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Installation view 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring Ian Strange, 2014, Art Gallery of South Australia Installation view 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring Ian Strange, 2014, Art Gallery of South Australia
A life-sized suburban house, painted black and embedded in the footpath, greets Art Gallery of South Australia visitors and passing Adelaide commuters. Ian Strange’s Landed is provocatively unavoidable in Adelaide’s North Terrace, confronting the CBD with the darker characteristics of suburbia. Welcome to the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart.

Mounted by the AGSA since 1990, the Adelaide Biennial is unlike its internationally-oriented Sydney counterpart in being exclusively a high-level survey of Australian contemporary art. Typically, the AGSA invites external curators for its Biennial, but the 2014 Biennial is curated by the AGSA Director, Nick Mitzevich. This is the first time the director has been appointed to this position.

Explaining the reasoning behind this decision, Mitzevich said, “The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art is our most important and ongoing artistic undertaking. At this stage in my directorship I feel that it is important to harness every element of the institution to advance the Biennial. The best way that I can do this is to lead from the front. This is also the most direct way of communicating the Biennial’s message. It is important to have a strong curatorial perspective—this is part of my philosophy and my day to day life as a director.”

Installation view Melrose Wing of European Art, 
Art Gallery of South Australia, 2013, featuring Berlinde De Bruyckere, We are all flesh
Installation view Melrose Wing of European Art,
Art Gallery of South Australia, 2013, featuring Berlinde De Bruyckere, We are all flesh

photo Sam Noonan
The gallery

In his four years at AGSA, Mitzevich has made major changes, rehanging the galleries, broadening and increasing the audience (27% in that time, now with 685,000 visitors annually in a city of 1.3m) and extending educational outreach. When I spoke to him, he made clear his intention that AGSA should not mimic other Australian galleries but develop a distinctive character.

AGSA’s eastern wing is hung chronologically with predominantly South Australian and Australian art, providing a comprehensive survey of state and national art history through which visitors gain an appreciation of its social history. Aboriginal art of corresponding periods is interspersed with colonial and post-colonial Australian art, telling a parallel story and creating a dialogue. The material includes prints, drawings, decorative arts and photographs as well as paintings, placing all forms on an equal footing. Mitzevich’s intention is to allow the work to tell the story. The display itself is not a revisionist history nor a critical examination of forms and genres (though it encourages critical examination), but shows how history can be represented through art.

But the Gallery’s western wing is hung very differently. The successive rooms each has a theme, for example “Seduction” and “Classical,” where the works presented are from different eras, genres and forms but characterise the theme. The juxtaposition of works that contrast both eras and styles might appear jarring but engages audiences more deeply in the work. AGSA gallery guides invite visitors to choose which path to take through the Gallery—chronological or thematic—and they predominantly go for the themed rooms. The work is densely hung and Mitzevich says that the interior and hanging are intended to convey the feel of a 19th century mansion. The two parallel streams demonstrate alternative ways of thinking about art, art history and visual culture, a lesson visitors take with them.

Mitzevich says, “Audiences are engaging, they want to think and feel and to nurture emotional experiences. They want to be able to leave the gallery with a strong memory of the experience.” The reconfiguration of the Gallery’s exhibits initially came under intense public scrutiny. “South Australian audiences felt part of the transition that this rehang involved, and 6,000 people attended the opening weekend.”

The AGSA has one of the largest collections of the capital city galleries—Mitzevich considers that “the gallery’s strength is in its collection, being asset rich but cash poor”—and so the effective presentation of the collection is crucial. But it is also acquiring new work and its most recent major acquisition, Camille Pissarro’s Prairie à Éragny (1886), fills a gap in AGSA’s European story and will resonate with the gallery’s other landscape works, including a definitive body of Hans Heysen works and its Heidelberg pieces, to address the idea of landscape.

