The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Australia’s longest-running study of contemporary art, opened in 2022 – but under a shroud of grief.
The recent deaths of one of the exhibition’s key artists, Hossein Valamanesh, and the biennial’s main sponsor, Neil Balnaves, have permeated the atmosphere: both men died suddenly in the run-up to the 37th Adelaide Festival, Valamanesh in January and Balnaves in mid-February.
Their death has added a layer of poignancy to the event in 2022 entitled Free / State, a festive and cerebral study of human freedom in which curator Sebastian Goldspink brings together the work of 25 leading Australian artists from across the country, each interpreting the concepts of state and freedom in their own way.
The biennial was developed during what Goldspink refers to as the “wild and unpredictable” environment of Covid-19 lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter protests, and the biennial’s focus first came to the curator in early 2020.
Sydney-based Goldspink started from a specific Adelaide perspective: “I was fascinated by the history of South Australia, its status as a free colony in opposition to New South Wales … and the idealistic values that South Australia embraced early on, in part as a reaction “When Covid hit, there was a real political focus on the sovereignty of individual states.”
Our new standard is reflected in works like Laith McGregor’s installation Strange Days, with more than 1,000 bottles spelling SOS. And the handmade knives by Tasmanian artist Loren Kronemyer refer to the need for individual responsibility in a time of chaos and survival in an apocalyptic world.
The restricted state of freedom is examined in Ukrainian-born artist Stanislava Pinchuk’s marble installation, The Wine Dark Sea, which fuses the text of Homer’s Odyssey with whistleblower reports from the detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island.
Personal Freedom and Responsibility informs Sydney artist Julie Rrap’s large-scale multimedia work Write Me, which invites her audience to write comments on social media about 26 digitally manipulated images of her face, superimposed on a computer keyboard grid.
Her interest in the clash between free speech and accountability developed during the shutdowns, Rrap said, amid public debates over personal freedom.
“Covid somehow shrunk my options, which turned out to be really useful,” she says.
While the idea of manipulating her image on an alphabetical keyboard had evolved over a number of years, the display of the public’s response on a large overhead screen came recently.
“[The viewer] commenting in a public space with others watching, so I look at notions of free speech and what people think they can and should not say in the debate, ”says Rrap.
No respectable biennial would be without an element of in-your-face gross, and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah commits to In the Name, a series of graphically realistic animal carcasses hung from the ceiling. Abdullah, described in the catalog as “seductive … and at once repulsive”, draws on his childhood memories of Perth when he saw his father slaughter a sheep bought from a local feeding place.
First Nations artists Dennis Golding and Reko Rennie also used their childhood experiences to get inspiration.
Golding, a Kamilaroi / Gamilaraay artist, deconstructs the Victorian architecture of Redfern, his youthful neighborhood, specifically the block. His chandelier, created from iron lace balconies saved from social housing, totally owns its prominent space.
And Rennie’s video installation takes viewers on a journey through working-class western suburbs to Melbourne, where the Kamilaroi / Gamilaraay artist grew up. An eerie magenta Monaro Holden coupe, moving through landscapes of refineries, slaughterhouses and Westgate Bridge, is featured in the work titled Initiation.
Rennie says he wanted to pay homage to the car’s central place in his suburban culture.
“There’s a westie car culture – some might call it a bogan culture – where people are very proud of their vehicles and spend a lot of time working on them, and that’s how it was when I was growing up,” he says. “There was a real pride in creating a cool car, and it was also something I always wanted when I was a kid – a nice muscle car.”
The choice of a 1970s Monaro, topped off with one of Rennie’s totem colors, was inspired by a marketing campaign by General Motors Holden at the time. The word Monaro is an Aboriginal word meaning “high plain” or “high plateau”.
The juxtaposition of indigenous culture into modern ordinary everyday life also nurtures Rennie’s sense of what it means to be a First Nations man born and raised in the city.
“There’s a romanticized notion of aboriginality that defines authenticity as living in a desert, painting dots, dancing around, hunting and gathering food,” he says. “But the reality is that many of us grow up and live in urban environments, and mine was very much a working class.
‘It was a multicultural society in the 70s and 80s where I never had problems with racism because everyone else came from somewhere else. But there were riots with law and order, drugs, alcohol – that was it [elements] of my initiation. “
Rennie collaborated with Yorta Yorta soprano, composer and actor Deborah Cheetham for the soundtrack, a beautiful sad work composed and performed by Cheetham with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Music has a deeply personal meaning for Rennie. Like Cheetham, his grandmother was a member of the stolen generation. Although she proved promising as a bel canto soprano, she was prevented from developing a music career by her white adoptive family who used her as a housekeeper.
“That dream was shattered,” Rennie says. “And that’s something I always remember.”
2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free / State is part of the Adelaide Festival, which is on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 5 June. Guardian Australia traveled to Adelaide as a guest at the Adelaide festival