A biennial to help us navigate the chaos of our times

Sebastian Goldspink’s visceral and compelling curation of works by 25 contemporary Australian artists fulfils the tricky task of weaving together the manifold preoccupations of our unsettled times, opening up portals to transcendence, and offering hope through our interconnectedness and resilience.

Mar 09, 2022, updated Mar 11, 2022
'Casting shadows [Chandelier]' and 'The Settlement [Shield]' by Dennis Golding, in the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: Saul Steed

'Casting shadows [Chandelier]' and 'The Settlement [Shield]' by Dennis Golding, in the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: Saul Steed

Review: 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State
Art Gallery of South Australia

We sit at a threshold of profound global transformation, our preoccupations laid bare in our newsfeeds: the distressing brutality of war, environmental degradation and natural disasters, the ugly legacy of colonialism, inequalities of race, gender and economic privilege, along with the prevailing pandemic of the last two years. Technology has enabled connection in these times of COVID-induced separation, while entrenching division and overloading our neurons with too much questionable information. We can no longer think of the world in binary terms, uncertainty flinging us into a state of sustained anxiety.

“Artworks bring light into the world and then ripple healing energy outwards,” proclaims one of the otherworldly Zoom participants in Kate Mitchell’s video installation Open Channels; if so, then Free/State is just what we need to help us navigate our way through the chaos of our times. A threshold, after all, is a liminal space between two realms, that in-between rich with potential for necessary transformation, promising new horizons and new ways of imagining, thinking, remembering and feeling.

Kite and Séance by Darren Sylvester, 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

Portals are everywhere in this exhibition, inviting us into time-out spaces that open up new possibilities through the resilience shown by this diverse, multi-generational group of artists in their exploration of uncertainty. They invite us to confront the realities of all we face, to transcend them by creating something new.

Free/State refers to South Australia’s status as the only freely settled state, but the definition straddles multiple boundaries of meaning. Conventional prose hardly seems adequate to convey the collective impact of the exhibition and the multi-dimensional ways each of the artists’ works converse with others, reaching tendrils into our imaginations.

The sails of Kate Scardifield’s ALARUM brightly signal climate emergency on the gallery façade, while Rhoda Tjitayi’s time-unbound stories reclaim the colonial architecture that houses the gallery’s permanent collections with the oldest truths painted onto its walls.

The pale, draped wooden figure of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s Little Ghost halfway down into the dark recesses of the lower ground-floor galleries is an eerie harbinger of the presences that haunt liminal interstices throughout the exhibition.

In a melancholic movie scene unwinding in the darkness, Reko Rennie drives a bright-pink, vintage Camaro through a darkening and lonely city, past industrial wastescapes and into a concrete car park, circling, lost and contained; then in a Rolls-Royce disguised in desert camo, speeding down open red tracks, marking circular presence into red dust before driving off to who knows where.

A tall triangular doorway in the darkness glows pink with an invitation to enter Min Wong’s installation, Purple Haze, a dark-luxe spell-chamber of a gym equipped with gimp-like contraptions, crystals and Dawning-of-the-Age-of-Aquarius books, promising a freeing of your inner guru in exchange for cash or belief.

Installation detail: Namaslay by Min Wong, 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

Dennis Golding’s Casting Shadows (Chandelier) bleeds rust from ornate ironwork, casting a shadow of a colonial cage, while elsewhere in the gallery, Hossein Valamanesh’s eternally rotating sphere of gold-tipped red-gum sticks casts another shadow, reminding us of What goes around.

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Up above in the light-filled galleries, a multitude of voices spell out SOS in Laith McGregor’s Strange Days, an installation of more than 1000 bottles filled with pleas for help, images of hope, letters of love and fetish objects contributed by members of the public, punctuated in one corner by a tiny ship in a bottle.

Strange Days by Laith McGregor, 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

Darren Sylvester’s Transformer buzzes with an invitation to self-transport to alternative realities, its electrifying aquamarine light reflecting off Séance, his collation of lightjet prints on the adjacent wall, where an otherworldly circle of beautiful young people of liminal gender and ethnicity glisten as if emerged from a sunken new Atlantis as they join hands to intercede with the unseen.

Victorian artist Stanislava Pinchuk was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and her series of marble monoliths in Gallery 1, The Wine Dark Sea, bear inscriptions from Homer’s Odyssey that interplay with leaked cables from investigative journalists in Nauru and on Manus Island. The words echo terribly into present-day news, a warning that history repeats itself when lessons remain unheeded.

The Wine Dark Sea by Stanislava Pinchuk, 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

Perhaps it is the quiet, comforting presence of Hossein Valamanesh, who suddenly lost his life earlier this year, that is felt most keenly. Guardian, a sculptural work created in collaboration with Angela Valamanesh, his partner in life and art, is a straight-backed chair ennobled with stag’s horns. The chair is occupied by an unseen presence, evidenced by a pair of neatly aligned barefoot prints that glisten with life-giving water. The artist is present.

Guardian by Angela and Hossein Valamanesh, 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State, AGSA. Photo: Saul Steed

The last word goes to another of Kate Mitchell’s wise ethereal beings that speaks to us through Open Channels: “If the path didn’t have so many twists and turns and lots of stimulation on multiple levels you wouldn’t get the fullness of the experience. Journey deep, then come back out again.”

Entry to the Adelaide Biennial exhibition is free, and I recommend journeying deep into Free/State more than once. Every visit will cement the importance of art as an agent of transformation on our collective imaginations. What you see, hear and feel will occupy your thoughts long after you leave, and take up residence in your dreams.

Works no less worthy of mention in Free/State are by artists Serena Bonson (NT), Mitch Cairns (NSW), Dean Cross (NSW), Shaun Gladwell (VIC), Loren Kronemyer (TAS), Tracey Moffatt (NSW), Tom Polo (NSW), JD Reforma (NSW), Julie Rrap (NSW), Jelena Telecki (NSW), James Tylor & Rebecca Selleck (ACT), and Sera Waters (SA).

The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until June 5 as part of the 2022 Adelaide Festival.

Click here for more  2022 Adelaide Festival coverage.


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