THE title of this year’s Adelaide Biennial is a deliberate paradox, or more exactly an oxymoron: Parallel Collisions. As we learn at primary school, parallel lines are ones that do not intersect, or intersect only at infinity, which is for practical purposes never, and certainly beyond any dimension known or knowable to us.
Those familiar with Zen Buddhism may recall the form of a koan, a deliberate paradox — one of the best known being the sound of one hand clapping — which is used in meditation to force reason to confront the limits of the knowable, to reduce rational discourse to silence. Socrates, too, loved to push his interlocutors to a state of aporia, to a recognition of the contradictions underlying their commonsense view of the world. One of them, Meno, famously compared him to an electric eel that paralyses its prey.
But nothing can halt the discourse of contemporary art writing, in which paradox loses its potency and shrinks to the scale of a conceit that serves as the occasion of everrenewed and ever-inconclusive logorrhoea. It is hardly surprising to find that this is the case with the introduction to the Biennial by its twin curators, a document apparently conceived as a manifesto but which is more a set of disconnected notes than the kind of programmatic statement or call to arms that is usually meant by this term.
It is full of the linguistic and logical flabbiness all too common in such writing, and reflects the lack of rigour and radical absence of critical thinking that reign within the world of contemporary art curators. Thus the authors speak of ‘‘ excavating currents’’, perhaps another intended paradox that fizzes out as a hopelessly mixed metaphor, and they ‘‘ incite’’ one of Walter Benjamin’s ideas where we assume they mean ‘‘ invoke’’. Clearly the texts have not even been edited for minimal coherence.
One of the gems in this document is a reference to ‘‘ revelling in the liquid elasticity of the video medium’’. One can see what the authors are getting at, although the intended idea is hardly new or even surprising. But the expression ‘‘ liquid elasticity’’ manages to be simultaneously a virtual redundancy and a logical ineptitude, for liquids, unlike gases, are for practical purposes not elastic or compressible. Flowing, yes; elastic, no: such is the basis of hydraulics. Coherent intellectual conceits need to be based on something more than this sort of spineless free association.
Obviously one can’t really read this sort of writing, and one certainly can’t engage with it in any intellectually meaningful sense, because there is nothing to engage with: the authors flirt with ideas rather than asserting or confronting them; curatorspeak is a subgenre in which the implicit axiom is that everything can be anything, nothing is anything in particular, and that to swim in a state of uncertainty and boundlessness is proof of superior sophistication.
The labile, the liminal — those curatorial favourites — and the indefinable all have their place in art and thought, for the very core of experience is indeed ineffable. But that indefinable dimension of experience is successfully evoked only by works that are in other respects supremely articulate; it is the clarity and lucidity of the surrounding structure that guides the mind to the perception of what lies beyond the articulate. Thus the extraordinary intellectual architecture of The Divine Comedy leads to the sublime glimpse of what cannot be spoken or even fully understood at its conclusion.
In the world of contemporary art writing, the assumption is that we will get closer to the ineffable core by weakening the structures of critical reason and everything that pertains to such structures, including the rigour of chronology or the bounds of genre and convention. The result is a kind of writing that constantly asserts intellectual and even, extraordinarily enough, political concerns, yet remains amorphous and without intellectual purchase on the world. It is the writing that corresponds to a kind of aesthetic activity that has disconnected itself from civil society and now exists in parallel to it, like a theme park outside the fabric of the city.
The exhibition itself — much smaller than the massive hardbound and slipcased book would suggest — is in two main parts, the first in the temporary exhibition galleries and the second integrated into the 19th-century collection in the recently redecorated Elder Wing. The temporary exhibition section is conceived, we are told, like a tracking shot in cinema, where the camera travels through the space being photographed, moving from one thing to another without cuts.
This structure serves once again to reveal what seems to be an implicit principle of contemporary curatorship, namely to link displays and media as disparate as possible, rather than to assemble things that might be addressed by the viewer in the same sort of way as sculptures with sculptures or photographs with photographs. The intention, no