There is always excitement around the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. It’s the country’s longest running survey of contemporary Australian art. Over 28 years, this influential event has sought to engage the public and provoke critical thinking about contemporary practice, the history of the nation and the roles that art and creativity play in our lives. The results are sometimes unexpected.
Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) and the 2014 Biennial curator, Nick Mitzevich, presented works in his Dark Heart survey exhibition that, in his own words, explored “the underbelly of contemporary culture”. Issues of racism, displacement and violence seem to have struck a chord with audiences. A record breaking 110,000 people attended the 2014 edition of the exhibition, and it’s estimated that more than 1.5 million saw the sculpture, Landed, the house dropped from the sky, by artist Ian Strange.
In 2008, the Biennial curator and lecturer from UNSW Art & Design, Felicity Fenner selected the theme, Handle With Care. Her primary concern was the fragile state of the world; environmentally, socially and economically. Many still recall the unanticipated protest staged by local farmers on the steps of the Art Gallery on eve of the Biennial opening. Farmers were responding to the provocative work, Troubled Waters, by James Darling and Lesley Forwood, which addressed the problems associated with the Didicoolum Drain extension in South Australian agricultural land.
This year, Biennial curator Lisa Slade, also Assistant Director of the AGSA, has chosen the title Magic Object exploring artworks that somehow defy ready classification. She was inspired by the notion of a cabinet of curiosities or a chamber of wonders.
The spectrum of artists selected by Slade range from those early in their careers, to artists like 105-year-old Kimberley woman Loongkoonan, who began painting in her 90s.
Emerging and early career artists in this year’s line-up include Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, and Robyn Stacey, all of whom are recent graduates from UNSW Art & Design.
Abdullah’s work presents a traditional multihull sailboat seemingly stewarded by a hand carved polychrome rooster. He’s examining his own Bugis family heritage and their influence in South Sulawesi for 18 generations.
Sri Lankan-born Nithiyendran has drawn upon his Hindu and Christian background, and his practice as a contemporary ceramicist, to re-imagine deities, including Krishna, Kali and Ganesh. The results are sculptures, featuring both male and female organs, that force a questioning of sex, gender and organised religion.
Robyn Stacey has disoriented the viewer with her upside-down and inside-out visuals of seven known Adelaide locations. She’s installed camera equipment at places including Carrick Hill, the SAHMRI Building, The Cedars, Parliament House, Port Adelaide, the Brookman Building at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Institute Building to capture images that are then distorted and inverted to create a sense of magic. Stacey’s work is based on popular artforms and entertainment that reached a height of popularity in the nineteenth century.
Sydney-based artist and UNSW Art & Design lecturer, Dr Clare Milledge, is also featured in the Biennial line-up. She finds inspiration in the tradition of reverse-glass-painting, a practice used since the middle ages in sacral paintings, but also a practice made popular in nineteenth century Austrian, Barvarian and Bohemian folk art. The technique, like its name suggests is a form of art wherein paint is applied to a piece of glass and the image is viewed by turning the glass plate over and looking at the resulting artwork in reverse.
The Adelaide Biennial is on 27 February - 15 May 2016. More information on the Biennial, exhibiting artists and location, can be found here.