Adelaide 'Biennial' and 'International'

Wed, 06/08/2014 - 04:17 -- eyeline

Contrasting curatorial strategies were adopted by Nick Mitzevich in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, ‘Dark Heart’, and by Richard Grayson in the Adelaide Festival’s visual arts program, ‘Adelaide International: Worlds in Collision’. Mitzevich and Grayson proved to be worlds apart—not so much on a collision course as in parallel universes. Dark Heart was visually opulent, primarily representational and steeped in emotion; Worlds in Collision downplayed sensory appeal and tended towards the documentary and the conceptual. While Mitzevich pursued a populist path, corralling some of the big names in Australian contemporary art within an ambient theme, Grayson sought out relatively unknown artists operating on the margins of the international art world.

From the outset, when taking up his appointment as Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in 2010, Nick Mitzevich said that he would be a curatorial director. This curatorial orientation was apparent in the controversial overhaul of AGSA’s permanent collection display of European art in 2013, as much as in his programming of a succession of AGSA-initiated contemporary exhibitions. All these projects have been carried off with chutzpah—great invention, a canny sense of theatre and imaginative re-conceptualising of viewer engagement with art.

In assuming the role of curator of the 2014 Adelaide Biennial (a coveted post always previously assigned to invited guest curators) Mitzevich grasped a first opportunity to unleash the full gamut of his curatorial ambitions. There can be no doubt that Dark Heart was a tour de force of sheer showmanship, epitomising Mitzevich’s flair for dramatic presentation. He favours the operatic, the grand gesture. Subtlety is not part of his lexicon. He has said that he wanted to create ‘an immersive and visceral’ viewer experience. Tick. The art was glamorously, occasionally sumptuously displayed, emanating a predominantly dark emotional timbre, and engulfing the viewer both visually and psychologically. This aura of emotional intensity was almost palpable in the dimly lit expanses of the basement galleries, where the art glowed against dark gray walls. Mitzevich may well have been channeling Hobart’s MONA, but he did it with aplomb.

However, after the initial sugar-high of first impressions dissipated, a second more critically focused look at Dark Heart revealed that not everything gelled into a coherent curatorial thesis. Rather than an unalloyed triumph, as some reviewers maintained, the exhibition was more of a curate’s egg, an imperfect mix of moments of brilliance interspersed with flaws in the overall curatorial selection, in the contribution of individual artists, and in the flow of synergies between them.

Nick Mitzevich is an engaging public speaker, but in written form he is a man of remarkably few words. His contribution to the Dark Heart catalogue, where we might have hoped to find his curatorial rationale, was a brief three-paragraph preface, reading more like a media release than a curatorial essay, and augmented by quotes from Robert Hughes and Germaine Greer. The latter must have been an embarrassment, in view of the last minute mysterious non-appearance of her commissioned catalogue essay. We were left with a mere sentence in which she perceived from afar ‘the guilt and grief that overshadow the lucky country’. Some of us are intrigued to know what she wrote for the catalogue, and if it will ever see the light of day.

A quote from Hughes, in which he states that art operates through feeling rather than argument, and through feeling passes to meaning, appears to have provided the foundations of Mitzevich’s own artistic rationale. In his selection for Dark Heart he was drawn to art with powerful presence, where meaning was filtered through emotion and material realisation. His other inspiration as curator came from Hughes’ controversial history of Australia’s brutal colonisation, The Fatal Shore, in which he found a ‘dark period of Australian history’. Mitzevich conceived this as the unhealed ‘scar at the heart’ of Australian cultural identity. In fact, only a few of the works actually addressed the dark heart of indigenous or racial dispossession directly. The exhibition rested on a broader conception of cultural and psychic malaise, a ‘dark underbelly’ permeating our cultural identity. In his concluding paragraph, Mitzevich undercut this dark thematic stating, ‘It is my motivating belief that by delving into the darkness, to those places we seldom see, we can move into the light’. His faith here in the therapeutic power of art was more Alain de Botton than Robert Hughes.

While previous guest curators sought the elusive ‘cutting edge’ of contemporary art, targeting the visual arts cognoscenti, Mitzevich in ‘taking the pulse’ aimed for a more populist appeal. The trick of course was to broaden the audience base without dumbing-down, and risk losing the Gallery’s core audience of the visually literate. Amongst the artists who achieved this was Ian Strange, whose scale model of a suburban house, Landed (2014), was planted askew and semi-submerged on North Terrace in surreal juxtaposition with the classical façade of the Art Gallery, to challenge and intrigue passers-by. Then there was Julia deVille’s compelling installation of taxidermied and bejeweled creatures, mixing repellent beauty and a poignant sense of mortality; and Martin Bell whose obsessively complex drawings sampling pop cultural icons drew on nostalgia while managing to maintain a gritty edge. In an easily overlooked cul de sac, Richard Lewer’s hand-drawn animated projection, Worse luck I am still here (2014), provided one of the exhibition’s rare understated moments. In a mere four minutes and using a pencil, overhead projector and voice-over narration he created an intense emotional space. Based on a true story of the mercy murder of an invalid wife and then the failed suicide of her husband, Lewer encapsulated a scenario of bleak despair within the anonymity of suburbia.

