“We love language,” confessed the curators of Parallel Collisions: the 12th Adelaide Biennial. This may not sound controversial – for the purposes of communication it’s very useful. It was only as I read through the boxed, brick-heavy catalogue for this exhibition that I began to feel Natasha Bullock and Alexie Glass-Kantor may love language not wisely but too well.
A blurb on the Art Gallery of South Australia website describes Parallel Collisions as: “an experiential proposition inspired by art, cinema and literature,” which “explores the ways in which ideas emerge, converge and re-form through time.” The objective is: “a connective tissue that attempts to understand our subjective experience of time.”
By this stage you may be thinking that only Stephen Hawking might have a fighting chance of understanding this exhibition. Such an impression would be exacerbated if you studied the catalogue before seeing the art. The first half consists of uncaptioned images. This is followed by a dozen texts by diverse writers who were invited to respond to works that most of them had not seen. Finally there is a cluster of conventional artist statements and small essays by AGSA curators.
The iceberg looms up in the distance, but suddenly, miraculously, disaster is avoided – for Parallel Collisions turns out to be a much better show than the pre-publicity would lead one to expect. Out of the maze of tangled concepts there emerges an engaging and entertaining group of works. Instead of leaving its audience blank-faced, this Biennial has the potential to be a crowd-pleaser.
There is an enthusiasm and integrity in this selection that overcomes the curators’ best efforts to generate needless complications. Inevitably, some things work better than others, and viewers will quickly choose their favourites. Where the exhibition is most successful is in relating contemporary pieces to the artworks displayed in the gallery’s permanent collection in the Elder wing. This is a tactic that has been tried many times, usually ending as a cynical and patronising manoeuvre in which artists parade their political correctness and sophistication in relation to works from earlier periods.
The artists in this Biennial take a more oblique approach. Jonathan Jones, of Wiradjuri extraction, resists the temptation to editorialise on the colonial mistreatment of indigenous people. Instead he has pored over the AGSA holdings to find a collection of works on paper that depict his traditional homelands on the Murray. The result is a fascinating group of small pictures that have not been viewed in many years. There are many Aboriginal figures in these works, possibly intended for ornamental purposes, but they also testify to a long-term occupation of these lands.
Tom Nicholson has undertaken another piece of surrogate curatorship in locating a large number of amateur copies of H.J.Johnstone’s Evening shadows (1880), one of the iconic works in the AGSA collection. In the spot where the visitor usually encounters this work there is now a blank wall, framed by a heavy encrustation of facsimiles. The painting itself has been moved into the second part of the installation that may be seen downstairs.
Evening shadows is one of the great confidence tricks of Australian art, having been painted from a photograph while the artist resided in London. Nicholson’s installation asks us to reflect on those qualities that make a popular work of art, and the mythical, sentimental appeal it holds for successive generations of viewers.
Elsewhere in the Elder Wing there are photographs by Rosemary Laing inserted discreetly among the paintings; a floating mountain range made entirely from antique glassware by Nicholas Folland; a video of Susan Jacobs handling a python, within slithering distance of Bertram Mackennal’s Circe; and so on. I could have done without a barrage of electronic noises produced by Philip Samartzis, but rarely does one negotiate a contemporary art survey without enduring a little pain.
The Biennial continues through the Elder wing, leading us inexorably towards the downstairs temporary exhibition space. On the way one passes a series of ‘burls’ by Tim Silver – great black lumps hanging off the walls like the growths found on gum trees. It appears as though deposits of sap have been oozing through the fabric of the building.
Bullock and Glass-Kantor refer to the downstairs part of the show as ‘The Tracking Shot’, inviting us to absorb the works in one smooth succession. However, it doesn’t happen like that. I don’t know enough about the techniques of cinematography, but the idea of walls and partitions being used as “edits” seems to undo the metaphor. It is another example of words running away with the curatorial imagination, as in the description of Rob McLeish’s sculptures as “a type of nihilist idealism.”
Once again the art is better than the rhetoric, including an exceptional new video installation from Daniel Crooks, which slices Melbourne into a series of laneways, through which people appear and disappear like characters in a science fiction film. There is a clever series of small, pseudo-modernist sculptures by Ricky Swallow, made from bronze castings of cardboard tubes; and an impressive suite of paintings and ceramic sculptures by Michelle Ussher, whose new work resembles that of late nineteenth century Symbolists such as Fernand Khnopff and Arnold Böcklin. Indigenous art is well represented by the cosmological paintings of Tiwi artist. Timothy Cook; and by a woven wall piece by Yvonne Koolmatrie that could be mistaken for a mandala.
Most visitors will be stopped in their tracks by Tim Silver’s full body cast in a soft, terracotta-coloured putty that dries and decay over time. At the moment Silver’s effigy resembles a fossilised corpse from Pompeii, but by the end of the Biennial it will be a crumbled ruin.
This ambitious, slightly crazy exhibition gains a lot from the full-scale rehabilitation of the AGSA initiated by director, Nick Mitzevich, who has turned the place upside down in less than two years. A gallery that had remained static for decades has been transformed into a space of infinite possibility where one encounters Goya’s complete Disasters of War (1810-20) in close proximity to a grotesque diorama by the Chapman Brothers and a gigantic new video piece by the Russian group, AES + F.
Mitzevich and his curators have made use of lurid wallpaper and the most dramatic colours. They have raided the AGSA’s enormous collection – at 39,000 items, the second biggest in Australia – bringing out pieces that have not been aired for a century. It is an extraordinary, no-holds-barred makeover that puts every other Australian art museum on notice. “Beat this if you can!” is the message. The strategy, which may be seen as a shock tactic in hidebound Adelaide, seems to be working. People are talking about the gallery and making repeat visits. Mitzevich says that he has reduced the advertising budget by half, while increasing attendances by twenty percent.
After the amazing spectacle of the born-again AGSA, almost everything else in this Festival season feels like an anti-climax. Perhaps the perfect chill-out is a visit to the Experimental Art Foundation, which features a single work by Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles consisting of a long, thin line that runs from one end of the gallery to the other. It is made from the blood-stained strings used in autopsies on those who have perished in Mexico’s drug wars. I can’t imagine filling in the Australian customs declaration.
This piece is part of a sprawling four-venue exhibition called Restless, put together by Melbourne-based curator, Victoria Lynn. The main component may be seen at the Samstag Museum of Art, where one is greeted by a maypole of severed heads created by the American artist, Nancy Spero. On the wall behind are four large cibachromes by New Zealander, Lisa Reihana, showing statuesque women seemingly cross-bred with birds and beasts. Upstairs there are three videos, including one by Francis Alÿs, in which the cameraman appears to be attacked by angry dogs.
It all adds up to a picture of the world as a pretty unhappy place. In Lynn’s words the show seeks to portray “the living ‘heavens’ and ‘hells’ of our contemporary era.” For some viewers, hell will be amply represented by four separate video installations. Heaven is less conspicuous. What is missing from this exhibition is the sense of wonder that leaps from every wall of the AGSA, where the themes of ‘love and death’ have powerfully Romantic overtones. At the Samstag the romance is off.
Parallel Collisons: 12th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, March 02 – April 29, 2012
Restless: Adelaide International 2012, Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art & other venues, March 02 – April 05, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 10, 2012