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