Adelaide has thrown down the gauntlet for this year’s Sydney Biennale with a show that sparkles like a revolving disco ball. I can’t recall an exhibition of contemporary Australian art which has opened with more positive energy than the 2016 Adelaide Biennial: Magic Object. It’s a tour-de-force for the undervalued Australian art scene, and a reminder of one of the reasons we go to art galleries: to experience a sense of wonder.
This may sound banal but so many shows seek to educate viewers, to raise their consciousness, to engage with social and political issues, that it comes as a surprise to find a body of work that doesn’t engage in the rituals of moral blackmail. We’re not obliged to like the Biennial works because they are politically correct. Neither are we expected to find profundity in things that are confusing and boring to the uninitiated.
In this Biennial there are no insiders and outsiders. To put it bluntly: curator, Lisa Slade, has chosen 25 artists that have given her a thrill, and invited us to share that sensation. The show is spread over five venues, with the bulk of the work being held at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art. There is a small group show at JamFactory, and installations by Tom Moore at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, and Robyn Stacey at Carrick Hill.
Slade’s subtitle, Magic Object, could be applied to all successful works of art, which give us a mysterious sense of familiarity or rightness.
We are instinctively drawn to works we could never imagine ourselves producing. We value displays of skill or leaps of the imagination. We want to be astonished and delighted by the things we see in an art museum – or indeed, any museum. Education comes a poor second, being a banner that institutions wave frantically to justify their public funding.
Slade has taken as her model the Wunderkammer (or Cabinet of Curiosities) – the ancestor of the modern museum, in which wealthy collectors stockpiled rare and valuable items from the natural world, and marvels of human invention. A typical Wunderkammer would have seemed chaotic alongside the careful taxonomies of today’s institutions, but museums have recently begun to loosen up a little.
Once we get over the need to put everything in chronological order, or according to origins and function, we open the door to another form of experience. It becomes possible to see ‘magical’ connections between objects separated by gulfs of distance or time.
As this Biennial is a show of contemporary art it can’t be compared too closely with events such as Theatre of the World, held at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art in 2012, which put historical artefacts alongside the works of living artists.
Slade would like us to view artists as the latter-day equivalents of the sorcerers, shamans and medicine men, who commanded respect because of their abilities to tap into unseen forces.
Imagination is that unseen force in a world in which even our pleasures have been streamlined and commodified. In the cinema, the biggest audiences belong to franchises, from James Bond to Star Wars. In art museums we know that certain movements, such as Impressionism are guaranteed crowd-pullers.
The first notable observation about this Biennial is the age gap between participants. The youngest artist, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran was born in 1988, the oldest, Loongkoonan, is 105 years old.
Loongkoonan, who comes originally from the remote region of Mount Anderson, W.A., is the ultimate late starter, having taken up painting at the age of 96. Her pictures chart her homeland in mesmeric, map-like patterns, with subtle variations of colour. They are slow-burners that grow progressively more fascinating the longer one looks.
Nithiyendran was born in Colombo, to ethnically diverse parents, and came with his family to Australia at an early age. His large-scale ceramic sculptures resemble primitive idols, drawing on the iconography of Hinduism and on contemporary identity politics. They are ragged in form and fearsome to behold, but imbued with a tongue-in-cheek humour.
Nithiyendran’s neighbour at the Samstag is the show’s second-youngest artist, Juz Kitson (b. 1987). Kitson was an outstanding talent at the National Art School, and has grown in ambition since she started working with the potteries of Jingdezhen. Her hanging sculptures are studiously informal – made up of evocative combinations of porcelain, fur, bones, fabric, and other substances.
Kitson delights in mixing disparate materials to surreal effect. She makes us think of crustaceans and coral, the nests of insects and birds, the carcasses of animals, fruit dangling from a tree, strings of shiny beads and earrings. Certain ingredients, such as hair, have an indelible creepiness. These sculptures are weirdly sexualised, providing something for every type of fetishist.
Ceramics is the boom, born-again medium in this year’s Biennial. Glenn Barkley and Nell have both contributed impressive ceramic installations, while Pepai Jangala Carroll of Ikuntji has begun incising traditional designs onto stoneware vessels. None of these artists would be considered great technicians by the standards of professsional potters, but they have brought a riotous aspect to a discipline that is often happy to be viewed as stately, tasteful and utilitarian.
Two years ago Barkley was a full-time curator, but with this display he seems to have completed a metamorphosis into a creative dynamo. In a bright red room he is exhibiting mutant vases and sculptures laden with historical references and private jokes. One need not know the detail to appreciate the artist’s chutzpah.
Nell is a great experimenter but certain themes and motifs keep recurring in her work. Her sprawling installation, The Wake (2014-16), features an array of pots with the smiley faces and Halloween masks we’ve seen on other occasions. The abiding inspiration is Haniwa, the ancient Japanese funerary ornaments made to ward off evil spirits. The work is cartoon gothic but remarkably up-beat.
Everywhere one looks in this show there are fascinating connections and affinities. The gothic angle is also explored by Tarryn Gill, who has created a series of grotesque effigies, inspired by a residency at the Freud Museum in London. Even more intimidating are Heather B. Swann’s Banksia Men (2015) – life-size body masks with faces like those of New Guinea’s Asaro Mudmen. Her title comes from the childrens’ stories of May Gibbs, but no child could have ever envisaged these looming, grey figures who stand clustered in a darkened room at the AGSA. There is also a performative dimension to the work, as Swann takes the costumes into the street and photographs the results.
Painting is usually in short supply in contemporary surveys, although this may be the first time it has been out-gunned by ceramics. There is still room for watercolours turned into giant animated projections by Fiona McMonagle, and for the fastidious hyperrealism of Michael Zavros. Drawing on his Greek heritage, Zavros restages the legendary contest between Zeuxis, who painted grapes that fooled the birds, and Parrhasius, who painted a false curtain that fooled Zeuxis.
The senior painter in this show, if we discount an emerging artist such as Loongkoonan, is Gareth Sansom, who is working at the peak of his abilities. Sansom is an artist who appears to make up the rules as he goes along, with no concern for schools or styles. Paintings such as A universal timeless allegory or Miss Piggy’s brush with mortality (both 2014) are packed with narrative fragments, uninhibited in terms of colour and form.
It’s almost impossible to convey any useful information about a show that cries out so forcefully to be seen. I can’t begin to discuss installations by Hiromi Tango or Kate Rohde that dominate the exhibition spaces at the AGSA. There is, however, one figure who can’t be overlooked: the hyperactive Tom Moore, glass artist extraordinaire, who has a room-sized installation at the AGSA, and an inflatable sculpture on North Terrace, as well as the works at JamFactory and the Santos Museum of Economic Botany. If Moore were simply making vases it would be an impressive effort, but every piece is a virtual anthology of ideas and motifs.
Moore’s fertile inventiveness seems to encapsulate the spirit behind this exhibition, filled with artists who don’t see their work as a chore, but as a pleasure. For nine more weeks at least, the sense of wonder will be alive and well in Adelaide.
2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art
Art Gallery of South Australia, until 15 May.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 12th March, 2016