The decision to give artists free reign to make bigger and more ambitious work than they may have done previously was no doubt aimed at ramping up the dramatic impact and immersive potential of the art. This was not always successful from a critical perspective. Del Kathryn Barton produced an eye-popping panoramic five panel painting, The heart land (2013-14), which dominated the Gallery’s lower atrium level. Excess and self-obsession are trademarks of this highly collectible, Archibald Prize-winning artist. In this case, though, more was less. Working on such a massive scale accentuated the repetitive sameness of her limited repertoire. The heart land was a rainbow-hued mega-serve of sinuous, sexualised linear illustration, floating on a sea of swirling dots (not at all reminiscent of Aboriginal art, despite the accusations of indigenous provocateur Richard Bell, interjecting from the crowd at the artist’s talk on the opening day).

Hung as a floor to ceiling image-wall towering over the viewer, Trent Parke’s digitally abstracted grainy faces, photographed on an Adelaide street, became de-humanised as a looming mass—an effect that seemed contrary to the artist’s intention in the accompanying diary entry. Sally Smart’s cut-out montages and scribbled text fragments looked mannerist when spread thin around the expanses of a large gallery. Caroline Rothwell, similarly, appeared to have struggled to fill the space. Her wall of cut and draped PVC looked like an unresolved experiment, a work in progress that should perhaps have stayed in her studio. The repetition of four massive organic forms woven in rope and leather by Dani Marti—where one would have more than sufficed—detracted from rather than augmented their impact.

Mitzevich placed great emphasis on the importance of a dark emotional current coursing through this Biennial, but the risk with unrestrained emotion is that it can transform into bathos, falling from the sublime to the ridiculous. Located in a small gallery off AGSA’s upper atrium level, Fiona Hall’s installation, appropriately titled Out of my tree, was a manic howl at what she perceived as the ticking clock for the end of nature. As Australia’s representative at the next Venice Biennale (a long overdue honour) she may well have felt over-burdened with expectation. Whatever the reason, in a rare misstep for Hall, Out of my tree (2013) was a bizarre descent into sideshow corn. What was meant to be chilling was simply spooky and macabre. Her room was papered in skulls entangled in tendrils (like William Morris on acid) and adorned with more skull objects, ticking cuckoo clocks which were painted like skulls, and an array of found and created objects. It was as if we found ourselves inside the cabinet of curiosities of a demented gothic fetishist, where obsession had replaced reason. This was hardly an effective way to contribute to awareness of the grave issue of looming ecological disaster.

Another artist who resorted to hysterical bombast was Rosemary Laing. She was represented by a photographic sequence from 2009, a dozen useless actions for grieving blondes, in which an egregiously over-acting woman attempted to emote sadness and grief. Quite apart from the histrionic excesses of this series, it was a curious case of curatorial penchant that Mitzevich should include such a work made five years ago in an exhibition dominated by specially commissioned new art, especially as she also featured in the previous 2012 Adelaide Biennial. Why, one ponders, do a small number of artists receive such disproportionate attention?

The pairing of a floor installation, someone died trying to have a life like mine (2013), by Alex Seton with Ben Quilty’s monumental painting, The Island (2013), proved to be a clever decision by Mitzevich and Biennial project manager Lisa Slade. Seton’s carved marble lifejackets, strewn along the floor in a ragged line, were provoked by an incident in May 2013 when twenty-eight life jackets washed up on the Cocos Islands. In carving them in marble Seton created poetic memorials to the death at sea of so many asylum seekers. The life jackets gained an increased, though opportunistic, resonance from being sited beneath the looming shadow of Quilty’s painting, which in this context might be read as signifying those islands off Australia’s northern coastline which have become the doomed destination of asylum seekers.

