With a career spent in contemporary art, Samstag director Erica Green discusses her “big gig”, curating the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, titled Divided Worlds.
As the inaugural director of the Samstag Museum of Art in the Hawke Building on North Terrace, Erica Green has carved a niche for one of this city’s most forward thinking and valuable contemporary art institutions. Since 2007, it has showcased artists from multiple disciplines with some occasionally working out of their preferred medium.
This year, for example, Samstag hosted the stunning video installation The Summation of Force by photographers’ Trent Parke and Natalie Autio while lighting designer Geoff Cobham’s first major gallery installation, Already Elsewhere, will finish in early December. Samstag kicked off the year with a trilogy of environmental exhibitions focusing on our fragile marine environment: Troubled Waters, Countercurrents and The Ocean after Nature.
This makes Green an exciting and intriguing choice for the 2018 Biennial gig, especially with its zeitgeist-capturing theme, Divided Worlds.
“Everywhere I look I hear ‘divided worlds’,” Green says of the 2018 Biennial theme. “I started from the perspective of talking to artists. Artists are always on the pulse of what’s happening and what’s about to happen. There are indeed a lot of artists in the Biennial who are reflecting what’s happening in the world and there is a recognition that we are living in troubled times. Difference and diversity are spawning a lot of conflict within our society in all sorts of ways.
“Part of what I’m looking at with the exhibition is that ideas of difference and diversity are actually the natural order of things. We’ve always had difference and diversity in our community, in nature, in everything. A lot of the works in the exhibition are saying, ‘Look we need to accept that and find a way forward as a civilisation if we are going to progress’. It’s not all negative, a lot of the propositions by artists are very much about looking to the future.”
Erica Green (photo: Sia Duff)
Green hasn’t set out to be controversial. She wants to challenge rather than affront audiences with works in mediums such as video, ceramics, design and graffiti presented by 30 artists including Roy Ananda, Ghostpatrol, Patricia Piccinini, Kristian Burford, Tim Edwards and Khai Liew.
“I want work that actually engages people and perhaps is very layered and if you look carefully there might be more to it than what is initially apparent. I don’t think there is anything particularly confronting with it. I think there are a few that are challenging: looking at the aftermath of war, at sexuality and our relationship with nature. It is also pushing the edge in terms of what people might think is contemporary art but coming back to art finding a way. I want people to leave the exhibition feeling excited, liberated and uplifted. I don’t think we need a down experience, we get that from the news.”
Samstag is a presenting partner of the Biennial, which is run by the major gallery down the road, the Art Gallery of South Australia [AGSA].
“It’s a big gig,” Green says of curating the Biennial. “There are a lot of stakeholders; there is a lot to consider.
“A biennial has to be relevant to many audiences because, interestingly, biennials are often the first and only time many people will come and see contemporary visual art. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, you have seasoned art professionals who tour nationally and internationally going to all the big contemporary art exhibitions and who are extremely knowledgeable and experienced around contemporary art. It is a challenge to make an exhibition that is weighing those two ends of the scale and everything in-between.”
Tim Edwards, Hollow, 2017, blown glass, wheel cut, 49 x 37 x 9 cm; Courtesy the artist (photo: Grant Hancock)
How did she create an exhibition for those two audiences?
“That may be why it’s called Divided Worlds,” Green smiles. “I think part of that has been very much my curatorial focus at Samstag, I’ve always had a very eclectic approach. A respectful dialogue with artists has always been my approach and because of those attributes, I see myself very much as an exhibition-maker rather than a curator. I’m not bringing a real academic or thematic approach from the outset to the exhibition; I really started from the position of trying to create an exhibition of interest and relevance to a very wide audience including the artists themselves.”
Green, who grew up in rural New South Wales in Armidale, says throughout her career she has worked directly with artists. She trained as one, before working at the Australia Council, the Adelaide Festival and the University of South Australia.
“I went through art school such a long time ago,” Green says. “It was before there were curatorial studies and there was that boom in museums and contemporary art practice. A lot of my colleagues realised when they graduated from art school that they weren’t going to be artists, so a lot of them went into positons like running galleries or the Australia Council, which was just starting to develop. There were lots of different arts organisations springing up, this was in the ‘70s, and there was quite a big growth that came about from the establishment of the Australia Council and public funding for the arts. Coming from a background of practising art, there was a natural segue into working in galleries with contemporary art and artists.”
Green decided to go down the curatorial route when she realised she didn’t have what it takes to be an artist.
“There’s a certain intelligence and imagination and I guess true grit and drive; it’s a very special mix that you need to become an artist. I realised I didn’t quite have it. I have always loved organising. I think being the oldest [child], a bit bossy, all of those things, it just became a very natural road for me. When you’re young, doorways open and these were the doorways and opportunities that opened for me.”
(photo: Sia Duff)
The move to curating was not a conscious decision for Green rather it was something she gravitated towards.
“I didn’t actually ever make a very conscious decision and say, ‘I’m not going to make it as an artist.’ I love making things. I have always made things; I grew up in a family where we were always sewing or knitting, making art. I probably imagine I will go back to doing that because I love doing things with my hands. I love making things, I love that feeling of playing with clay or creating something.”
With the 10-year anniversary of Samstag, Green says she has reflected on the past decade as well as look to the next 10 years.
“I want to make sure that Samstag continues to be relevant and dynamic and contemporary and modern as we go forward. We never look to sit back on our laurels or do things in the same way. I think that’s part of what we’re good at: being responsive. We’ve established quite a number of partnerships in Adelaide with the Adelaide Film Festival, the Adelaide Festival and now with the Art Galley of South Australia with the Biennial and working with the community, with artists, to expand our resources and the opportunities that are available to us. Adelaide is a small place, funding is very tight.”
Roy Ananda, Composition for three kit models (detail.), 2016, kit model components, balsa, pins, acrylic paint, dimensions variable; Courtesy the artist (photo: Sam Roberts)
Samstag is one of a number of artistic institutions close to the new medical precinct on North Terrace with JamFactory, Mercury Cinema and Nexus Arts. Green says the west end of town is transforming.
“It is probably going to take a while for that to manifest once a lot of the building has actually finished. I think it will be a really exciting thing for Adelaide; the other big thing for us, of course, is the tram [extension]. I’m really hoping it’s finished by the opening of the Festival. How good would it be to hop on a tram from Samstag, get off at AGSA, and then catch the tram down to the Botanic Garden, which is the other venue – brilliant.”
Another institute on the cards is Adelaide Contemporary, the new AGSA gallery. Will this complement or compete with Samstag?
“I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s a really great vision for Adelaide. If you look at Kassel, because they host Documenta it put them on the map, by having Adelaide Contemporary here, supported by other visual arts organisations, it will put Adelaide on the map as a must go-place for contemporary visual art. That’s good for us as that means we will be opening up to a bigger national and international view and will have to respond accordingly.”
Header image: Kristian Burford, Audition: Scene 2: Love Object (detail.), 2013, fiberglass reinforced polyurethane resin, polyurethane foam, oil paint, Mirrorpane glass, Steelcase cubicles, aluminium, steel, carpet, 261 x 383 x 252 cm; Courtesy the artist (photo: Eric Minh Swenson)