Divided Worlds? We don’t need an art exhibition to tell us. Just watch the news. Anyway, art doesn’t work like that. Tell that is. The best it can do is help create a space in our minds where ideas can bounce around until we feel we own them. In its finest moments, the 2018 Adelaide Biennial does just that. But in the business of gaining insights there are few short cuts.
“Art,” the British artist William Turner once observed, “is a rummy business.” And the rummiest part could well be its refusal to give up its secrets. Right now, this principle is under siege from all quarters, particularly information technologies that appear to have all the answers only a click or voice command away. Guess no more – the meaning of a work of art is seamlessly revealed in click-bait captions, curatorial essays, artist interviews and the like.
Divided Worlds is no exception. The richly illustrated catalogue comes with Erica Green’s curatorial perspectives plus essays on all 30 artists. Of particular interest is Daniel Thomas’ overview essay, which traces the evolution and progress of the Adelaide Biennial project (begun in 1990) within a context of national and international surveys of contemporary art.
The 2018 Biennial spreads its wings along North Terrace – Art Gallery SA, Samstag Museum of Art, JamFactory and Adelaide Botanic Garden. This last venue has strategic importance. It reminds the public (encountering art by Tamara Dean, Vernon Ah Kee and Christian Thompson) that nonart contexts can shape meaning and message in compelling ways. It also carries a soft sell hint that contemporary art and the Botanic Gardens is a marriage made in heaven.
Divided Worlds, for all the implied feistiness of its title, and indeed the roll call of global woes listed in Green’s essay, is on balance, a comforting and reflective experience – that is until implications and subtexts swim to the surface. This is particularly evident in a number of works including Julie Gough’s video installation Larngerner: The Colour of Country, Vernon Ah Kee’s two wall installations (AGSA and Samstag), Amos Gebhardt’s performance video Evanescence, Khaled Sabsabi’s 99 Names, Timothy Horn’s Tree of Heaven series and Louise Hearman’s portraits of boxers. Each in turn rewards the long look partly because of the aesthetics of the imagery, the seduction of image craft or techniques, element of surprise and maybe narrative intrigue.
Gough’s two screen video for example unfolds like a book, one page facing another. Below it in a display case is a ‘real’ book, a colonial journal with hand written entries. Until one pauses to reflect on the Tasmanian scenery as the virtual pages turn, this could be a succession of look out of the car window glimpses on the road to somewhere else. The tension builds and the innocent gaze is slowly warped into a grim outlook.
Gough’s strategy of juxtaposing denuded landscapes with colonial images of Aborigines cast as exotic fauna is echoed in Gebhardt’s multi screen evocation of an ancient land bearing witness to the advent and decline of humanity. Other works are gradually drawn into this web of implication defined by the folding and unfolding of time and the play of inexorable forces. In Daniel Boyd’s mesmeric video, a seamless loop of retinal coding takes the viewer into a virtual world where time and space merge in constant motion.
Roy Ananda’s underworld superstructure, based on The Caves of Chaos computer game, freezes time to allow viewers to stroll though a force field, like space craft negotiating an asteroid belt. Hearman’s boxers are housed within a forcefield of energy that appears to be holding their raw power in check. Horn’s coralline forms imply a future in which long dead reefs are memorialised in metallic effigies. Sabsabi’s manipulated photographs of war torn Beirut strike up a muted conversation with Kirsten Coelho’s extraordinary installation of vessels (JamFactory) which in the half light resemble a ghost city – a utopian projection of the calmness and certitude that a divided world so desperately desires.
There is a wistful note in Erica Green’s insightful essay, crystallised in her description of a coalescence in some of the artists’ works as a “quiet underlying search for the song of heaven”. This translates as an invitation to reflect (rather than be entertained or distracted by art’s supposed magic qualities) and a questing for transcendental states that that can somehow accommodate the age old battle between good and evil or, if you like, dreams and reality. Like a stressed reef, this exhibition is drained of colour in its efforts to make some kind of meaning in a post-art world.
Co-opted into this task some works are stretched to breaking point, caught between engaging with the wonder of life and staring down its future. But that’s what makes this biennial an edgy experience – like drinking “lilies of cold water,” as Paul Valéry once wrote, “on the edge of pure oblivion.”
2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Divided Worlds
Art Gallery of South Australia, Samstag Museum, JamFactory, Adelaide Botanic Gardens
Until Sunday, June 3
Feature image: Kirsten Coelho, Transfigured Night, 2017, porcelain matt glaze, banded iron oxide, dimensions variable; Courtesy the artist, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, THIS IS NO FANTASY + dianne tanzer gallery, Melbourne and BMGArt, Adelaide, photo: Grant Hancock.
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