However, according to Slade’s catalogue essay, in The Island Quilty is actually referencing Haughton Forrest’s late nineteenth century painting of Tasmania’s Gordon River. Using the Rorschach technique to create a double image, in this and other similar works Quilty invokes the psychological intent of Rorschach tests to challenge the viewer to recover submerged cultural memories. According to Slade, he was alluding not only to the dark shadow of indigenous genocide in Tasmania’s past, but also to the more recent Franklin Dam controversy of the 1980s. This overloading of his lush impasto painting with historical portent was reliant on verbal explanation, as virtually nothing could be deduced from the painting itself, beyond an undefined sense of looming threat. Of course, this was exactly the way the Rorschach ink blots work—they have no intrinsic meaning, until meanings are imposed by the viewer.

AGSA under Mitzevich has become Quilty’s major institutional patron, having acquired an entire exhibition of sixteen paintings by the artist in 2010, and in 2011 acquiring another monumental seven metre canvas, Evening shadows, Rorschach after Johnstone (2011), through the artist’s donation under the cultural gifts program (in his former role as Director of University of Queensland Art Museum, Mitzevich also gave Quilty a survey exhibition with accompanying major catalogue). AGSA’s commissioning of this latest mega-painting by Quilty for the Biennial, even though this is not an acquisition as such, tips the scales towards excessive exposure and patronage of Quilty.

From a more positive perspective, one of the great strengths of this Adelaide Biennial was the successful incorporation of indigenous art within Mitzevich’s broader curatorial vision. In his selection of a balance between tertiary-educated urban indigenous artists, and artists from the Centre seeking to perpetuate their cultural traditions, and in the placement of their work within the exhibition, there was no sense either of tokenism or separation from non-indigenous art. Consequently the ‘special case’ arguments that arose in response to the segregated display of Aboriginal art in ‘Australia’ at the Royal Academy in London in 2013 were not an issue here. Entering the first gallery downstairs, we were surrounded by the muted golden aura of Brook Andrew’s six panel series, Australia (2013). In one of the truly exceptional works of Dark Heart, Andrew created a suite of larger than life-size reproductions of 19th century etchings depicting Aboriginal life and ceremonies in the colonial era. He applied the images to a canvas support and surfaced them with an abraded metallic lustre, enhancing a sense of the images being viewed through a misty gauze of time-past. This is a case where the large scale worked successfully to immerse the viewer’s imagination in scenes of a long lost culture, redolent with a melancholic beauty.

The central gallery of the downstairs section of the exhibition was devoted to a video installation, Always Walking Country: Parrngurr Yarrkalpa (2013) by Lynette Wallworth and Pete Brundle, documenting the creation of the accompanying three by five metre painting of their country by eight Martu women (Kumpaya Girgirba, Yikartu Bumba, Karnu (Nancy Taylor), Ngamaru Bidu, Janice Yuwali Nixon, RR (Reena Rogers), Thelma Judson, and Nola Taylor). Through a time-lapse process we saw the women sitting and painting in sections on the large black ground of the canvas, quietly singing and talking, life going on around them, and the painting slowly emerging over a ten-day period. Without the intrusive mediation of language (no one speaks to the camera, there is no voice-over narration) we gained insight into the rhythms, collaborative processes and assured sense of each woman knowing her own section of country portrayed on the canvas.

In the upper galleries there was a powerful installation, Kulata Tjuta, by male Anangu artists associated with Tjala Arts in the Amata Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. In contrast to the painted stories of the Martu women, centred on food and the landscape, the Anangu men created a group of ceremonial war spears, carved and decorated with punu (burnt wood) carving. They were symbolic weapons in a war of survival for indigenous people and for their traditions. Hung in a phalanx pointing down at the spectator, the spears were imbued with a lethal beauty and potent sense of threat.

Sydney-based indigenous artist Tony Albert was a quantum, postmodern leap away from these traditions in his appropriation and repurposing of Aboriginalia in collages and a group of ‘house of cards’ assemblages. It was a densely crowded chaotic display, full of clever montages, but lacking a focal point or sense of narrative structure to hold the wandering eye of the spectator.

Then there are installations in Dark Heart which were interesting in themselves, but appeared tangential to the core ideas. Brendan Huntley’s grouping of ceramic heads was inventive and amusing, especially sited within a line of vision with the wall of Nolan heads in the nearby Australian galleries. Ah Xian’s room of gilded sculptural busts, adorned with emblematic Chinese rocks protruding from their heads and bodies, emit an intriguing otherness, a sense of inward calm and unknowable mystery. Finally, was Ian Burns’ wondrous colossus, Clouds (2012) on display simply because it had recently been gifted to AGSA by the Melbourne Art Foundation (and due to its size will it ever be displayed again? Or live in indefinite storage?)

