Review | Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art

In Issue 42, Professor Ted Snell reviews the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, exploring the prismatic approach of Curator Erica Green in her engagement of diverse artists who harness history to rethink and remould the future.

When longtime director of The Samstag Museum of Art, Erica Green, was given the opportunity to curate the Adelaide Biennial for 2018, her immediate response was to talk with the artists whose work mattered to her. “My curatorial method is anchored in the alchemy that springs from respectful dialogue with individual artists,” she explains.

“The starting point for an informal conversation with participating artists was my interest in the broad notion of ‘history’ and – in what now seems a common refrain in the milieu – of history’s vital influence and presence in our cultural practice and the development of ideas; in effect, a reminder for us to understand the heritage that has formed the present.”

For Green, her belief in the visual arts as an agent of radical change, evident in the work of so many artists committed to social engagement as a critical component in rethinking and reshaping the world as we know it, laid a foundation stone on which to build her Adelaide Biennial. From those conversations, a stream of ideas coalesced through discussions about the state of the world, humanity’s relationship to our natural environment and hopes and aspirations for the future. The zeitgeist of those exchanges filtered through to notions around diversity and difference, as positive energies shaping contemporary Australian visual arts practice.

Green encouraged the artists she selected to apply for new work grants from the Australia Council, and with the support imparted by the Art Gallery of South Australia and its widening philanthropic base, she encouraged them to make the works “they had always hoped to make”. Although the oft-heard critique of Biennale art is that it feeds hubris and leads to overblown, vacuous work, for the artists invited to this year’s Adelaide Biennial it has been a catalyst that has fed ambition while avoiding concomitant perils.

For Tamara Dean the invitation was a chance to create a multi-sensory installation where the exquisite images she makes are given greater resonance by constructing an experience around her photographic works. The invitation to participate in the Biennial was a chance to focus for a year on developing a new body of work and a mode of presentation that was fully immersive, one that encourages the audience to examine our complex relationship to nature and to provide positive scenarios for our future. Embedded in the lush and extraordinary landscapes she has discovered in the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, these photographs document the interactions of people exploring, engaging and communing with the natural environment.

Kristian Burford took the invitation as an opportunity to take his work in new directions. His confronting installations in which life-size figures linger in weirdly de-humanised environments, frozen under harsh fluorescent lighting, speak eloquently about the alienation of contemporary life and our sense of anguish at the potential for this dreamlike experience to become our permanent nightmare: awake, in public, completely naked, and vulnerable. This feeling of being trapped is further enhanced by the architectural mirrored spaces he constructs as stages for these confrontations.

Green’s curatorial practice is broad and eclectic, embracing the “difference and diversity” that underpins her curatorial thesis for the Biennial that will be presented across several venues in Adelaide, including the Samstag Museum of Art. Not surprisingly then, she is drawn to artists who push the boundaries of visual arts practice and find their voice within the cacophony of its ever-expanding possibilities. Several of the artists selected are redrawing the boundaries between traditionally defined disciplines such as fine art, craft and design to reveal the pressure points within those practices to articulate pressing concerns for humanity.

Timothy Horn was stimulated by his invitation to pursue his investigation of the intersections between the natural world and objects fabricated by artisans and artists. Playing off the organic with the artificial, he alludes to the potential for humanity to transform our environment, often with bizarre and disastrous effect.

The poetics of disaster – trees at Fukushima and Chernobyl don’t decay; corals are given new extraordinary forms through interaction with nuclear fallout – is brought into alignment with the artist’s fascination for the extravagant inventiveness of Baroque craftsmen. These ideas are then encapsulated in his exquisitely crafted objects in which the fabulous and the monstrous coalesce.

Amos Gebhardt’s film Evanescence is a poetic play on the idea of humanity and the narratives we build around life and death, the gradually fading from sight or memory, the temporality of existence. Interested in the malleability of boundaries in all aspects of life, Gebhardt combines dance and music and visual art to blur those perceived lines of demarcation between one art form, one person, one gender and the next, to propose a more fluid and open engagement across perceived boundaries. For the Biennial Gebhardt is exploring the fusion of film and installation in a new work that finds its space in the world to engage with its audience.

Khai Liew has also interrogated perceived boundaries, creating objects that explore the possibilities that lie between utility and less explicit functionality. Renowned as a master craftsman of fine furniture who bridges cultures and practices of making, his work is a distillation of what is valuable from wherever it is found – the East or the West, past or present, local or international – brought into harmonious accommodation to create something new, fresh, elegant and, above all, simple.

For Green, it was vital that her Biennial was a national survey, in name and in practice. Based in Adelaide and hence aware of South Australia’s marginality to contemporary practice along the eastern and southern seaboard capitals, her selection includes artists from across the country; though clearly with a sharp eye on the home front as well.

As a result, Adelaide-born (although now based in Cooroy, Queensland) Lisa Adams’ remarkable paintings are presented alongside Perth-based Tanya Schultz’s extravagant environments, which cohabit with Melbourne-based Angelica Mesiti’s major new two-channel video installation and Sydney-based Khaled Sabsabi’s complete 99 hand-painted photographs of the devastation war has brought to Lebanon.

They are all part of the spectacular vision Green has conjured up in what she calls her “allegorical prism”, the lens through which she has constructed her 2018 Adelaide Biennial. “This substantial pantheon of intriguing artists speaks variously to the drama of the cosmos and evolution, on beauty and the environment, and reflecting on human life and society, the diaspora – and the past, and the future.”

Divided Worlds: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art
3 March – 3 June, 2018 
The Art Gallery of South Australia; the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia; Jam Factory; and the Adelaide Botanic Garden

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