The bi­en­nial eas­ily out­shines the other vis­ual art at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

THIS year’s Ade­laide Bi­en­nial is the best show of its kind I’ve seen. Cu­rated by Felicity Fen­ner and billed as the only ma­jor sur­vey of Aus­tralian art in the coun­try, the Ade­laide Bi­en­nial forms the cen­tre­piece of an un­usu­ally ex­pan­sive vis­ual art of­fer­ing at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val.

Sadly, how­ever, set aside the Bi­en­nial ( in which the fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers played no real part) and the over­all of­fer­ing was pretty lame. There were one or two in­trigu­ing nuggets, but on the whole it looked like a tri­umph of vague, breezily ex­e­cuted good in­ten­tions over gen­uine com­mit­ment.

Brett Sheehy, the fes­ti­val’s ex­pe­ri­enced and en­er­getic di­rec­tor, is do­ing the right thing com­mit­ting re­sources to vis­ual art. Art shows have long runs, are ac­ces­si­ble for most of ev­ery day and are usu­ally free. They add some­thing in­tan­gi­ble to a good arts fes­ti­val. You don’t have to buy a ticket weeks in ad­vance; you don’t have to dress up or plan din­ners, babysit­ting and trans­port. You just go when you can, stay as long as you like and push off when it suits you. As a re­sult, oo­dles of peo­ple end up see­ing the best ex­hi­bi­tions at a good arts fes­ti­val. They be­come a real talk­ing point.

That’s pre­cisely what has hap­pened with the Ade­laide Bi­en­nial: on each of the sev­eral oc­ca­sions I went through, it was packed. Peo­ple who hadn’t been had heard a buzz and wanted to know more.

The prob­lem for Sheehy, as he points out, is that ex­hi­bi­tions are ex­pen­sive. There’s the trans­port, the in­sur­ance, and more. Com­mit­ting to a solid vis­ual art pro­gram may mean for­go­ing sev­eral glitzier- sound­ing acts in dance, theatre or mu­sic. And if good press is a fes­ti­val’s oxy­gen, an­other prob­lem emerges: fes­ti­val- pre­sented art ex­hi­bi­tions are rarely dis­cussed in the press, be­cause crit­ics who re­view arts fes­ti­vals tend to spe­cialise in the per­form­ing arts.

This col­umn, then, humbly aims at pro­vid­ing a cor­rec­tion. Over three days I saw all of the 15 or so art ex­hi­bi­tions pre­sented by the fes­ti­val. Some of them sounded good on the menu, one or two got the tummy rum­bling; but, aside from the bi­en­nial, none of them left me feel­ing as though I’d had a full meal.

Most tor­tur­ous, in this sense, was the fes­ti­val’s Artists’ Week key­note ad­dress, de­liv­ered by Doug Aitken. Don’t get me wrong, the talk was bril­liant, eye- open­ing, at times jaw- drop­ping. Aitken is a lead­ing fig­ure in a new co­hort of artists who can hardly be de­scribed any more as artists: they are more like im­pre­sar­ios, dream­ers, peo­ple who cook up ideas — the wack­ier the bet­ter — and get teams of peo­ple to ex­e­cute them un­der their su­per­vi­sion.

Aitken started out mak­ing videos us­ing haunt­ing footage from out- of- the way places. He grad­u­ally be­came more am­bi­tious about the pre­sen­ta­tion of his work. Be­fore you knew it — his cre­ativ­ity turbo- charged by a siz­zling art mar­ket and the rush to mu­seum in­volve­ment in con­tem­po­rary art — he was us­ing fa­mous ac­tors, pro­ject­ing films on to the ex­te­ri­ors of great art mu­se­ums and say­ing things such as: ‘‘ And then we de­cided to make a cloud.’’

Aitken looks like the ac­tor James Spader and speaks in an ar­tic­u­late, fast, but un­in­flected slur. On the ev­i­dence of the work that I’ve seen, he is a bril­liant, deeply in­tel­li­gent and highly mo­ti­vated artist. But the au­di­ence came away from his ad­dress in Ade­laide long­ing to see some of the projects he had spo­ken about. Re­gret­tably, not a sin­gle work by Aitken was any­where to be seen.

The bi­en­nial at the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia of­fered more sub­stance. Bi­en­ni­als — sur­veys of con­tem­po­rary art held ev­ery two years — are so rou­tinely dis­mal that one nat­u­rally con­cludes there is some­thing in­her­ently wrong with the for­mat. Oc­ca­sional, iso­lated out­breaks of bril­liance are the best one dares hope for.

