REVIEW: 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art
In the description of the 2018 Adelaide Biennial: Divided Worlds we’re promised an ‘alternative dimension – one where “difference” is the natural order of things, and a strength to be celebrated’. While there is a route for this through concepts of the anthropocene, the title also suggests political boundaries (that have existed throughout this age); particularly white-settler-hetero-patriarchal boundaries that have created and used precisely difference to divide and conquer. But contention can be productive (I reminded myself) and considering the great track record of the Art Gallery of South Australia and the blockbuster line up of artists, I was curious to hear exchanges between creative thinkers/observers/articulators and witness the interrogation of these ‘divided worlds’. Though, while many works engaged in this, the Biennial as a whole, addressed various aspects of the theme in a fashion that mimicked the urban sprawl and eerie, post-apocalyptic emptiness of Adelaide.
I look at the cover image of the Biennial; and internally roll my eyes. It is yet another aesthetically rich, high-production photograph of abstracted white bodies in a faux-Australian nature-scene of colocasias – neither, really, (I)indigenous to Australia; both, really, loaded with colonial tropes. I see this all over Instagram. I am tired of beautified dispossession. I look to the rest of the series, the wall text, the catalogue for some justification but find nothing satisfactory, a few arbitrary settler bodies of colour and only grandiose notions of the ‘primal connection’ between humans and nature. Are we really there yet? At the point where we have the luxury to discuss meta-concepts? Is this a luxury afforded to the privileged and comfortable? Or has a relationship with nature become a fantasy and fetish? As an antidote I conjure important images of Fiona Foley, Angela Tiatia and TextaQueen trying to investigate visibility, politics and agency in brown women’s bodies’ and land. But the image leaves a bitter taste – who is it inviting and am I invited? My Airbnb host, Karen, drops me off down the road from the Art Gallery of South Australia – ‘do you mind?’ she asks, ‘it’s just that there’s so many people here, I don’t want to get caught in traffic!’ I look around and wonder if Karen can see ghosts.
The Kaurna people are said to be the original custodians of what is now known as Adelaide. Over thousands of years they developed a complex society, language and cultivation of the land. From 1836, it only took a generation for settlers to execute a systematic eradication of their entire nation – the Aborigines Act of 1911 saw the chief ‘protector of the Aboriginals’ forcibly disperse the last free settlement of Kaurna people. While such surface knowledge doesn’t right wrongs or absolve settler-guilt, it is an important gesture of curiosity and concern – a small decolonising thought, a mental Indigenous geo-tag, a miniscule unsettling, un-normalising gesture. It is an acknowledgement of ongoing colonisation, which constitutes oppressive social infrastructures and bleeds into all we know and hate; which keeps neo-liberal white cis-men in charge and keeps Indigenous people, refugees, queerness, people of colour out; which shares the privilege of invisibility with hetero-normativity, whiteness and patriarchy. So, much like the way in which, increasingly, creators, conversations, works and exhibitions are run through a filter of feminist or critical race critique, works created by/for/in settler contexts need to be run through Indigenous critique in order to engage with deep analysis. This kind of engagement and research has the potential to constitute new realities– realities with equal rights, and without the oppression of Indigenous people.
Transfixed in horror I sit by Julie Gough’s work larngerner: the colour of Country. I could sit in front of this work all day, a willing vessel for the progression of photographic, Arcadian, Australian landscapes made eerie, unsettled, by an accompanying screen of archival documents – horrific massacres recounted in cool, clinical prose. Gough performs an archeological/archival dig and exposes the bones beneath unceded soil and the Art Gallery of South Australia. The Ken Sisters too, talk about layers; 60,000 years of them. They speak in the mother tongue of their Country, Amata, in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Of tjala (honey ants) and how to follow them to their nest then ‘dig dig dig’. Of Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters dreaming) and matrilineal learning. They divulge, in detail, technique and ancient stories that cross borders and seas. But when questioned on the background layers, eldest sister and spokesperson, Yaritji Young, explains: those stories, they are old and sacred and for them. In my head Solange sings “some shit is for us”.
While these works have been well selected to remind us of who’s land we stand upon, it is not enough to just ‘bank’ unsettling/decolonising notions in certain works, leaving the entire onus with the viewer to apply pre-existing knowledge in order to withdraw meaning. These ideas need to be spoken/evoked/activated/repeated through the information exchange that happens around art. Forum Two: Universal Concerns chaired by Leigh Robb and featuring prominent artists Khaled Sabsabi, Amos Gebhardt and Hayden Fowler presented an opportune moment for this, but what followed was 55 minutes of the artists in turn describing their works and histories to an audience consisting largely of people I recognised from the opening. In an ironic foreshadowing of the rest of the conversation, Sabsabi talked about internal versus external revolutions and different modes of seeing – pointing out that a ‘threat to some is comfort to others’ and vice versa. Gebhardt followed in talking about bodies and nature as embedded in deep time, and as pure beings in a pure landscape. Similarly, Fowler spoke of his spiritual and mnemonic connection with Aotearoan /New Zealand land, working with a Maori woman and the Maori legend of giant eels to inform his work.
I wonder again, about the politics of these meta-concepts. Is it really possible to talk about bodies still oppressed and land still contested as ’pure’? What right does one have to the legends and trauma of another’s culture? And what was the name of the Maori woman who helped you? Who were the ‘traditional owners and custodians’ who were consulted? What are the politics of (my) looking? Am I a voyeur of these vulnerable bodies exposed to the elements, in this vulnerable land? If we acknowledge Country but don’t talk about land as Sovereign Aboriginal land, does it become tokenistic? Are we repeating the mistakes of early colonisers, discussing Indigeneity with the same distance as nature? I had so many questions that faced with the five-minute question time I was rendered mute and left with one last unsatisfied question – what is the point of these talks if not to ask these questions?
As I caught the tram to Mile End for the last time, I contemplated the scene at hand – proud, old federation homes adorned the occasional street corner and furtive weatherboard dwellings filled the gaps between them. Between these stark architectural juxtapositions, there seemed to be no middle ground. Divided Worlds certainly talked about divisions, but perhaps not in the way curator Erica Green intended. What was made disconcertingly clear through the exhibitions and vernissage weekend was that divisions are clearer than ever and that we are not yet communicating effectively across these barriers.
 Erica Green, “About,” 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, 2018, accessed March 15, 2018, http://adelaidebiennial.com.au/2018/exhibition/about/.
 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.
 Owen Craven in in Erica Green, Divided worlds: 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art,
 Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien and Mandy Paul, “Kaurna People,” Adelaidia, accessed March 19, 2018, http://adelaidia.sa.gov.au/subjects/kaurna-people.
 Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006):, accessed March 15, 2018, http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/resources/pdfs/89.pdf.
 Irit Rogoff, “Becoming Research: The Way We Work Now” (lecture, 2018 Adelaide Biennial Keynote, University South Australia, Adelaide, March 4, 2018).
 Lisa Slade in Erica Green, Divided worlds: 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, (Adelaide, SA: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2018), 64.
 Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed , trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1995), 53 – 57; Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art , (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014),10.
 Khaled Sabsabi in Leigh Robb et al., “Forum Two: Universal Concerns” (2018 Adelaide Biennial: Divided Worlds, Radford Auditorium, Adelaide, March 3, 2018).
 Anne Marsh in Erica Green, Divided worlds: 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, (Adelaide, SA: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2018), 54.
Unsettled settler, decolonising demi-Desi, quixotic queer, fan of alliteration.
The 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art curated by Erica Green, runs from March 3 – June 3, and is presented at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art at the University of South Australia, JamFactory and the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Garden.