Titled Divided Worlds, the 2018 Adelaide Biennial highlights the richness and diversity of contemporary art practice and practitioners in Australia in sites such as the Adelaide Botanic Garden, which will host the works of three acclaimed artists: Tamara Dean, Christian Thompson and Vernon Ah Kee.
Curator Erica Green (Samstag) has selected artists who are pushing the boundaries of contemporary visual art and are exploring ideas around diversity and difference. The exhibition features artists from across Australia working in a diverse range of media.
Green has also focussed on the idea of place, paying particular attention to the different venues hosting the 2018 Biennial: the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, the JamFactory, Santos Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Garden and the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). Each venue has its own history and identity and Green has selected artists who fit each specific location.
Audiences will discover site-specific works idyllically located in Adelaide’s Botanic Garden by Vernon Ah Kee (along the pathways), Christian Thompson (the Palm House) and Tamara Dean (Museum of Economic Botany). These three artists discuss their Biennial work with The Adelaide Review below.
Tamara Dean’s practice extends across photography, installation and participatory works. The main focus of her work is the relationship between humans and the natural world. The Sydney artist is particularly fascinated with natural cycles within time and space, life and death, nature and spirituality.
In this year’s Biennial, Dean presents a series of new work (In Our Nature), which depicts the four seasons photographed at the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens.
Presented at the Museum of Economic Botany, In Our Nature is deeply connected to place. The museum is dedicated to exploring the relationship between people, plants and culture, which is at the forefront of Dean’s practice.
Dean’s idea to capture the changing seasons at the Botanic Gardens began when she discovered the sacred lotus pond — in the middle of the Adelaide Botanic Garden – in full bloom. This sparked the inspiration for In Our Nature.
“I wanted to show the full breadth of the human life cycle,” Dean says. “I decided to use the plant seasonal life cycle as an analogy for the human life cycle from childhood to becoming elderly to passing on.”
Dean brought models of all ages into the gardens and asked them to work with gestures and synchronised forms to show the similarities and signals that echo within nature and our bodies.
“My challenge was to make images where people looked like they were enmeshed in nature, not separate to it,” she says. “I was trying to create images where you couldn’t see where the people ended and the plants began.”
Through her practice Dean wanted to highlight the relationship between humans and nature without getting too dogmatic about it. Instead, she wanted to create a series of beautiful works that highlighted the synchronistic relationship.
“I wanted to make a strong symbolic link about how humanity is part of nature,” Dean says. “We don’t sit separate to it, we are actually part of nature. And to see ourselves as separate to nature is to our own detriment because our actions have cause and effect.”
As part of the Biennial, Dean will also present an installation work, Stream of Consciousness, at the AGSA. In the centre of the space is a large reflection pool, where an image subtly and mysteriously resolves in the dark body of water before the viewer’s eyes. Dean worked with scent designer Amy Walker and sound artist David Kirkpatrick to create an immersive experience.
“The environment is quite nostalgic in that the scents are based on nature and have a sense of place to them,” she says. “Most people would recognise the smell as moss, river, rain and the other as a human scent. The contrast of those scents will come out depending on the sounds you are hearing.”
Tamara Dean is represented by Martin Browne Gallery, Sydney.
Multi-disciplinary artist Christian Thompson works across a variety of media including photography, video, sculpture, performance and sound. He uses contemporary channels to explore notions of identity, cultural hybridity and history.
Thompson, a Bidjara man of the Kunja Nation of central southwestern Queensland, made history in 2010 when he became the first Aboriginal Australian to be admitted into the University of Oxford. He completed his Doctorate of Philosophy (Fine Art) there in 2016.
For the 2018 Biennial, Thompson’s artworks feature at both the Samstag Museum of Art and the Adelaide Botanic Garden’s Palm House.
The Palm House work is a sound piece where Thompson is singing in Bidjara, his father’s language, which is classified as an extinct language. Thompson explores the idea through this work that if Bidjara is spoken, it continues to be a living language.
“Part of the premise of these sound works I am doing is that the work is being spoken and that it’s still a living language,” Thompson says. “It’s about archiving language in new and dynamic ways.”
The Palm House is a Victorian glasshouse imported from Bremen, Germany in 1875. The building reflects European colonialism and is the perfect location for the work, creating a fascinating contrast.
“I thought it was really interesting to insert into the space an Indigenous voice which has been left out of the historical narrative,” he says.
The Palm House features a collection of plants from the island of Madagascar – one of the most biodiverse places in the world. “In the work I’m singing the traditional names of plants from my area,” Thompson says. “So it’s looking at exploring the economy of the plant world.”
In addition to the sound work, two new photographs by Thompson feature at Samstag. The large works (240 x 240cm each) also reference the Australian natural landscape, creating a correlation between the works at Samstag and the works at the Botanic Garden.
In addition to this, Samstag is showcasing a presentation of Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy, at SASA Gallery. The key work, Berceuse, is an immersive three-channel sound and video installation, which, like the work at the Palm House, highlights the Bidjara language, as he sings a lullaby in Bidjara.
Vernon Ah Kee
As a member of the Kuku Yalandji, Waanji, Yidinji and Gugu Yimithirr peoples, Vernon Ah Kee is well placed to explore notions of race, colour and politics and degrees of underlying racism in Australian society. His large-scale drawings of his ancestors and his hard-hitting text-based works and installations highlight contemporary black/white political issues.
In Divided Worlds, Ah Kee presents text-based installations at the Adelaide Botanic Garden and outside Samstag in Fenn Place, along with large-scale wall-based text works at the Art Gallery of South Australia and inside Samstag.
The works in the Botanic Garden will appear on two of the pathways — one that leads to the Museum of Economic Botany and one that leads to the Palm House.
The paths will feature a word or phrase that Ah Kee is yet to finalise. He has a selection of words to choose from but he also doesn’t want to give too much away, as he wants audiences to experience it themselves. What he can tell us is they are words that connect the Kaurna people to the location of the Adelaide Botanic Garden.
“I wanted to establish a Kaurna meaning and context that would relate and establish an Aboriginal presence to the garden and highlight the relationship Kaurna people have to the location,” Ah Kee says.
The words will obstruct the path so when people encounter them, they have to walk around them. They will be too big to skip over. This is all part of Ah Kee’s plan. His idea is that over the course of two to three weeks, audiences will get used to the words and they will start trampling them.
“It will be trampled to the point of obliteration, it will be walked into the ground,” he explains. “After a few weeks there will be a haze there that’s symbolic of the treatment of the Kaurna people in Adelaide and also references the theme of the Biennial – Divided Worlds.”
2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Divided Worlds
Saturday, March 3 to Sunday, June 3
Header image: Christian Thompson, Bidjara people, Queensland, born 1978, Gawler, South Australia, Portent Serac, 2017, c-type print on Fuji metallic pearl paper, 120 x 120 cm; Courtesy the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, Michael Reid Gallery, Sydney and Berlin