But Fen­ner’s ef­fort here makes you won­der again what could pos­si­bly be so hard about them. Her theme — fragility, in the so­cial sphere and in the en­vi­ron­ment — is in­di­cated not just by the ti­tle, Han­dle with Care; it finds mean­ing­ful ex­pres­sion in al­most ev­ery work. Ad­mit­tedly, a few of them ges­ture im­pres­sively to lit­tle ef­fect ( Suzann Vic­tor’s swing­ing chan­de­liers, for in- stance, or Den­nis del Favero’s beau­ti­fully filmed but para­noid and ul­ti­mately kitsch videos).

But in most cases the mar­riage of form and con­tent has a nat­u­ral, ef­fort­less qual­ity, al­low­ing the work not only to speak clearly, but to breathe and be­come por­ous for the viewer’s imag­i­na­tion. Think of Lor­raine Con­nelly- Northey’s wall pieces wo­ven from rusted barbed wire: they take strength from their grid for­mat and vul­ner­a­bil­ity from their im­pro­vised con­struc­tion. There is beauty, pathos and mod­esty in them. Mean­ings are not far away, but they are not in­sisted upon, and are in some ways the least in­ter­est­ing as­pect of her work.

San­dra Selig’s ex­tra­or­di­nary draw­ings made from spi­der silk were for me the show’s high­light. Art­fully, they col­lapse dis­tinc­tions be­tween art and na­ture. Look­ing at them, you are in­stantly trans­ported out of the gallery and into the night air, the em­broi­dered cos­mos.

Ken Yone­tani’s in­stal­la­tion of bleached coral sit­ting in a raked Ja­panese rock gar­den, all of it made out of sugar, was also im­pres­sive. Yone­tani hopes to trig­ger aware­ness of the harm done to na­ture by sugar plan­ta­tions; but his work’s frag­ile el­e­gance tran­scends sin­gu­lar in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

I loved Bron­wyn Oliver’s cop­per wall sculp­tures, em­bod­i­ments of strength, flair and fragility. And I was thrilled to find the hal­lu­ci­na­tory, li­bidi­nous draw­ings of An­thony Man­nix, who iden­ti­fies him­self as an out­sider artist. Man­nix injects much needed vi­tal­ity and grit into an art scene that favours fas­tid­i­ous el­e­gance over forms that re­flect the con­fu­sions of the psy­che.

Catherine Woo’s 18 pan­els of ab­stract blues and whites, cre­ated with nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als such as sil­ica, car­bon, ash, clay and dust, seemed as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful to me. A gor­geous re­ply to Con­sta­ble’s pop­u­lar cloud stud­ies, they set ma­te­rial ‘‘ thing­ness’’ in ten­sion with evanes­cence. Their beauty bowls you over.

Any­one car­ried off by Woo’s woozy im­agery, how­ever, will be yanked back to earth by Wal­lace Thorn­ton’s short film Nana . Set in an out­back Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity, it’s a funny, chill­ing, fiveminute chal­lenge to sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Its in­clu­sion in a show that could have been po­lit­i­cally too right- on is a clever stroke by Fen­ner.

Thorn­ton sets us up for a fall by us­ing a gor­geous Abo­rig­i­nal child’s voice- over to enu­mer­ate the virtues of her nana, who is, among other things, a fa­mous artist. Such is the fug of fond­ness she cre­ates that we set aside her slyly provoca­tive dis­clo­sure about her nana’s paint­ing: ‘‘ Nana says white peo­ple wouldn’t know the dif­fer­ence any­way . . .’’

But how are we to re­act when Nana is shown, base­ball bat in hand, beat­ing to a pulp two out­siders who try to bring al­co­hol into their com­mu­nity, an al­co­hol- free zone? Laugh­ter, I found, was about the only avail­able re­sponse, but it was un­easy laugh­ter.

If only a lit­tle more laugh­ter were on of­fer in the fes­ti­val’s other vis­ual art of­fer­ings.

With few ex­cep­tions, the work by the in­ter­na­tional guests was te­dious. The ef­forts of Ger­many’s Thomas Rent­meis­ter ( a pile of dis­carded fridges), Chile’s Ivan Navarro ( furniture made from flu­o­res­cent light tubes, plus some videos), Ger­many’s Mis­cha Kuball ( ro­tat­ing slide pro­jec­tors cast­ing let­ters and num­bers on to gallery walls) and Italy’s Elisa Sighi­celli ( light­boxes and videos) were all half- hearted, both in con­cep­tion and ex­e­cu­tion.

