Monster Theatres

Now in its 30th year, the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art has consistently demonstrated the enduring importance of challenging and exploring current political, philosophical and social issues through contemporary art. In 2020, viewers will be asked to consider such issues in ‘Monster Theatres’, a grand-scale exhibition featuring live bees, underwater odysseys and the human body. Curated by Leigh Robb, this year’s biennial points to how monsters manifest, provoke and metamorphose through the eyes of 23 of Australia’s most provocative artists.

‘The exhibition is a platform for artists to unpack issues of our time, but also to consider the historical,’ says Robb. ‘When I was thinking about the theme, I was interested in the word monsters, something that could be a warning, a foreshadowing, a portend. Theatre, as a space for spectacle and entertainment… The artists were quick and sensitive to respond to these themes, using certain objects, images or performances to express their concerns and curiosities.’

Mikala Dwyer sees the theatre as a place for healing, in the grand-scale anti-chamber, Square Cloud Compound (2015). Through this dystopic wellness centre, audiences are welcomed into the Art Gallery of South Australia through two sides: one, a space for healing, the other, a space for questioning where they stand at that moment of time.

Karla Dickens, A Dickensian Circus: Clown Nation, 2019, mixed media, 120 x 120cm. Photograph: Mick Richards. © Karla Dickens and Andrew Baker Art Dealer. Courtesy the artist and Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Abdul Abdullah contemplates the complex role of monsters in Understudy (2019), a sculptural work created in the likeness of a snub-nosed monkey native to Yunnan, China. A species threatened by habitat loss and climate change, Abdullah creates a monster expressing a frightful vision of a post-human future. ‘The Understudy holds civilisation accountable for capitalism and consumption… this creature is a silent witness, learning the scripts and waiting in the wings for our inevitable destruction and collapse,’ Robb states. ‘Many of the pieces in ‘Monster Theatres’ grapple with hopes and horrors. They speculate, proposing these alternative realities, both hopeful and fearful.’

Abdul Abdullah, Understudy, 2019,mixed media. © Abdul Abdullah/Yavuz Gallery, Singapore and Sydney. Courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery, Sydney

Karla Dickens’ A Dickensian Circus: House of Horrors (2019) brings monsters into the theatre through the construction of a traditional circus and country fair, full of clowns, outcasts and misfits in her eclectic collages. These works invoke a spectacle of violence, difference and mistreatment. ‘The ‘freak show’ aspects of House of Horrors create a salient political commentary of the objectification of Indigenous Australians throughout history,’ Robb notes. ‘It also shows the carnival of Australian politics, using clown images to represent the people who are supposed to be running our country.’

Gary Stewart and The Australian Dance Theatre use performance to explore similar ideas of objectification, using the body as the centre of the piece, Colony. ‘This will be an atmospheric encounter with complete enclosure. It will be a theatrical way for people to look at our tolerances and empathy of differences… Colony is grappling with our hopes, our horrors, looking at strength and endurance… a hopeful speculation of the future,’ says the curator.

Mike Bianco, Study for Antocomb, 2019, performance still. Photograph: Saul Steed. © Mike Bianco. Courtesy the artist and Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Mike Bianco attempts to negate the relationships we have with monsters, rather, displaying the important symbiotic connection we share by placing live bees in a small cabin in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. Bianco will fix a day bed inside the cabin, providing audiences with pollen tea with wax to slow down and relax to the sound of bees. ‘Situating this work within the Botanic Gardens as a form of sanctuary and retreat destigmatises the notions that bees will sting us or that they seek out to hurt people,’ remarks Robb. ‘Through Mike’s work, we can see the interdependency between human and bees, which over the years, has become even more urgent. Without bees, food production is compromised, the environment is under threat. By creating this palpable experience in the gardens, Mike shows that we can live peacefully with bees, that our lives are actually considerably improved when we aren’t fearful.’

‘Monster Theatres’ is an example of the risks artists can take in contemporary art, creating poignant and boundary-pushing works that will have a lasting impact.

Olivia De Zilva is a writer, poet and emerging curator from Adelaide, South Australia.

Art Gallery of South Australia
Adelaide Botanic Gardens
Until 2 August 2020
South Australia

2020 Adelaide Biennial Virtual Tour and Podcasts