Visual Art

Aiming to confront audiences with the hidden monstrosities of our age, the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art provokes crucial questions. By Andy Butler.

Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres

An installation view of Tales of Enchantment by Judith Wright.
An installation view of Tales of Enchantment by Judith Wright.
Credit: Saul Steed

Artist Karla Dickens has a fortuitous last name that she’s not shy of deploying for the sake of her work. Her major new installation A Dickensian Country Show, for the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, has the characters, grit and comically dark satire of a Charles Dickens novel. It is an assemblage of found objects that creates a circus-like experience where the worst parts of our past and present play out in front of us.

For the biennial’s theme, Monster Theatres, curator Leigh Robb has invited artists to make apparent the monsters of our time. Karla Dickens’ work is at the heart of this theme: she picks apart the complexity of what it means to construct a stage for monstrous elements of humanity and brings into relief the “ringleaders” and those who are called on to be the performers.

A Dickensian Country Show is purposefully loud, dark and abrasive, a nod to the grim, absurd times we’ve created for ourselves. Tucked away in a corner of the installation is a subtle piece in the form of a megaphone, above eye height, easily missed. Painted inside are the words wudhagarbidyabu gulbulaabu, meaning “listen” and “hear” in Dickens’ mother language, Wiradjuri. It is a call to cut through the noise with deep listening.

At the Art Gallery of South Australia, Dickens’ work is in synchronicity with an adjacent installation by Megan Cope, Untitled (Death Song). Cope has made string instruments that hang over a bed of gravel with amphitheatre seating around the edges, mimicking an open-cut mine. Large rocks collected from around South Australia hang by wire from drills and oil drums, forming the makeshift instruments. A haunting composition based on the birdsong of the bush stone-curlew permeates the space, giving the audience great pause. Cope is collaborating with musicians who will perform a piece with the installation. She’s interested in finding different ways of listening to nature at a time of climate catastrophe.

Artists throughout the biennial delve into complex and various facets of monstrosity – political issues, technology, climate change, history, mythology and beyond. Robb’s curation is astute in the way it places our fallible humanity at the centre of these issues. It feels timely and honest, given how this decade has begun.

Mark Valenzuela’s Once Bitten, Twice Shy consists of the rooftops of tin shacks, made to look as if they are submerged underwater. On top are scores of the artist’s ceramic works: tyres customarily used to hold down a roof during a monsoon in Valenzuela’s native Philippines; rubber ducks lined up in militaristic formation; life-preserver rings – things that could float in a flood, but all too fragile and breakable to save us.

This work is cleverly paired with Erin Coates and Anna Nazzari’s video work Dark Water. In homage to body horror and surrealist films, a woman wakes up to find an ocean in her house, with a forbidding presence. As the water rises, it feels as though the woman could be in one of Valenzuela’s tin shacks, and she pulls a half-formed lump of flesh, bone and hair from her stomach.

In talking about this exhibition, Robb emphasises the role of artists as social barometers. She sees these works as bringing out the anxieties of our age, making visible the monsters at the core of our current cultural moment – they’re framed as urgent warnings.

Monster Theatres’ curational rationale is very familiar. For at least the past couple of years, art institutions have mounted a deluge of exhibitions that respond to power, colonisation, race, gender, identity, climate – with a general feeling of emergency and discord. Elements of The National 2019 reflected similar themes, as did Buxton Contemporary’s National Anthem, Artspace’s Just Not Australian, TarraWarra’s The Tangible Trace, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera 2018 and the previous Adelaide Biennial, 2018’s Divided Worlds.

These sorts of exhibitions can feel voyeuristic or like box-ticking exercises. Audiences and institutions are often placed at some remove from the issues being unpacked by the artists – as if we’re not implicated in our own demise. Seeing this kind of work in state museums can be especially jarring, given their interdependent relationship with structures of power. Much of the time, these spaces don’t seem ready to truly grapple with the insights their artists bring.