One ex­cep­tion was the con­tri­bu­tion by Rus­sia’s AES+ F Group called Last Riot . This splitscreen an­i­mated video uses the vis­ual lan­guage of gam­ing and fash­ion ad­ver­tis­ing to con­struct a chore­ographed bal­let of blood­less hand- to- hand com­bat and spec­tac­u­lar trans­port dis­as­ters. Doom- laden, funny and nerve- rack­ingly fake, it was one of the most mem­o­rable new works to emerge at last year’s Venice Bi­en­nale.

Mind you, it de­pends for its ef­fect al­most en­tirely on the sound­track: Wag­ner played very loud. Un­for­tu­nately, when I came to see it, the speak­ers were on the blink and the mu­sic never rose above a re­as­sur­ing health spa mur­mur. Never mind.

The show of con­tem­po­rary art from Tai­wan, called Penum­bra, at the im­pres­sive new Sam­stag Mu­seum, was am­bi­tious but, like so much else, un­der­nour­ish­ing. One work in it moved me enor­mously, how­ever: Tseng Yu- Chin’s Acid Tongue . It was not pho­tog­ra­phy and not video, rather, some­where in be­tween. Four slides of black and white pho­to­graphs were pro­jected si­mul­ta­ne­ously on to the four walls of a small, dark­ened room. Ev­ery 30 sec­onds or so they changed. The slides showed sev­eral young chil­dren, in the class­room, in the car, at home. The pho­to­graphs were beau­ti­ful, their hum­ble sub­jects slightly blurred, en­gulfed in dark­ness, picked out by small pock­ets of light. But — and here was the un­ex­pected touch — the level of light pro­jected wa­vered slightly, seem­ing to dim and then brighten again, thus bring­ing th­ese images gen­tly, ten­ta­tively to life. The ef­fect — en­tranc­ing, in­ti­mate, soul­ful — will stay with me.

Aside from the bi­en­nial, there were var­i­ous other Aus­tralian com­po­nents to the fes­ti­val. Des­tiny Dea­con’s ex­hi­bi­tion, Clan­des­tine, at Tan­danya, the Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal Cul­tural In­sti­tute, was brave, funny and aes­thet­i­cally di­shev­elled, in the man­ner Dea­con has made her own. Af­ter that, it was slim pick­ings. The sur­vey of Lawrence Daws’s work, a mostly com­mer­cial ex­hi­bi­tion at Green­hill Gal­leries, had some lively things in it. But it’s hard to es­cape the con­clu­sion that this gifted painter, draughts­man and print­maker has fallen vic­tim to Jun­gian psy­chob­a­b­ble.

Two dis­plays of work by Rose­mary Laing and Susan Nor­rie, both of whom made it to last year’s Venice Bi­en­nale, were ed­i­fy­ing with­out be­ing much else ( al­though Nor­rie has an ad­mirable gift for mak­ing any­thing look por­ten­tous).

Fi­nally, the South Aus­tralian Mu­seum has mounted a dis­play of the Ngur­rara can­vas, a huge paint­ing by a group of Abo­rig­i­nal artists who painted it for the Na­tional Na­tive Ti­tle Tri­bunal hear­ings back in 1997. In scale, the work is enor­mous: so big it has had to be curved near the bot­tom to fit into the gallery.

I wish a bet­ter so­lu­tion had been found for the hang­ing of this his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant work. I also wish that the plethora of texts, videos and au­dio record­ings had been dis­placed to an­other room. All of them di­min­ish the ex­pe­ri­ence in­stead of en­hanc­ing it.

In some ways the dis­play of Ngur­rara is symp­to­matic of what is wrong with the vis­ual arts com­po­nent of this year’s fes­ti­val as a whole, not­with­stand­ing its ad­mirable scope and var­i­ous suc­cesses: too much em­pha­sis on ed­i­fi­ca­tion, and on do­ing the right thing; not enough on en­gag­ing the imag­i­na­tion.

Sub­stance: Clock­wise from far left, still from Altered State , 2006, by James Ne­witt; Blue Sky Project— Puff , 2007, by Catherine Woo; Merg­ing Into the Greater Be­yond , 2006, by An­thony Man­nix

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