Despite these rather numerous reservations, it must be conceded that even the least successful or thematically dubious of the installations in Dark Heart had audience appeal. Under Mitzevich AGSA has become more attuned than ever to the tastes of a wider audience base. Everywhere there was art to intrigue, entertain and provoke a wide cross section of visitors. The point at which this stops being a good thing is when the institution drinks the Kool-Aid and starts to measure its success purely in terms of popularity and the dollar value of sponsorship that clever marketing attracts.

A few years ago, to create a clear point of difference with the Adelaide Biennial, the Adelaide Festival rebadged its visual arts program as ‘Adelaide International’. Guest curator in 2014, the British artist Richard Grayson, might be accused of the common curatorial flaw on the international circuit of upping the ante in the ‘more radical than thou’ stakes, by trying to find a niche of global art practice that had not already been occupied by someone else’s previous biennale. Looking retrospectively to the counterculture and the period of his own formative years, he took inspiration from author Immanuel Velikovsky, who in a cult classic Worlds in Collision (1950) claimed there had been a near collision of Mars with Earth in 700 BC, but this had been wiped from our collective memory. So Grayson went looking for art of today that was similarly pursuing quests beyond the mainstream. He stated that today radical ideas have been tamed— ‘Utopian imaginings have become an endangered species, unable to cope in the altered eco-system’.

The artists he found were indeed an eclectic and eccentric mix, though, despite his reservations about the art world, all exhibit with major galleries and on the biennale circuit. According to Grayson, Benedict Drew (UK) ‘takes elements generated in the digital universe and allows them free play in the analogue realm’. His installation at the South Australian School of Art Gallery (SASA Gallery) was certainly a bizarre technological dalliance, but not one that generated any meaningful results. In The Lebanese Rocket Society at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, two Lebanese artists, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas paid homage to, and simulated, a long forgotten rocket-launch by Beirut university staff and students in the early sixties. The most powerful work of Worlds in Collision was Democracies (2009) by Polish artist Artur Żmijewski at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF). His wrap-around installation of some thirty-five monitors bombarded us with a cacophony of sound and images of people-power demonstrations around the world.

At the principal venue, the Samstag Museum of Art, the important British artist Susan Hiller was allocated the great expanse of the main gallery for Channels (2013), a wall of television monitors, all with blank screens in permutations of astral blue, and streaked with flashes of static. The accompanying sound track recorded memories of people who had experienced metaphysical near-death experiences. Hiller’s installation was intriguing, but too sparse and lacking in complexity to justify allocation of the entire gallery. Upstairs, we found documents in plastic sleeves supplied by British artist Katie Paterson, as evidence of her project to track the journey of a fragment of the moon as it circles the earth via airfreight courier; then, a suite of small monochromatic prints by Italian Ra di Martino documenting the abandoned sets of Star Wars, decaying in the desert sand; and finally paintings and collages spanning the past half century by American artist/architect Paul Laffoley. His complex montages encapsulating utopian ideas of polymorphous interconnectivity, were evocative of the counter-cultural philosophising of the sixties and early seventies, while seeming weirdly out of time and place today. Overall, these artists did not speak to each other and the potential of the Samstag Museum of Art as a major venue was not maximised. That is a shame as the Samstag’s subsequent (non-Festival) exhibition by Shaun Gladwell, Field Recordings, would have filled the Festival spot so much more successfully.

There has long been conflict between, on the one hand, the desire of Adelaide’s visual arts organisations to determine their own programming at Festival time, and on the other, the Adelaide Festival’s financial inducements for these spaces to become venues for its centralised programming. Money talks, and hence the Festival has continued to have primary control of programming, with some tokenistic consultation with the venues. The experience of 2014 affirms once again that it is time for greater programming discretion, supported by the Festival’s budget, to be returned to Adelaide’s professional visual art infrastructure.

Ian Strange, Landed, 2014. Installation view, 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring Art Gallery of South Australia. 

Tony Albert, 108, 2011-13. Detail. 99 mixed media collages and 9 houses of cards, various dimensions, Private collection, Hong Kong. © Tony Albert. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+ Strumpf, Sydney. Photograph Greg Piper. 

Willy Kaika Burton and Hector Burton, The Kulata Tjuta Project, Amata, Anangu Pitjanjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, 2012. Tjala Arts. Installation view, 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart. 

Susan Hiller, Channels, 2013. Audio-visual installation. Photograph Peter White. Courtesy the artist, Timothy Taylor Gallery and Matt's Gallery, London. 

notes: 

Dark Heart: 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art was held at the Art Gallery of South Australia, 1 March – 11 May, 2014; Worlds in Collision: Adelaide International 2014 was shown at the Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, and SASA Gallery.

Margot Osborne is an Adelaide-based art writer.