The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (ABAA) was born in 1990. A quarter of a century later it’s maintained its momentum and is now Australia’s only remaining contemporary art survey.
The not so secret formula for success has been a model of curatorship that has seen a cross–generation of curators bring passion and critical insights to the task and, above all, a finger on the pulse sense of what’s going down. Signi cantly, ABAA’s first curator, Mary Eagle, built her exhibition on the idea that it would be about “real art in the real world”. The wording was deliberate – a pushback to high watermark postmodernist insistence that art could be explained away or subverted by recourse to philosophical and socio/political discourse. Not so, argued Eagle. Her interests were located well away from media-obsessed work towards what Robert Hughes has described as objects that required “the long look.” “ There is always,” Eagle stated at the time, “the irreducible object – a physical and visual presence.” This thread of material presence has remained a constant through the subsequent ABAAs to the present. Along the way it has occasionally taken its audiences to the outer limits of viewing engagement, notably Adelaide Installations (1992), sited primarily in the post-industrial Gerard and Goodman site off Rundle Street East. Its follow up, 1996 equivalent, curated by Christopher Chapman, tested even riskier, transgressive boundaries. Once established within the extended western wing of the Art Gallery, opportunities opened up for contextualising contemporary practice within art historical narratives.
Installation view 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object, featuring Tom Moore display Watching glass grow, Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden
Enter the ‘intervention’, a favoured trope which encompasses work made by artists in response to existing collections, seen most spectacularly in the 2012 ABAA Parallel Collisions in which curators Natasha Bullock and Alexie Glass- Kantor led a grand parade of descenders, parallelist, repeaters, debasers, voidists, snake charmers, redux-ists, advocates, identity experts and others in a formidable demonstration of curatorial dexterity. With Nick Mitzevitch’s 2014 ABAA Dark Heart a sense of calmness was restored and emotion moved to centre stage as primarily figurative imagery evoked narratives and stirred the imagination. Lisa Slade, the curator of the 2016 ABAA Magic Object, has intentionally or otherwise, drawn down on this curatorial legacy of coaxing disparate groups of art objects to speak to each other and, with a bit of luck, have something to say about art and life to equally disparate audiences. The wunderkammer thematic needs little unpacking as audiences these days have been well-groomed by art museums to expect spectacular and exotic experiences, mixed with a little ‘transactional aesthetics‘ hands-on activity.
Gareth Sansom, A universal timeless allegory, 2014, oil and enamel on linen, 213 x 274cm; Private collection, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. photo: Sam Cranstoun
But the theme comes with a few expectations, not the least being the capacity of contemporary objects and artistic gestures to somehow impose themselves on the imagination in a manner approximate to the curiosity factor of rare and exotic objects perched in their 16th and 17th centuries’ ‘wonder cabinets’. But in a noisy, hyper-real contemporary world is it possible that objects can reprise this kind of wunder, stop the clock and arouse curiosity? Magic Object doesn’t have any ready answer although there is eloquent persuasion in the catalogue texts by Slade, Ted Snell, Gemma Weston, Sebastian Goldspink, Craig Judd and Lisa Havilah that the ideas and imagery of the project’s artists have their roots firmly in traditions as old as animism, shamanism, belief-based healing, communal celebration and originating theories about the nature of the human condition, and more. If launching into an extended read, start with Havilah’s text Full of Love and Wonder. It engagingly addresses the centrality of ‘objectness’ within the context of the exhibition.
Kate Rohde, Ornament Crimes, 2015, Rigg Design Prize 2015, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. photo: Brooke Holm
That said, Magic Object doesn’t hold back in the fantasy department. The mood swings into gear at the North Terrace entrance with Kate Rohde’s aptly titled Ornament Crimes; an oleaginous confection of Day-Glo finishes and objects that defies the neo-classical rectitude of the vestibule. In this sense it shares common ground with other works particularly; Tom Moore’s vetrominione (deployed at the Art Gallery and Santos Museum of Economic Botany), Glenn Barkley’s rambunctious ceramic vessels (go hunting for the pop lyrics and do look under the table), and (at Samstag Gallery) Juz Kitson’s fecund, mixed media sculptures and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s totemic masks and figures. To this group should be added Gareth Sansom’s paintings with their complex interweavings of spatial depths, implied narratives and cryptic messaging. A word to describe this is riot. Another is excess. But never uncontrolled. Through the entire exhibition a sense of ritualised behaviour prevails as if each artist is determined to re-create something according to an inner logic. Louise Haselton’s objects compellingly amplify Magic Object’s prevailing theme that objects and materials have an inner life. This idea has been reinforced for Haselton through time spent in Nagaland in northeast India where traditional animist beliefs ascribe powers to such natural features as rocks and trees. The artist spends a deal of time ‘listening’, it would appear, to what forms and materiality are saying to each other. Haselton belongs to a distinct tradition in contemporary art that is comfortable with silences, minimal intervention and alignment of properties and forms according to intuited decisions. As such her sculptures in Magic Object are highly distinctive and will challenge the viewer to take a position in relation to the artist’s basic premise.
