“you always need to dance between
light and shade” – after all,
“Australian history is unresolved.”
Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with curator Sebastian Goldspink about the works of Free/State – twenty-five artists’ diverse conversations of national concern.
“The title takes its starting point from the proclamation of South Australia in 1836 as a free colony, which led to the formation of South Australia as a free state. A state that wasn’t established as a penal colony such as my home state of New South Wales,” Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art’s 2022 curator Sebastian Goldspink tells me. “I was also interested in playing with the title and looking at transcending states and reaching free states of consciousness.”
For the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, the nation’s longest-standing survey of contemporary Australian art; Free/State follows Leigh Robb’s 2020 Monster Theatres and continues a tradition – started in 1990 – “solely focused on Australian art with a remit to help artists create new ambitious works with a national focus.” Twenty-five artists contribute to Free/State, with Goldspink’s curatorial process drawing together “artists across mediums and hailing from every state and territory” as well as “multiple generations.”
COVID-19 has made its impact felt here, as it has everywhere. Through lockdowns, “people have genuinely missed the opportunity to commune with art,” Goldspink says. “To produce a biennial grounded in the human condition is an act of solidarity with audiences and an attempt to connect with them through shared experience and meaning.” There’s a collective resilience underscored, as well as an unfolding of deeply-personal-yet-also-shared national and historical concerns. Take Loren Kronemyer’s Autonomous Armoury, 2021, whose display of hand-crafted knives captures something of the fightback spirit many of us have needed to harness.
“I think the show starts in the personal for many of the artists,” Goldspink says. “I think during the pandemic we have all looked at what’s important to us and I feel the artists did the same in thinking about what to make for the exhibition.” Themes such as family-separation-through-government-policy are especially poignant – as “the show uses individual histories as a way of unpacking universal conditions.” We are now, perhaps, better placed than any time in lived memory to engage in nuanced notions of “home” – what it is, whose it is, and its volatility to change.
The show features several works from both First Nations and artists from settler backgrounds that unpack Australia’s histories and challenges to home. Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist Dennis Golding, for example, whose Redfern ‘The Block’, 2018, embarks on a decolonisation of the artist’s Sydney childhood neighbourhood. Challenges of and chances for change are also clear in Kate Scardifield’s ten-metre-long sails, 07—Canis Major (wind instrument 2) 34°46’18.3”S 150°49’23.8”E Studies in Semaphore and Signalling, 2019, suspended from the Art Gallery of South Australia’s (AGSA) front façade as a statement on the climate crisis. Space is a key entry point to place and sensemaking across the show, as near the AGSA entrance, Darren Sylvester’s Transformer, 2021, tempts us to step through its sci-fi neon portal; parallel portals that are also presented to the viewer in Kate Mitchell’s Open Channels, 2021, a Zoom-esque meeting with nine spiritual channelers – a both strange and familiar condition of contemporary communication across space.
Concerning the big picture, Goldspink says Free/State shows “that Australian contemporary art is diverse and not one thing – that its story is historic and multigenerational.” Multi- and cross-generational conversations here include icons like Tracey Moffatt with the 1997 Heaven – a voyeuristic ode of sorts to the place and pleasure of male surfers in Australia’s story.
Quite often, approaching contemporary understanding via historical objects’ re-contextualisation requires reflection and interrogation of the past, with where we find ourselves today. Audiences, as well as auteur autonomies, may have transformed in gazing upon Heaven in 2022; transforming perspectives that Stanislava Pinchuk’s The Wine Dark Sea, 2021, courts, too, on the narratives we choose to accept versus those we ignore – through combination of the literary canon with whistle-blown detention centre accounts.
Goldspink has used a jazz metaphor in speaking about this show. And we, too, would be well-placed drawing inspiration from such a rhythm. To see the works here, with all the duality and unpredictability of Australia in and across our times (with a growing awareness of the twists of contemporary life – the opportunity here, to view Angela and Hossein Valamanesh’s major installation, following Hossein’s sudden passing this year, for instance).
Such a rhythm frees us. Keeps our ability to improvise, and willingness to challenge received wisdoms – on Australia and our place in its history. And guides us to a state of both critique and celebration in contemporary Australia; something which Goldspink describes as an important tool for reaching people: for “you always need to dance between light and shade” – after all, “Australian history is unresolved.”
Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.
Art Gallery of South Australia
4 March to 5 June 2022