‘Divided Worlds’ documents wholeness

By Miriam Cosic
Contrary to its name, this year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art emphasises unity

Tamara Dean, Elephant ear (Alocasia odora) in Autumn from the series In our nature, April 2017, Adelaide Botanic Garden, pure pigment print on cotton rag, 150 x 200 cm; Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.

“Somehow we are longing for healing and becoming whole,” Adelaide Festival co-artistic director Neil Armfield said at the media launch of the concurrent Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art’s 2018 edition. These words provide a clearer overview of the totality of the exhibition, called Divided Worlds, than either its title or even the catalogue essay written by the curator, Erica Green, who confusingly conflates concepts of division, destruction and their alleviation.

With the exception of Khaled Sabsabi, the Muslim convert to Sufism who fled the Lebanese civil war for Sydney with his family in the late 1970s, most of the artists explore themes that are organic, describing connection rather than its opposite. Sabsabi’s work, miniature paintings made of the photos of the Lebanese civil war he has collected, is reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s photo-paintings, though neither the technique nor the purpose is the same.

Most of the works in the Biennial document being, or becoming, whole, rather than the destruction that tears us apart. Among the most memorable are those by Tamara Dean, Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Angelica Mesiti, Lisa Adams, Christian Thompson and John R. Walker.

Tamara Dean places naked human bodies in landscapes that range from lush green to dehydrated or decaying brown. Her questions are existential, her subject is human presence in the cycles of the natural world, and her medium is photography of minutely staged installations. Showing Dean’s work in the Museum of Economic Botany, deep in the Adelaide Botanical Gardens, was a stroke of contextual genius: the rest of the room is rich with botanical samples, organised by species and displayed in glass cabinets.

Maria Fernanda Cardosa, too, has a botanical theme. She has stripped the pretty petals from flowers to expose the reality of their purpose: the sexual organs within. She photographs and heightens the alluring colours of the carpels and the stamens, enlarges them, and presents a kind of artistic-botanical pornography that is visually stunning and conceptually memorable. In Adelaide, she has presented a series of these pictures accompanied by texts in old-fashioned handwriting explaining the purpose of 18th century Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy.

Lisa Adams’ hyperreal oil painting was a little more fanciful and, it turned out, sinister. I’d originally viewed it as the merciful intervention of a group of surgeons on some kind of magnificent being, obscured but with its giant eagle-like wings spread out behind it. And then I saw the title, Inquisition, and noticed the half-hidden human hand connected to a catheter.

Christian Thompson’s work is different to both traditional Indigenous painting and in-your-face urban art. His mysterious portraiture hidden within panoplies of lush Australian flowering plants seems to point to many things: the invisibility of the traditional owners of our land, the now-inconceivable failure to count Indigenous Australians in the census, management of Indigenous affairs through departments that also handled flora, fauna and wildlife, and an aesthetic outside expected directions of Indigenous art. His vocal installations make specific reference to the “systematic silencing” of Indigenous voices.

Also in homage to Australian country, and in dialogue between Indigenous concepts and settler materialism, is John R. Walker’s suite of paintings, Oratunga Burra Suite, which reflects the artist’s engagement with environment, geology, history and the spirituality of the Adnyamathanha people in the Flinders Ranges. His fugitive eruptions of red, orange and yellow ochre shades, plus black, on a neutral background refer to everything he sees in those locales, from barbed wire and blood to what he calls the “bones” of the land itself.

The Biennial benchmarks the technical preoccupations of Australian contemporary art at present, as well as its political interests. Installations, videos, painting, collage: some of it is intriguing because it shows unexpected genres from certain artists. That here-we-go-again feeling about seeing Patricia Piccinini on artists lists at the moment – her confronting standalone resin mutations are brilliant and unforgettable, but they do seem to have featured in every Australian survey recently – was immediately dispelled on approach. The works that form The Avian Trilogy are as imaginative and zoologically fantastic as any of her work, but depict eggs, upturned boots and an eagle in full flight, all conjured by or conjuring forth human hair. As collage, they are also minimally three-dimensional, but framed and hung on a wall.

Angelica Mesiti, who has just been named Australia’s choice for the Venice Biennale in 2019, made a video in Denmark, demonstrating the egalitarianism and inclusiveness of its citizens. Danes, remember, were the people who saved most of their Jews during Nazi occupation. The catalogue entry for the video describes how, after 1940, the year of German occupation, “Danes assembled in huge numbers to alsang – “all-sing” – in peaceful demonstrations of resistance, collectivity and patriotism.” Mesiti’s video depicts Danish children and adults participating in choirs. She also made segments that depict refugees and migrants making music, including a group of boy scouts of Lebanese and Palestinian backgrounds drumming, and one of Somalia’s most famous singers, Maryam Mursal, now in exile in Denmark, seated on a sofa and singing a mournful lament.

Emily Floyd’s political comment, Icelandic Puffins, is huge, yet simple and austere. She has displayed the names, in stand-up lettering made of oxide-coated steel, of every man and the one woman responsible and charged for Iceland’s banking collapse in 2008. In between are colourfully beaked black puffins, a nod to the region.

So much more at the Biennial is eye-catching, conceptually thought-provoking but perhaps not so visually memorable: like Kristian Burford’s three white suspended bodies, sexually ambiguous from behind but feminine from the front, one of them heavily pregnant; Kirsten Coelho’s Transfigured Night, a long table of white porcelain vessels, reminiscent of the work of both Giorgio Morandi and Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, a tribute apparently to the dignity of country women; Amos Gebhardt’s video of human bodies of all colours and shapes, an exploration of identity; Julie Gough’s meditation on a single page of anthropologist Norman Tindale’s notebooks, which shows a small square of brown, a guide for Europeans to the colour of Aboriginal skin; Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro’s dismantled Honda, its parts bagged in traditional jute and bamboo packaging and hung across an entire wall at the Art Gallery of South Australia; and more.

The Adelaide Biennial is overshadowed on the national art scene by the rich and heavily promoted Biennale of Sydney, which shows more than twice as many artists drawn from all over the world. The smaller, local Adelaide endeavour is always worth visiting, however, standing as it does on the edge of the international biennale scrum. There, I always find works that I either haven’t seen elsewhere or see anew in the light of Adelaide’s very particular cultural frame of reference.

The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art is on across several locations until June 3. Miriam Cosic attended as a guest of the Biennial.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Tamara Dean, Elephant ear (Alocasia odora) in Autumn from the series In our nature, April 2017, Adelaide Botanic Garden, pure pigment print on cotton rag, 150 x 200 cm; Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.

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