HUMANISM, WRIT LARGE
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-