Louise Haselton, Untitled, 2015, concrete, acrylic perspex, wool, 42 x 29 x 7cm (each). Courtesy the artist and GAGPROJECTS | Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide. photo: Greg Donovan
Slade, as curator, has cleverly sited Haselton’s work near the paintings by Indigenous artist Loongkoonan. These depictions of country have a similar character of compression to Haselton’s conceptualisation. While the actual knowledge of beliefs and social laws underpinning these depictions of country remain with the artist, their disciplined aesthetic codes mark the presence of deeply-held relationships with place – an alternative dimension of reality that (for an outsider) can only be guessed at. Haselton’s work also speaks to Clare Milledge’s assemblages/wall sculptures (at Samstag Gallery) that appear to rely on intuition in arranging diverse mediated and found materials. These works have a studied, slightly shambolic quality to them as if they are intended as props in some ritualised event like a festival parade. They are inert but imply a readiness to be pressed into action. In this sense, they share some common ground with Tarryn Gill’s droning, wheezing and sighing talismans set in an incantatory circle as if summoning nearby body parts to rise and be whole again, and Roy Wiggan’s ilma (dancing rods) which act as time travellers between the ancestral past and the present.
Clare Milledge, Unresolved Pineapple, 2015, oil on tempered glass, bronze, 90 x 90 x 0.4cm. Courtesy the artist and The Commercial, Sydney
Within this kind of orbit sits Nell’s ‘heads’, perched on an odd assortment of stools. In this installation emoji meets Mr Pumpkin Head meets Ku Klux hoodie. Bathetic, mock heroic, ironic or madly, hopelessly, absolutely heartfelt. Your guess. This idea of materials and symbolic forms having magic, even miraculous, properties is also the basis of Hiromi Tango’s Lizard Tail (breaking cycle) #3 which sits like a predatory dream weaver at the downstairs entrance to the exhibition at the Art Gallery.
Nell, The Wake, 2014–16, mixed media, dimensions variable; Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and STATION, Melbourne
Robyn Stacey’s dream-like camera obscura projections (various sites) provide another kind of context for Loongkoonan’s images. By ‘transporting’ inverted images of the outside world (SAHMRI Building, The Cedars, Parliament House) to adjoining buildings’ interiors, the over-familiar world is suddenly less so. In addition, the reflexive act of looking at the world is foregrounded as something not unlike a conjuring act. Seeing the world with fresh eyes requires almost an act of faith.
Robyn Stacey, Tear Drop Garden, Carrick Hill, 2015, type C print, 110 x 146.7cm. Courtesy the artist, Stills Gallery, Sydney, and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane
The same comment may be made of history. Jacqui Stockdale has long been interested in the Ned Kelly legend and its setting in north east Victoria. Her large format photographs are more about legend than an actual historical figure. Souvenirs sourced from various shops in Glenrowan appear in each of the eight photographs to provide a more than improbable explanation for the casting of equally improbable characters acting out historical figures and events. It’s an extravagant gesture to make a point about souvenirs as low rent messengers of the gods. But no more improbable than Mick Jagger as Ned in 1970. Intense realism approaching the highly desirable ‘magic’ category is clearly something that weighed on the curator’s mind. Michael Zavros’s intensely rendered flower pieces tick all the boxes in terms of trompe l’oeil technique. But up close their artifice is compellingly evident. They have twin identities. At a certain point they ‘magically’ switch the illusion on/off. Some of this dynamic is at play in an adjoining work, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s Merentau, a life-sized effigy of the artist, with a rooster, in a traditional canoe. The artist has extensive experience in creating sculptural dioramas and tableaux for tourists. In this work the artist is applying his skills in referencing his identity as coming from a long line of South Sulawesi ancestry. There is a candour about this work that, at it simplest, asks that the present be viewed through a prism of the past. Simple magic if you like.
Installation view 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object, Lovers of Neptune’s Cabinet display, featuring Chris Bond, Tor, JamFactory, Adelaide
Playing the conjuring game means the viewer must be ever sceptical but want to be deceived. Look no further than Chris Bond’s uncanny, tour de force (Samstag Gallery), a series of books emerging from or disappearing into a wall – each meticulously crafted to persuade the viewer that they, their authors and contents are ‘true’. They must be true. Surely no one in their right mind would go to such lengths? But as this conjuring act of an exhibition demonstrates, a number of artists do. Really. Magic Object 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art Art Gallery of SA in partnership with Samstag Museum of Art, UniSA Until Sunday, May 15 adelaidebiennial.com.au