HU­MAN­ISM, WRIT LARGE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

THE trou­ble with big reg­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions such as the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale or the Ade­laide Bi­en­nial is that they are driven more by the need to find con­tent for an al­ready com­mit­ted spot on the cal­en­dar than by any in­her­ent ne­ces­sity, any­thing that ur­gently needs to be said. The date comes around, a cu­ra­tor is cho­sen from among a tiny self-re­pro­duc­ing tribe, and they in turn have to come up with a theme that sounds plau­si­ble and prefer­ably in some sense new, since con­tem­po­rary art is still com­mit­ted to a myth of in­no­va­tion.

In re­al­ity, these ex­hi­bi­tions are so con­strained by con­ven­tions and ex­pec­ta­tions that they all tend to look rather the same, and that is why un­less you are a mem­ber of the cu­ra­to­rium hop­ing that your own turn will one day come to add one of these head­line events to your CV, they tend to be rather dispir­it­ing and one is grate­ful if, as in the present Ade­laide Bi­en­nial, there are a few pleas­ant sur­prises.

This year’s Bi­en­nial is cu­rated by Nick Mitze­vich, di­rec­tor of the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, which also hosts the ex­hi­bi­tion, and the theme he has cho­sen is Dark Heart. This is not an al­lu­sion to the cul­ture of his city but to the his­tory of Aus­tralia and the sense that there are still, within the na­tional psy­che, un­healed wounds that go back to the days of the con­victs and early in­ter­ac­tion with the Abo­rig­ines.

One of the con­tribut­ing artists ob­serves that Aus­tralians don’t like to con­front dif­fi­cult ques­tions. This is per­haps true in a gen­eral way but, like so many things in con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian cul­ture, it is strik­ingly po­larised along class and ed­u­ca­tional lines. The less ed­u­cated don’t want to en­ter­tain any doubts, while the ed­u­cated classes en­joy masochis­ti­cally re­hears­ing their sense of guilt — which reaf­firms their moral su­pe­ri­or­ity — be­fore pro­ceed­ing to en­joy all the ma­te­rial ben­e­fits of their priv­i­leged lives.

Clearly the his­tor­i­cal treat­ment of the Abo­rig­i­nal people, and more sig­nif­i­cantly their present con­di­tion, is a mat­ter of grave na­tional con­cern, but truly frank and open dis­cus­sion is still ham­pered by en­trenched prej­u­dices and ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tions. One day, per­haps, it will be pos­si­ble to recog­nise the in­jus­tices done to Abo­rig­ines in the process of white set­tle­ment with­out min­imis­ing or rhetor­i­cally in­flat­ing them; and at the same time to ac­knowl­edge the dam­age done to them more re­cently by mis­guided well-wish­ers, and fi­nally to con­sider the mul­ti­ple rea­sons they are still so poorly in­te­grated into mod­ern Aus­tralia.

Given the lim­i­ta­tions of this kind of event, Mitze­vich has put to­gether a show that is rea­son­ably co­her­ent and, es­pe­cially in the base­ment area, works well as a se­ries of spa­ces in which each artist gen­er­ally has a room to them- selves, min­imis­ing jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tions. He has also man­aged to in­clude Abo­rig­i­nal work with­out pro­duc­ing the im­pres­sion of pa­tro­n­is­ing to­kenism that is so com­mon when tra­di­tional indige­nous work is set be­side con­tem­po­rary art.

One of the most strik­ing things in the ex­hi­bi­tion, in­deed, is a for­est of wooden spears, made as part of a cul­tural her­itage project, sus­pended from the ceil­ing in a sword-of-Damo­cles for­est of po­ten­tial men­ace above our heads. An­other suc­cess­ful work is Warwick Thorn­ton’s huge char­coal draw­ing of a tree, ap­par­ently ex­e­cuted over a pho­to­graphic print in which the re­main­der of the view of in­land plains and stark moun­tains forms a fainter, dream­like back­ground.

This work is pre­ceded by a room in which we find our­selves sur­rounded by enor­mous mu­rals by Brook Andrew. They are in fact based on prints of Abo­rig­i­nal life by Gus­tav Mutzel, in­spired by Wil­liam Blandowski’s nat­u­ral his­tory ex­pe­di­tion through Vic­to­ria and NSW in 1856-57. In Andrew’s ver­sion, these im­ages are scaled up and dig­i­tally printed on to can­vas, but dark­ened and dis­tressed so that they re­mind one of im­ages scanned from old pho­to­graphs, charged with the sense of mem­ory re­cov­ered from sources in which it only just sur­vives.

Oc­cu­py­ing a whole room with its dark and sil­very sur­faces and mys­te­ri­ous glimpses of a long-van­ished way of life, Andrew’s work makes a strong first im­pres­sion; on longer in­spec­tion, how­ever, it ap­pears in­creas­ingly con­trived, too much like high pro­duc­tion-value work ul­ti­mately de­signed for the art mar­ket with a care­fully cal­i­brated com­bi­na­tion of solemn res­o­nance and dec­o­ra­tor el­e­gance.

An­other favourite of the con­tem­po­rary art mar­ket is Ben Quilty, whose im­mense paint­ing of an is­land oc­cu­pies the wall of an ad­ja­cent room. I can’t help feel­ing that Quilty could be a much bet­ter artist, but he has to give up the ridicu­lous gim­mick of pull-apart paint­ing. The pic-

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