Sebastian Goldspink is pioneering a new model of guardianship – the sensitive and caring caretaker. At the opening of this year’s Biennial of Australian Art in Adelaide at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Goldspink seemed to waver on the verge of tears every time he gave a speech, which, as guest curator , was quite common. At no time did he show a trace of cynicism.
For Goldspink, the Adelaide Biennale represents a big step up from his usual activities as an independent curator, best known for his work with Sydney-based artist-run space Alaska Projects. The AGSA brought him on board to identify a new generation of emerging artists and the form of Australian art in a post-pandemic world. To this end, he was conscientious, placing the needs of the artists above any personal agenda. He agreed to include older performers, making it a “cross-generational” show. He paid homage to the South Australian context, with the exhibition’s theme reminiscent of the state’s origins as a colony of settlers and not as a prison camp. He was exceptionally attentive to Aboriginal issues.
These are the positive points of this 17th Biennale of Adelaide, but don’t expect any big revelations. Goldspink writes, “This Biennale operates on the premise that in times of crisis, the most radical and impactful stance an artist can take is to act idiosyncratically, to stay the course. To be a guiding star in the darkest nights.
It’s a terribly romantic way of saying, “Anything goes.” The “idiosyncratic” approach may be a fair reflection of the confused and pluralistic state of contemporary art, but it does not guarantee memorable works. free state is the usual mixture of the good, the bad and the enigmatic. It’s just a little more sincere this time.
It was difficult to put together a Biennale during a pandemic, but the launch was overshadowed by two last-minute tragedies. First, the sudden death of Hossein Valamanesh, who, together with his wife, Angela, is one of the main participants in the exhibition. Then comes the accidental death of Neil Balnaves, whose Foundation is the main donor to the Biennale.
Neil Balnaves was, quite simply, one of the great patrons of Australian art – a straightforward personality who took a keen interest in the events he sponsored. Numerous galleries and exhibitions – as well as other good causes – have benefited from his generosity. In this country, true philanthropists are rare, and with the demise of Balnaves, even rarer.
In Hossein Valamanesh we have lost one of Australia’s most versatile and respected artists, a figure who successfully integrated his Iranian heritage into the culture of an adopted homeland where he would spend nearly five decades. . He and Angela’s contribution to this Biennale has been conceived as a compact study of their careers as solo artists and collaborators.
The Valamaneshes exhibition is a show within a show, comprising early works and some of their most recent. It starts with small, relatively modest pieces and expands in a dozen different directions. Hossein will create sculptures, murals, kinetic works, films and large-scale installations, each with their own particular poetry. Angela begins as a potter and continues to create large biomorphic ceramic sculptures. Together, the couple created a significant body of public art.
The halls of Valamanesh would have been a highlight of the exhibition under any circumstances but have now taken on an elegiac dimension. They constitute the unofficial heart of this Biennale.
Another work that has taken on exaggerated significance is that of Stanislava Pinchuk The Black Sea Wine (2021): an installation of smooth and colored marble blocks, inscribed with quotes from The Odyssey and reporting lines on Australia’s offshore detention centres.
Pinchuk was born in Kharkhiv, one of the Ukrainian cities currently under siege by Russian forces. By relating the wanderings of Odysseus to those of the refugees who traveled to Australia by boat, it aimed to make a commentary on exile, melancholy and dislocation. The piece was inspired by Homer’s supposed tomb on the Greek island of Ios, which features a cluster of stones that are perpetually rearranged by visitors. Pinchuk had never planned until the moment she showed Black Sea Wine his birthplace would be reorganized into a mass of rubble and his fellow Ukrainians transformed into the new wave of refugees.
Pinchuk is a concept artist who hired a professional stonemason to produce components to her specifications.
Placed near the main entrance, it is one of the first rooms viewers will see and it sets a dark tone. The gallery’s current facade was draped in massive, colorful veils by Kate Scardifield. Those who can read such things will tell you that it announces an emergency.
Inside, above the reception, there is a piece by Laith McGregor, which contains the word “hope”. In another part of the building, the same artist spelled out “SOS” in bottles attached to the gallery wall. McGregor hails from Lismore, a town that has just been decimated by flooding, so he has every right to sound alarmist. His large, detailed drawings are among the most impressive works in this selection.
With just 25 artists, the Biennale isn’t huge, but it’s spreading throughout the AGSA like gas, filling temporary exhibition spaces and seeping into the Elder Wing. Tom Polo’s large, raw, expressionist paintings are erected like billboards amid Australian historical works, angry bullies huffing on viewers’ necks as they examine a small colonial masterpiece. Polo’s works aren’t pretty, but their sheer bravery is appealing. Perhaps less appealing to those whose quality criteria are: “Would I hang this in my living room?”
At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Mitch Cairns presents a series of eye-catching paintings filled with flat, decorative patterns. It also has a wall-sized concept “poem” based on the labels found on a group of old photos. While the paintings lend gravity to unassuming detail, the wall piece feels like a painstaking way of not saying much.
Pitjantjatjara artist Rhoda Tjitayi produced the most heartfelt paintings in the exhibit, while natives modern is represented by Reko Rennie, with two long videos. We watch him drive around in a pink Monaro, late into the night, while dreamy music plays in the background. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s not particularly deep either.
That’s more than I can say about Shaun Gladwell’s new video, in which the artist, looking more like Moses than ever, with long gray hair and a beard, cruises around Melbourne on his BMX. From Goldspink’s words in the catalog, it’s understandable that he sees Gladwell as a special artist, but I’m probably not the only person who felt his brain turn to jelly watching this video.
Overall, the artists in this Biennale deal with a bewildering range of themes and ideas – from politics to sport, from mysticism to heritage – but in many cases the ideas behind a piece are not effectively conveyed. to the viewer. It’s up to us to learn what it’s all about, then say “Ah-ha! I would say that’s a bad way to imagine a work of art, which should be able to stop and hold viewers without them having to consult a wall tag or an essay.
Julie Rrap, now one of the eldest of this group, adopts a more direct approach, with a multi-channel video installation entitled Write me (2021-22), which presents 26 images of his own face, arranged like the letters on a keyboard. Viewers are allowed to write a message to the artist, which triggers a reaction on the screens by touching the corresponding letters. One can only admire Rrap’s bravery in creating so many self-portraits in which she added years and wrinkles to her own face. It is both an embrace and a challenge to the aging process. In the context of this Biennale, where the oldest artists seem to have produced the best, most coherent work, it is also a testament to the value of experience.
Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art: free state until June 5.