Current Issue #488

Looking back on 30 years of the Adelaide Biennial

Judith Wright, Australia, born 1945, Sightlines (5), 2019, Brisbane, synthetic polymer paint on Japanese paper; Courtesy the artist and Sophie Gannon Gallery
Carl Warner
Judith Wright, Australia, born 1945, Sightlines (5), 2019, Brisbane, synthetic polymer paint on Japanese paper, courtesy the artist and Sophie Gannon Gallery

With the 2020 Biennial, Monster Theatres, marking 30 years since the inaugural exhibition in 1990, we reflect on the Adelaide Biennial and look back to where it all began.

The Adelaide Festival of Arts began in 1960 and today is considered to be one of the world’s major celebrations of the arts, and a pre-eminent cultural event in Australia. The Adelaide Biennial is firmly positioned as the Festival’s premier visual arts event held every two years, even though the Festival has been held annually since 2012.

When the Biennial was established in 1990, it was planned to coincide with Artist’s Week, a five-day talkfest introduced in 1982 in response to the poor emphasis on visual art in the Adelaide Festival program at the time. It addressed the growing need for forums to discuss art. In 1981, under pressure to include more Australian art in the Biennale of Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales introduced a principal survey of contemporary Australian art, Australian Perspecta, to run in alternate years to the Biennale.

The Adelaide Biennial was introduced to further capture the growing interest in contemporary Australian art and was to be held as a same-year supplement to the Biennale of Sydney and in alternate years to the Prospecta. Unfortunately the Australian Perspecta ceased to exist beyond 1999 but the Adelaide Biennial continued to make an impact. It is now, some 30 years later, the key visual arts component of the Adelaide Festival.

When the then-director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Daniel Thomas, introduced the Biennial in 1990 the Adelaide Festival was hosting significant visual arts exhibitions, but Thomas argued that they often showed touring blockbuster exhibitions that festival visitors from interstate and overseas had already seen or would see. He felt there was a need for a contemporary art exhibition that wouldn’t tour and would be unique to the Adelaide Festival.

Sam Roberts
Julia Robinson, Australia, born 1981, Sweet Belly, 2019, Adelaide, gourd, silk, thread, pins, brass, gold plating, steel, mixed media, 130.0 x 100.0 x 50.0, courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery

“We introduced the Biennial to keep Australia up to date. The Adelaide Festival attracts both international and Australia-wide visitors and we wanted to take advantage of this and introduce contemporary Australian art to this audience,” explains Thomas.

Mary Eagle, a former art critic for the Age and head of Australian Art at National Gallery of Australia (NGA), was the curator of the first exhibition.

“We thought having a guest curator was a good idea, as it refreshed our own Adelaide-based attitudes. This helped to engage national and international audiences. I asked Mary to look for artists of any age who seemed to be doing better or taking off or having a good patch,” explains Thomas.

Thomas also asked Eagle to consider the audience and create an exhibition that was a “coherent visual/intellectual/ emotional experience for the museum visitor”.

Leigh Robb, Curator, Contemporary Art, Melrose Wing of International Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Saul Steed
Leigh Robb, Curator, Contemporary Art, Melrose Wing of International Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

For the Art Gallery of South Australia, and for the national contemporary art scene, the Biennial is still relevant and fits with the Adelaide Festival for practical reasons.

“Visitors from across Australia or around the world are primarily going to be performance arts people who have events to go to at night but not so often in the day time, and they are likely to want to go to art museums in the day time,” says Thomas. “The Biennial offers night time festival-goers something really significant to look at during the day.”

Artist Fiona Hall was fortunate enough to have her work Paradisus Terrestris (now in the collection of the NGA) in the first Adelaide Biennial, which had a huge impact on her career.

“When Mary Eagle first approached me about it I was still formulating the work in my mind but said to her ‘It’s about botany and sex’ and she said, ‘Great we will take it.’ I had no idea what the response would be,” says Hall. “In hindsight, it had a big impact on the trajectory of my career. It was new work for me and very different to what I had been doing previously. Through the exhibition, a lot of people saw the work and responded to it.”

Fiona Hall, Australia, born 1953, All the King’s men, 2014-15, Adelaide, knitted military uniforms, wire, bone, horns, teeth, dice, glass and mixed media, (dimensions variable); Gift of Candy Bennett and Edwina Lehmann, Dr Peter and Sandra Dobson, David and Pam McKee, Simon Mordant AM and Catriona Mordant, John Phillips, and Tracey and Michael Whiting through the Art Gallery of South Australia Contemporary Collectors through the Fiona Hall Appeal 2015-16, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, courtesy Fiona Hall

The NGA acquired the work and then commissioned Hall to produce a work for the sculpture garden, creating Fern Garden, a 20-square-metre permanent installation of landscape art, opened to the public in 1998. Hall also went on to appear in another two Biennials: Converge: where art + science meet (2002), where she presented the work Cell Culture, which was acquired by AGSA, and Nick Mitzevich’s Dark Heart (2014), where she presented an installation room called Art of My Tree.

One of the main differences between the Biennial of today and that set up by Thomas is that it has a theme and a catchy title. In 1990, Thomas asked Eagle to simply focus on what was new or what was interesting. Thomas says, “A survey of contemporary art, with or without a theme, is the perfect thing to have in Adelaide at Festival time.”

The 2020 Biennial, curated by Leigh Robb, is titled Monster Theatres. Artists have been invited to make visible the monsters of now. The exhibition shows the broad spectrum of contemporary art practice today with artists working in media and disciplines including installation, painting, photography, sculpture, textiles, film, video and sound art, as well as performance and live art.

While the Biennial has evolved somewhat over its long history, the vision Thomas had back in 1990 is still evident today. The exhibition provides a snapshot of the current state of contemporary art in Australia and plays a crucial role in national and international visual art conversations.

2020 Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres
29 February –  8 June 202

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