Monster Theatres is surprising, though, in its willingness to have uncomfortable, confronting conversations with the audience. As eloquently noted by writer Claire G. Coleman in the opening address, the monster in this exhibition is us, and we must come to terms with it. You can feel the monsters in the room, and they are frighteningly close to home. This is the defining feeling of Monster Theatres.

The biennial features works that delve into our psyche. Brent Harris’s Grotesquerie series of paintings tries to make sense of an abusive patriarchal figure in a family, and Judith Wright’s Tales of Enchantment creates an eerie shadow world in response to the artist’s loss of a child. These internal demons are shown alongside the troubles made in the outside world.

Stelarc’s Reclining StickMan is an imposing nine-metre robot whose movements can be controlled by the audience. The artist is strapped in – dwarfed by hydraulic limbs – for two five-hour performances. This is a continuation of Stelarc’s decades-long investigation into the obsolescence of the body and our attempts to overcome it. The work resonates with emerging artist Kynan Tan’s three-channel video Computer Learns Automation (Ride Share, Drone Strike and Robot Arm), in which we watch algorithms perfect the skills of driving a car, using a military drone and working a robot arm in a factory – machines learning, in real time, how to do without us.

The Adelaide Botanic Garden, down the road from AGSA, contains several site-responsive works. Yhonnie Scarce’s In the Dead House sits in a small and unassuming cottage-like building – previously a morgue for the Adelaide Lunatic Asylum. Inside is a series of glass forms based on bush bananas, all cut open through the middle. The delicate sculptures reference a horrific local story of a coroner found to be dismembering and experimenting on Aboriginal remains – the work is chilling.

Julia Robinson’s Beatrice is a sculpture in the Museum of Economic Botany – a late 19th-century building in the Greek Revival style that houses long vitrines of plant material. Riffing on the trope of poisonous women in mythology and literature, Beatrice is a tentacled sculpture of purple and orange hues, delicately wrapped around itself. It feels eerily at home, a specimen created in the imaginations of men.

Monster Theatres offers few easy answers, and only rare glimmers of hope. One comes in the form of Mike Bianco’s Anthrocomb, a short stroll away, where you can lie on a bed and listen to the hypnotic sound of 50,000 bees beneath you.

The biennial broadens how we might think about the times we’re in by making this cultural moment seem more complicated and confronting than how it might seem from our toxic public discourse. While giving no clear solutions, Monster Theatres goes some way to demonstrating what we need – deeply uncomfortable, difficult and emotionally vulnerable conversations about the world we’ve created.


Arts Diary


Cement Fondu, Sydney, until May 3

VISUAL ART Jason Moad: Two Worlds and In-between

Fox Galleries, Melbourne, until March 31

MULTIMEDIA Elizabeth Willing: Silver

Museum of Brisbane, until April 29

SCULPTURE Tom Malone Prize 2020

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until June 29


Arts Centre, Melbourne, until March 24

THEATRE Dance Nation

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until April 12

VISUAL ART Sanaa: A Better World Through Creativity

Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, Adelaide, until March 24

DESIGN Metahaven: Field Report

RMIT Design Hub Gallery, Melbourne, until May 9

MUSIC Music in Exile Presents: Elsy Wameyo

Brunswick Mechanics Institute, Melbourne, March 17

PHOTOGRAPHY A Portrait of Australia: Stories through the lens of Australian Geographic

Bribie Island Seaside Museum, Queensland, until May 24

THEATRE Hell Ship: The Journey of the Ticonderoga

Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until March 22

VISUAL ART 2019 National Exhibition of Marine Art

Maritime Museum of Tasmania, Hobart, until March 22

Last chance


Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent at Gluttony, Adelaide, until March 15

THEATRE Cloudstreet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, until March 15

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 14, 2020 as "Monsters incorporated".

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Andy Butler is an artist, writer and curator.

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