At the launch of the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, guest of honour and Adelaide festival co-director Neil Armfield offered his summary of the exhibition and its theme: Divided Worlds. “Somehow we are longing for healing and becoming whole,” he says. “When it’s in art, it’s just one step from the real world.”
Divided Worlds is an exhibition that aims to describe the divide between ideas and ideologies, between geographies and localities, between communities and nations, and the subjective and objective view of experience and reality itself.
On a more modest level, the Biennial also offers visitors a snapshot of the state of Australian contemporary art, featuring the work of 30 artists at venues across the city.
The Art Gallery of South Australia and the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art host the majority of the Biennial. At AGSA there are major installation pieces, such as Amos Gebhardt’s monumental four-screen video work Evanescence (2018) and Timothy Horn’s exquisite sculptures, scaled up from classic jewellery pieces to massive wall hangings.
At the Samstag, Emily Floyd’s playful text and arctic bird sculpture, Icelandic Puffins (2017), takes up almost the entire downstairs gallery, while smaller works such as Douglas Watkin’s intriguing twin videos are tucked away behind walls.
The JamFactory, the Adelaide Botanic Garden and the Museum of Economic Botany venues are much smaller in scale and have fewer works, but feature standout pieces, including Tamara Dean’s arresting commissioned photo series In Our Nature and Kirsten Coelho’s Transfigured Night (2017), an elegant collection of spotlighted pottery that recalls Morandi.
Where for decades galleries elsewhere in Australia shied away from large-scale survey exhibitions by local artists – and have only recently got back into the game – the Art Gallery of South Australia has been staging the Biennial since 1990.
Curatorially speaking, the survey show is a difficult balance to achieve. Although there’s no real expectation of a greater cohesion beyond what one might think of as the art world equivalent of a degustation menu, one naturally hopes that some kind of overarching logic is apparent. To the credit of Erica Green, the curator of the 2018 show, Divided Worlds manages to do two things well.
The first is that Green has captured the larger concerns of the contemporary art scene, which is essentially a desire to tackle big social issues, from race relations to the environment, from gender identity and social justice, to grand themes of history and to time and space itself. Your enjoyment of that will of course vary, but I respect the effort – and sometimes the art as well.
The second aspect of Divided Worlds that I found interesting was that, through all the big works and the major commissioned pieces, there are also a number of virtual outsiders to contemporary art’s big game, such as two figurative realist painters: Lisa Adams and Louise Hearman. Their works represents a different but related art world of traditional art skills mixed with an eye for the surreal. Those kinds of inclusions make for a successful show, and perhaps meet the expectation that a survey show be all things to all people.
Green acknowledges the Biennial carries the weight of expectation. “It has been challenging to think through a show that [implies] it’s a survey,” she says. “At first I thought there are so many artists that have already been in all these biennials – and all the number of artists who could have been included is huge.
“So it became a process of asking, who do you exclude? With 30 artists you’re not going to be able to do a survey justice. How many artists could I squeeze in? It’s a sampler of what’s happening now.”
The show is a mix of well-known interstate names and local South Australian artists. The work is also a familiar mix of contemporary art media: sculpture, photography, installation, video and painting. Among the work there are some genuine surprises, such as Roy Ananda’s massive sculptural tribute to the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons – a representation of a space between an imagined world and a real one.
“This is a monument to fandom, reflecting my love of the game,” Ananda says. “It transposes a map that describes an underground lair of monsters and so on, that exists within the game and on paper, but also in the imaginations of tens of millions of people. It has a relation between reality and unreality.”
One of the key aspects of contemporary Australian art is a concern with its own history and how certain histories are more privileged than others. Barbara Cleveland is the collective pseudonym of the artists Kelly Doley, Francis Barrett, Kate Blackmore and Diana Baker Smith, a group formerly known as Brown Council. The collective has produced work as though Cleveland was a real person active in avant-garde art in the 1960s and 70s. In Divided Worlds, Cleveland is represented by working sketches and notes for a performance as well as a video of a Cleveland-choreographed piece.
“The Barbara Cleveland project in general looks at the way particular artists are curated, and the way art historicisation works, which is pretty relevant to a show like this,” says Doley. “I guess it’s a long-term project about who is included and who’s not. We speak from a gendered position about that process.”
Paris–based Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s Mother Tongue – a sumptuous two-screen installation – is in many ways a perfect distillation of Divided World’s themes. Mesiti’s video juxtaposes the musicians and performers of immigrant communities in Aarhus, Denmark, with Danish-born choirs singing traditional songs. Like her recent work that combines music of various cultures, the video finds a commonality between people.
“The political context of how Europe is treating the immigration crisis and also the rise of nationalism of rightwing parties is the environment that I’m working in right now,” says Mesiti. “Also, as an Australian artist with an immigrant heritage and policies here around those issues. A lot of us in the show are thinking about the contemporary moment and how we can respond to it.”
Does living in Europe offer Mesiti a different perspective on Australian art? “I think that we have a diversity of practice here that is unique, in that we have the benefit of Indigenous culture and contemporary Indigenous practice, as well as artists who are interested in gender and sexuality. As a postcolonial nation, we have so many things that are particular to us … It’s a unique type of art.”
For curator Green, Divided Worlds is a mixture of careful thought on where the exhibition sits in a national context as well as what it offers to the average art punter.
“I wanted to do something distinctive, that did say something about Adelaide, that came from this place,” says Green. “I’ve seen a lot of biennials in my time and I wanted this to be a show that I would walk into and be genuinely excited. I could have done with double the space, or included this person or that person … The whole show grew from an organic dialogue with the artists. Once they were chosen, we went on a journey together.”
• The 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Divided Worlds is on until 3 June 2018
• Guardian Australia was a guest of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art