An Adelaide Biennial that casts a deliberately wide net looks closely at notions of freedom and the state. By Walter Marsh.
Since its inception in 1836, South Australia has held on to its image as a “free colony” with white-knuckled fervour. Encompassing a grab bag of 19th-century utopian ideals, those two words were meant to set this colonial outpost apart from the transportation, slavery and genocide found in other corners of the empire. Curator Sebastian Goldspink takes this sense of ambiguous definition and contested execution to heart for Free/State, the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.
In the entrance of the stately Elder Wing of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Kharkiv-born Stanislava Pinchuk’s The Wine Dark Sea (2021) – a set of polished and stacked marble cubes and columns – project a sense of gravity. Engraved quotations from Homer’s The Odyssey heighten their neoclassical undertone, but they’re steeped in more recent events. Alongside names such as Telemachus and the cyclops Polyphemus are the partly redacted testimonies of asylum seekers marooned by the Australian state on offshore detention camps, pleas such as “What’s the point of surviving at sea, if you die in here?” Separated by millennia, there’s an arresting uniformity in these brutal tales of displacement and purgatory in the shadow of war.
The Wine Dark Sea shoulders an unwelcome timeliness in the week of Free/State’s opening, as Pinchuk’s Ukrainian birthplace is invaded, making ideas of freedom and statehood particularly salient. As Scott Morrison magnanimously offers to bump displaced Ukrainians to “the top of the pile” of Australia’s humanitarian intake, The Wine Dark Sea’s testimonies of those who languished on Manus Island and Nauru weigh the heavier. While some stories are immortalised in epic poems or receive blanket news coverage, the testimony of those made stateless by war is more often placed out of sight.
The 25 artists rallied under Goldspink’s banner have been granted a pretty free rein. In the two eventful years since the last Adelaide Biennial, “freedom” and “state” have faced greater scrutiny, but instead of reaching for a prescriptive, unifying topicality, Goldspink’s response to “these unprecedented times” is to encourage each artist to chart their own, uncompromising course. A resulting sense of freeform anarchy runs through this exhibition, spanning generations, mediums and ideas. The resulting journey, if occasionally uneven, is never homogenous.
Sydney-based artist Tom Polo’s freestanding canvases are placed among the Elder Wing’s regular displays, showing a series of abstracted figures and faces that seem to drip with colour. This breadcrumb trail leads to clockwatch (end/during) (2021-22), a moving clock face of Polo’s own, blue-painted face that heckles passers-by for running late. Such playful, slippery notions of time and form hint at the more cosmic, spiritual kinds of “state” seen across the biennial.
In a room that sits somewhere between gym and Instagram-ready dungeon, Min Wong’s Namaslay (2022) depicts a quest for elevation of body, mind and follower count. Bathed in dark pink and purple light, Wong’s sculptures lie between fitness equipment and bondage, peppered with crystals and the aspirational slogans of New-Age thinking and the commodified wellness industry. A neon sign reads “Free your own guru”: while the tongue is firmly in cheek, one can’t help but feel enthralled by the aesthetics, or the grind, of transcendence.
A series of works by First Nations and non-Indigenous artists reckons with the aftermath of “free” states built upon stolen Country. Kaurna man James Tylor and Rebecca Selleck’s series Warpulyainthi (Colonial Slavery in South Australia) (2022) hits close to home with a series of blue gum furniture pieces: a dining table, meat safe, and butter churn. These artefacts of colonial domesticity are marked with symbols of Kaurna ceremony and littered with bronze-cast corpses of native parrots and pigeons, quandong seeds, chocolate lily and geranium. These embellishments grieve and disrupt the displacement and erasure of one home for another, and the unwilling conscription of Indigenous peoples, flora and fauna into a deadly colonial narrative.
Sera Waters’ Storied Sail Cloths (2021) approach from another perspective. Waters’ ancestors arrived in South Australia in 1838, and while her work embraces crafts and materials that were objects of necessity and comfort for her colonial forebears, these five sails delicately survey the toll that comes from finding that your story is stitched over someone else’s.
This maritime thread is apparent in Worimi artist Dean Cross’s gunalgunal (a contracted field) (2021-22), which appropriates Théodore Géricault’s 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa and overlays it with the obliterated white outline of a map of the Australian continent created by white anthropologist Norman Tindale, whose maps are held by the South Australian Museum next door. In demarcating this vast land into hundreds of smaller territories, Tindale sought to create a more nuanced picture of the continent and its peoples, but for Cross it seems to rankle that it draws Western notions of borders onto the complexities of Aboriginal land and sovereignty.
If Cross’s work suggests a discomfort with fences and boundaries, Dennis Golding’s Casting shadows [Chandelier] (2022) explores a complicated nostalgia. Radiating an orange glow that mimics the sodium vapour of city streetlamps, each tier of the chandelier is cast from the wrought-iron fences that line the terrace-housed streets of Sydney’s Redfern and Surry Hills. Victorian architecture suggests a colonial space, but for Golding it’s also the architecture of his childhood growing up Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay in The Block, rich with his own readings of memory and community. The topmost fence mirrors that of his grandmother’s home.
Just before Golding’s chandelier is a room dedicated to the work of Hossein and Angela Valamanesh, a husband-and-wife team who embody the liberating possibilities of love, partnership and generous collaboration. The pair are among a handful of established artists, from Tracey Moffatt to Julie Rrap, whose works add a sense of lineage and forward momentum to the biennial.
Taking up an entire wall is an eclectic bricolage of simple, spirited pieces the pair made between 1968 and 2013, mapping the contours of two overlapping careers. The Valamaneshes’ new work finds them in the backyard, from the Gothic ceramic stems and buds of Angela’s Morticia’s garden (2021) series, to Hossein’s What Goes Around (2021), a gently rotating bundle of red gum branches picked off his studio roof. Hossein died on January 15, aged 72, as he and Angela readied the final touches of their biennial contribution, but What Goes Around keeps that shared practice in a state of motion even after one of its creators has passed on.
The Valamaneshes’ work doesn’t ignore the big picture, with its allusions to migration, deep time and the centuries-old poetry of Hossein’s Persian roots. But it does remind us that a freed state, if you’re lucky, can also be found in small places: in a garden – carefully nurtured, cleared of fallen twigs – where you make art with your partner of four decades.
Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until June 5.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Free for all".
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