Curators Natasha Bullock and Alexie Glass-Kantor described the 12th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art as an exploration of the ‘temporality of the present as it parallels and collides with the past’. Perhaps, they suggest, time could be layered like the bars of a musical score, with each bar reflecting a nuance of the whole. In this particular composition, the lines were mutable, encouraging a concertina-like approach.
Titled ‘Parallel Collisions’, the biennial was divided into three sections: ‘The Tracking Shot’, ‘The Redux’ and ‘The Incursions’. For the latter, the curators invited five of the 21 participating artists, all of whom are Australian, to engage with the Art Gallery of South Australia’s (AGSA) collection of Australian art. The remaining 16 artists were commissioned to either create works (as part of ‘The Tracking Shot’) or reprise existing pieces (for ‘The Redux’). Each of the five incursions created a rub between the present and the past that highlighted the early bias of colonial Australian collecting practices while invoking familiar critiques of archiving culture. However, any doubts as to the contemporaneity of this curatorial methodology were eliminated by the dexterity and concision of the artists’ responses.
Tom Nicholson’s sculptural installation Evening Shadows (2010–11) took as its starting point the first work ever acquired by AGSA, H.J. Johnstone’s Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia (1880), which is also one of the most copied works of Australian colonial painting. Through a mass public call-out, Nicholson amassed 38 copies of the work, which depicts a bend in a Murray River tributary with a group of indigenous people camped on its banks. Employing a kind of archaeological imagination, Nicholson compared this camp with the location of the first mass indigenous strike: in 1939, 150 people walked off the Cummeragunja Mission in protest at their living conditions. The event was commemorated with posters, which were stacked next to the salon hang of the multiple copies of Johnstone’s painting.
Susan Jacobs’ work unearthed psychic and libidinous forces within the colonial paintings and sculptures of the AGSA galleries. Her video and sculpture Snake Drawing (2011–12) was inspired by, and presented alongside, a sculpture of Circe (c.1902) by Bertram Mackennal. Drawing on the snake as a symbol of forces beyond our control and foreign to our understanding, the work features a video of a snake encircling Jacobs’ own torso as she gently eases its body into a tray of sand, attempting to ‘draw’ with it. Described by the artist as giving material form to the idea of fear, the impression of the snake in the sand was cast in bronze and presented alongside the video. The old colonial portraits that surrounded Snake Drawing seemed collectively to blush in acknowledgment of the unknowable desires that drove their long-dead life forces.
These collisions between the present and history continued into ‘The Tracking Shot’, which was housed in the AGSA’s contemporary galleries. Here the curators presented 19 new commissions that further explored aspects of time. The narrative of ‘The Incursions’ loosened a little in these galleries, beginning with a sculptural installation by Pat Foster and Jen Berean, Unity and Fragments (How to Be Alone) (2012), that features the broken frame of a suspended ceiling upon which hung a Gerrit Rietveld Zig Zag Chair (c.1937), the frame of which became a universalizing grid that offered a structure for the remainder of the exhibition. Elsewhere, Marco Fusinato’s major new commission, Imperical Distortion (2012), was more of an explosion than an edit. Activated by hand-clapping, this sculptural assault of light and sound erupted into flashes of neon in a seizure-inducing collection of current statistics – ranging from births and deaths to dying stars – that hurled us into an urgent, universal now.
The work that linked the three sections of the biennial most successfully was a new video by Daniel Crooks, A Garden of Parallel Paths (2012). In this work, the artist employs his trademark splicing technique and a motion-control system to create what appeared to be a continuous tracking shot that seamlessly connected images of the entrances to Melbourne laneways, with what the artist described as a ‘meniscus between people and moving objects’. The effect was like viewing time in profile, whereby the rooms and spaces of the past and the present were all visible simultaneously. Bringing the exhibition’s central premise into focus, this work illustrated time as a series of brittle, broken scenes, that when presented simultaneously revealed how it might just be possible to create collisions in parallel.
Emily Cormack is a curator and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the 2016 Curator of ‘Primavera: Young Australian Artists’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia.
First published in Issue 148