The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art Awakens the Monsters of Our Anxieties

Leigh Robb, Curator, Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring MORPH by Polly Borland, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Yhonnie Scarce with her work In the Dead House, 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Yhonnie Scarce, Kokatha/Nukunu people, South Australia, born Woomera, South Australia 1973, In the Dead House, 2020, Adelaide, glass; ©️ Yhonnie Scarce/THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring A Dickensian Country Show by Karla Dickens, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring Cryptid by Michael Candy, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Stelarc with his work Reclining Stickman, 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
TOP
1985
28
0
 
7
Apr
7
Apr
CoBo Social Design and Architecture

Monsters take the stage at the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art where 24 artists and art collectives probe deep to address capitalism, colonialism, and the social and ecological fabric of our time through an imaginative theatre of spectacle.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia

At the end of February, I had the fortunate experience of visiting the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the land Down Under sparking nationwide lockdowns. Spread across the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) and the lush Adelaide Botanic Garden nearby, “Monster Theatres” curator Leigh Robb built the show on a dual narrative around the words that make up its title.

 

Leigh Robb, Curator, Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.

 

As she so generously explained on several occasions throughout the opening, “monster” is derived from the Latin words monere, meaning to warn, and monstare, to show, while the word “theatre” was borne out of the Greek words theatron, a place to behold, and theaomai, to see. Through this apt title, the stage is set for a spectacle featuring all the contemporaneous monsters that fill our fears and anxieties.

It is refreshing to see a biennial—or any large-scale exhibition for that matter—where the curatorial theme ignites the imagination. In an era where art is often lent as an extension to voice the social and political discontent of the contemporary moment, I am, more times than I’d like to admit, left feeling robbed of the ingenuity art once offered me.

The 24 artists and collectives presented in “Monster Theatres” respond to concerns no different than those of other artists and biennials—capitalism, colonialism, patriarchal structures and the social and ecological fabric are all prominently addressed—but Robb has wrapped all this around a vision of storytelling that is stimulating for the visitor. As she writes in her catalogue essay, “The monsters in contemporary Australian artistic practice are our monsters, in that they embody our current cultural moment.” In her opening speech, Robb emphasizes that while the monsters belong to the artists, the theatre is ours.

The works that drew the strongest connection for me personally were those that alluded to abjection. The complexity of emotions entangled in abjection has long fascinated me; an invisible magnetic pull that I find both desirable and repulsive at the same time. The abject, defined by philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, is the horror, experienced and confronted by a person, both mentally and physically, in reaction to a breakdown of the distinction between subject and object, the self and the other. As she writes in The Powers of Horror (1982):

“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.”

While Mike Parr’s Black milk of morning (2020)—a “greatest hits” montage of his most powerful (read: disturbing) performances of the past four decades—certainly delivered the definition, and primal reaction, of abjection, it is Polly Borland’s paintings of fleshy, metaphoric forms that struck a chord. The manifestation of horror is also projected in Dark Water (2019), a fifteen-minute visual feast bringing elements of science fiction and cinema co-produced by Erin Coates and Anna Nazzari. A woman grieving familial loss discovers a surreal deep-sea environment within the walls of her suburban home where ambiguous fleshy and slimy forms and coral-like organisms that grow hair abound. The double-edged sword of desire and repulsion that I have long grappled with in the abject was awakened through this transfixing video work depicting the terror of one’s internal psychology when it manifests in the real.

 

Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring MORPH by Polly Borland, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.

 

For Pierre Mukeba, Abdul Abdullah and Yhonnie Scarce, the monstrosity is another human, of a different race or colour, and the dehumanising horror that comes with prejudice. Scarce’s In the Dead House (2020), an installation of delicately crafted Aboriginal bush foods rendered in glass, displayed in the “Dead House” in the Botanic Garden is particularly spectacular, and extremely heartbreaking. The former site of the Adelaide Lunatic Asylum, the Dead House was erected in 1882 on the parklands, serving as the morgue and was used to perform autopsies and store cadavers until 1906. The tender glass objects, eerily resembling ghostly dismembered body parts, points to a particularly grisly history of the Dead House, where illicit dissection and maltreatment of Aboriginal bodies took place. Experiencing this work rather ironically in the glorious afternoon sunshine intensified its emotional impact. Beautiful as they are, the translucent glass glistened with abject horror.

 

Yhonnie Scarce with her work In the Dead House, 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Yhonnie Scarce, Kokatha/Nukunu people, South Australia, born Woomera, South Australia 1973, In the Dead House, 2020, Adelaide, glass; ©️ Yhonnie Scarce/THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.

 

Australia’s colonial history and politics is at the heart of ambitious works from Megan Cope and Karla Dickens. Unforgettable is Dicken’s room-size installation comprised of objects scavenged from old travelling circuses, carnivals and fun fairs. Full of dark humour veiling the seriousness of all manner of terror and tragedy, A Dickensian Circus: Clown Nation (2020) confronts head-on the atrocious xenophobia and stereotyping that was once considered nothing more than a fun joke. The Dickensian Circus has come to town in true carnivalesque style.

 

Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring A Dickensian Country Show by Karla Dickens, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.

 

It wouldn’t be a 21st century biennial if biotechnology and AI didn’t make an appearance. Although Michael Candy’s kinetic light sculptures—which exist, as zoomorphic creatures, alien and displaced—didn’t quite leave the deepest impression on me, Stelarc’s monstrous robotic exoskeleton sure did. From the man famed for growing a prosthetic ear on his left arm, there is no clearer caution on the potential (and potential pitfalls) of biotech. Controlled by Stelarc at the centre of the reclining frame, the robotic arms move with mechanical precision and bring to mind what an early stage prototype technology for Gundam may be like. Questioning the limits of the binary conception of human and machine, will this become the weapon of a post-humanist war?

 

Installation view: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring Cryptid by Michael Candy, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.
Stelarc with his work Reclining Stickman, 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres; photo: Saul Steed. Image courtesy of The Art Gallery of South Australia.

 

Monsters of myth and fantasy are further amplified in “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” a complementary exhibition of 15th to 19th century Old Master prints of from the collection of AGSA featuring the likes of Francisco Goya, Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, Jacques Callot, among others. Its title is drawn from Goya’s famous etching of the same name—and a personal all-time favourite—which portrays the artist asleep, his reasoning ability dulled by slumber thus giving rise to monsters that awaken.

In this precarious moment we are living in, with a world plagued by a global health crisis and thrown into unchartered territory towards a destabilized future, “Monster Theatres” may not alleviate our anxieties, but it sure kindles the imagination.

As the Art Gallery of South Australia remains closed today, I hope the virtual tour becomes available soon—it is a biennial that is too special to be left unseen.

 

 

2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
28 February  – 8 June 2020

 

 

 

 
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply