Art biennials and triennials seem to multiply like sprouting mushrooms after a Spring shower, with motivation varying from cultural tourism and regional prestige to creating new venues to exhibit art, an expansion of broader arts festivals or philanthropic goals for public enlightenment.
The ‘Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art’ was established in 1990 in the context of the ‘Adelaide Festival’ under the custodianship of Daniel Thomas, who was then Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia. In 2016, under the new Director Nick Mitzevich, the Biennial spilled out beyond the boundaries of the art gallery. This year, the ‘Adelaide Biennial’ occupies parts of the cultural precinct of North Terrace and the 30 participating artists and collectives are found at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art at the University of South Australia, JamFactory and Adelaide Botanic Garden including the Santos Museum of Economic Botany.
The Curator of the 2018 biennial, Erica Green – the founding Director of Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art – has opted for a broad-brush approach in the selection of participating artists, rather than a narrow focus on a particular aspect of contemporary art practice in Australia. The underlying philosophy behind this biennial is that, ‘the world is out of joint’ and artists are born to set it right. Green writes in the catalogue introduction that she is ‘enthused over the visual arts as an agent of radical change… I applauded the progressive commitment by so many artists to social engagement and their appetite for engaging with new cultures and other art form disciplines.’
Generally, at least in recent years, the ‘Adelaide Biennial’, in contrast with the ‘Biennale of Sydney’, has had a more popularist and mainstream character with fewer concessions to esoteric concerns and explorations of arcane knowledge. Also, because of its focus on Australian art, Adelaide can afford the best examples of the work from the artists it has selected, while Sydney so frequently seems to fall short in its international quest.
The ‘Adelaide Biennial’ this year features many familiar faces from other Australian biennale-style exhibitions including Vernon Ah Kee, Daniel Boyd, Emily Floyd, Julie Gough, Lindy Lee, Patricia Piccinini and Christian Thompson. Unlike the ‘NGV Triennial’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, where so many of the pieces have been commissioned especially for the exhibition, in Adelaide much of the art is being recycled from elsewhere. For example, Bodies in Time (2016), a single channel video by the Barbara Cleveland collective (Diana Baker Smith, Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore and Kelly Doley) and performed by Angela Goh, was commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of the ‘Contemporary Projects’ series a couple of years ago and could hardly be considered ‘cutting-edge contemporary Australian art’, to quote Green.
I generally find that when I go to a biennale I walk away with two or three memorable experiences, while the rest quite quickly become a bit of a blur. In Adelaide, Timothy Horn’s Gorgonia 5 (full fathom five) (2015) overwhelms the viewer with its scale and Baroque exuberance. In the work of this Melbourne-born, Massachusetts-based artist, scale matters as these exquisitely crafted huge blown-glass pearls nestling in nickel-plated bronze foliage evoke a sense of opulence and decadence, but also create a note of pathos at the passing of life and catastrophic consequences for the future.
Louise Hearman’s series of ‘Untitled’ (2017) head studies, immaculately worked in oils and ink on canvas and cast against abstracted backgrounds that strangely resemble targets, creates eerie and unsettling paintings. The heads float in their space as if decapitated, the gaze is intense and somewhat confronting and aggressive, the encounter is emotionally charged. There are quite a number of artists who have mastered the painter’s bag of technical tricks, but few use them as effectively as Hearman and to such psychological impact.
Lindy Lee is a well-known artist, especially in the Sydney art scene, and with time her work has grown increasingly distilled and more profound in its Buddhist meditative nature. The huge stainless steel The life of stars (2018) is an elongated oval-shaped perforated vessel, which absorbs and radiates light. Elsewhere in the exhibition is one of her shining cast bronze objects as well as the dark perforated veils, which may relate to a traditional Chinese ghost story, but most immediately explore the nature of identity. Although there is a considerable diversity in materials and artistic strategies employed, all of Lee’s pieces appear like meditations on the passage of life.
As with its predecessors, the 2018 ‘Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art’ presents a refreshing glimpse on the richness and complexity of contemporary Australian art practice.
Sasha Grishin works internationally as an art historian, art critic and curator.
Until 3 June, 2018