Monsters in the gallery: Adelaide biennial invites the chaos of the unknown

From Megan Cope to Stelarc, the artists at this year’s biennial confront the disturbing unknown head-on

A subtle scent of honey mixes with the smell of freshly cut wood as I lie down on the hive. Beside my right ear, bees fly through a clear tube leading to the outside world. Their low drone mixes with the soft clunks when they hit the perspex: a punctuated murmur.

In Mike Bianco’s Anthrocomb, a tiny house in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, sunlight plays with the leaves outside and refracts through the silk the artist has draped over my eyes. This is meant to be a practice in mindfulness, in considering our place as stewards of nature. But with the play of light and the soft crackling tones, my mind turns to fire.

It’s been a summer of monsters. Bushfires in Australia. Floods in Indonesia. The unknown of the coronavirus. Harvey Weinstein found guilty of rape. Now, the 2020 Adelaide Biennial: Monster Theatres.After what we’ve seen this year, how could we possibly confine monsters to the gallery?

A participant in Mike Bianco’s Anthrocomb.
A participant in Mike Bianco’s Anthrocomb, at Adelaide Botanical Gardens. Photograph: Saul Steed/AGSA

The morning of opening, curator Leigh Robb types messages on her phone as we talk. She pauses to make phone calls to people throughout the Art Gallery of South Australia and the second exhibition site at the botanic gardens. Technology needs adjusting: she opens a hidden wall panel and leans over a computer. Our interview is interrupted as she goes to check on Mike Parr, about to begin a six-day performance work.

Does this chaos feel somewhat invited by calling the show Monster Theatres?

“That’s the thing. You’ve got to be careful what you wish for,” she laughs.

“I’ve definitely created a monster, but that’s what’s exciting. The monster is the unknowable, so you spend two years negotiating this uncertain space with the artists on that threshold. That’s where it’s exciting. Often our fear lies in the unknown.”

Robb has spent two years of curating and collaborating with 24 Australian artists to create this show. Those artists force us to confront the unknown head-on in work about racism, the refugee crisis, sexism, horror movies. There is a definite sense of malaise while walking through the gallery spaces, but it is hard to define where this comes from: is it the work, or is it just the way we have been primed as we enter?

In Karla Dickens’ askew funfair, A Dickensian Country Show, an old handwritten sign seems at first glance to read “Run for all humanity”. Looking again, I see it says “Fun for all the family”. Our brains play tricks on us.

Megan Cope’s Untitled (Death Song) is an imposing sculpture and sound work, instruments from an apocalyptic wasteland. Strings donated from music conservatories are pulled taut by locally mined rocks. As we sit with the work, Cope explains how the rocks have been “extracted, blasted out of the country”. All of a sudden, the sandstone fronting on the gallery becomes part of her work, too.

Strings from music conservatories strung between rocks
Untitled (Death Song) by Megan Cope. Photograph: Saul Steed/AGSA

At various times over the biennial, these instruments will be played by sound artists and string ensembles, bows curving over the taut wires. Mineral and machine brought to life in screeching, suffering tones.

“We need to encourage people to listen in ways we may not want to,” Cope says. “And listen to the land, as well.”

I return later, alone. When the instruments aren’t being attended to, another dimension comes from listening to a recording: the sound so much more guttural, so much more of the land.

The biennial spans generations, from 25-year-old Pierre Mukeba to one of Australia’s pre-eminent performance artists, Stelarc, who has placed his body at the centre of his work for over five decades.

Australian performance artist Stelarc in his sculpture, Reclining Stickman.
Australian performance artist Stelarc in his sculpture, Reclining Stickman. Photograph: Saul Steed/AGSA

As with Cope’s work, there is something more powerful about Stelarc work when it exists outside of the performance. Reclining Stickman is a giant, humanoid robot. The artist sits inside the work as it spins, unfurling and flexing the limbs. But when I return to the gallery when the artist isn’t performing, it becomes not man and machine, but just machine.

I stand and watch a man manipulate the limbs from a panel to the side of the space. He observes the mechanics, how to control it. This creature looks more human when you don’t have the human body to compare it to, and more monster when you can see the external human trying to dominate it.

What is a monster but the unknowable beast humans feel the need to control?

Polly Borland’s photographs show misshapen bodies of flesh and fat constrained by nylon: a sickly control of female forms. Yhonnie Scare’s ghostly glass sculptures in the long-abandoned morgue in the gardens: a building where Aboriginal bodies were dissected and shipped to museums around the world.

MORPH 4 by Polly Borland (2018)
MORPH 4 by Polly Borland (2018). Photograph: icon/AGSA

Julia Robinson’s Beatrice, an otherworldly vine, a large sculpture of purple fabrics and gold accents, is untethered among the careful taxonomies of fruits and seeds at the Museum of Economic Botany. Introducing me to the work, Robinson smiles. “She likes it here.”

“I like the idea that she can’t be categorised, where everything around us is labelled and under glass. I get the impression that if she was allowed to grow, she would eventually be too rampant for this environment.”

As we talk, a young girl runs past our knees. A gold thorn on Beatrice extending off the platform catches the girl’s eye and she stops in reverence. “Wow,” she breathes.

Even Bianco’s bee hive, the gentlest work in the biennial, is about control – how humans learned to use bees to enrich our own lives. Anthrocomb is about conscious awareness of this relationship.

“You make space,” he tells me, after the silk has been removed and I am sitting up. Space to “open up different ways of thinking and being and seeing.”

As I walk down North Terrace, back to the gallery from the gardens, a van drives past. Scrawled in spray paint on its side are the words: “Secret societies are for hidden elites. Elites are poisoning you.”

This summer, our monsters are everywhere.

Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia and Adelaide Botanical Gardens until 8 June


Jane Howard

The GuardianTramp

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