undressing on Australian beaches. For Goldspink this work is a marker of the bravery of artists to make idiosyncratic works where the most radical thing is to be yourself. 

Personal experience and history will be strong themes in the exhibition, with family history prom-inent in the work of Stanislava Pinchuk, who relocated from the Ukraine to Melbourne. Her work is about migration and displacement, engraving marble plinths with text from Homer’s Odyssey combined with the words of refugees from Manus Island and Naru.  

Similar themes of family are present in Sera Waters’ work, the detailed embroidery of which mines her family history in South Australia. For the Biennial, Waters will focus on truth-telling and the role her family as played in settlement and establishing the early colony.

Dennis Golding also explores history and family, through the architectural motifs of Victorian era lace-panelling on terrace houses in Redfern. For Golding, this panelling becomes Aboriginal architecture and a symbol of Redfern as the capital of Aboriginal Australia. These are the remembrances of his childhood, with his photographs imbued with orange light, recalling the time of day when he was summoned home for dinner. 

Goldspink is excited by Golding’s role in the Biennial, not just as an artist but as an educator, saying, “Dennis is key to the education program. He is an artist starting to show internationally, exploring the commonality of Indigenous experience around the world. He is leading the education program in the studio space at AGSA and will be a great inspiration to young people.”

The role of Golding in the education program exemplifies Goldspink’s approach to the Biennial, where he believes everything is part of the exhibition – the education, the volunteers, the shop. He says that “exhibitions have to be engaging and entertaining. They don’t have to harmonious, they can be discordant with light and shade.” 

He wants to express what Australian art is saying now: “I want to break down the centrality of art in Sydney and Melbourne – there is great work from all across Australia. It’s all interesting to me, it doesn’t matter where it’s from. It tells us who we are and where we are going.”   

This essay was first published in Artist Profile 58, 2022.

EXHIBITION

2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State
4 March – 5 June 2022
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Presented in association with the Adelaide Festival

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