Installation view 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring Warwick Thornton, 2014, Art Gallery of South Australia Installation view 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring Warwick Thornton, 2014, Art Gallery of South Australia
The Biennial

The 2014 Adelaide Biennial: Dark Heart, comprises the work of 28 artists and collectives around a broad theme concerned with the darker undercurrents in Australian culture. The temporary exhibition space is divided into separate rooms “like cells or chapters of a book.” Mitzevich has worked with many of the artists before and wanted to allow them to develop new work—70% of the Biennial works were made in response to the invitation to participate. Some artists made their most significant work for it, for example Ben Quilty’s The Island, which addresses Tasmania’s colonial past, is his largest painting and one of his most profound, using a Rorschach-like design to suggest a psychological reading of colonisation. Within the Biennial’s broad theme, there emerges an emphasis on Australia’s colonial past and the situation of Indigenous people. Mitzevich’s Biennial thus not only catalyses significant new developments in Australian art, it raises awareness of these important issues.

Installation view 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring eX de Medici, 2014, Art Gallery of South Australia Installation view 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart featuring eX de Medici, 2014, Art Gallery of South Australia
The Biennial art is demanding and audiences now expect to be challenged. Mitzevich states that “art should push the envelope in a considered way.” Film director Warwick Thornton’s Rebirth references Albert Namatjira’s work, exemplifying the reconsideration of iconic Indigenous art and culture through contemporary eyes and highlighting the still unresolved impact of Westernisation and colonisation. Some artists engage directly with existing works in the AGSA collection, creating a dialogue between the Biennial and the AGSA itself. eX de Medici’s installation The Law, a consideration of Iranian politics and culture, incorporates historical Iranian items from the Gallery’s collection.

Brook Andrew’s powerful Australia I-VI considers past representations of Indigenous culture by creating what he describes as large-scale history paintings based on Gustav Mutzul’s 1860s etchings depicting Aboriginal lifestyle and ceremonies that he encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Andrew shows how Indigenous culture was first recorded and reconsiders history painting and its role in visual culture, an artistic strategy well suited to Mitzevich’s approach. Many Biennial works appear to extend the Gallery’s historical and artistic considerations and many Biennial artists reconsider art itself, referring overtly to other art and its place in our cultural history. As the AGSA becomes a co-producer, it enlarges its role beyond the traditional museum role as repository and exhibition space. The Biennial’s interaction with the AGSA collection shows how Australian contemporary art forms a continuum with Australian art history and simultaneously reflects the contemporary world.

In his essay on Tony Garifalakis’ Mob Rule, Mark Feary suggests that art can never provide more than a superficial and thus inadequate analysis of a political situation; similarly, there is no “correct” fully analysed history. Nick Mitzevich considers that showing art of political commentary in an institutional setting doesn’t neutralise the commentary but rather brings it to the public’s attention. While it might not offer an exhaustive or dispassionate analysis, this Biennial urges consideration of major issues.

Nick Mitzevitch Nick Mitzevitch
courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia
The aesthetics

In his catalogue essay for the Biennial, Ross Woodrow suggests that the Biennial is concerned with aesthetic appreciation and that the AGSA hang also encourages a return to aesthetics. I asked Nick Mitzevich whether this idea was consciously developed in curating the Biennial and whether it is also an intention in the AGSA hang generally, or whether the hang is rather concerned with the historicisation of aesthetics. He replies, “Woodrow suggests that the Biennial is part of a zeitgeist return to aesthetics—a broader impulse that he has observed the world over. The idea of Australian artists and even curators as aesthetic sailors was not a conscious conceit but I am drawn to the figurative and to the narrative, and to the matter of making and memory, and these things can be seen as players in what Woodrow calls the aesthetic moment, which in his words is ‘triggered when objects reveal their psychic capacity’…This concern for affect is a conscious player in the AGSA hang generally and with a transhistorical and multimedia approach an aesthetic experience is inevitable (following Woodrow’s argument).”

The aesthetic atmosphere is palpable. For example, Alex Seton’s Someone died trying to have a life like mine is a series of lifejackets carved from marble (the material of classical sculpture) which doesn’t float, scattered on the floor around Quilty’s The Island as if washed up on its shore, referencing drowned asylum seekers.

Mitzevich indicates that he will not curate the Adelaide Biennial beyond 2014. It will be interesting to see how the 2016 Biennial develops under another curator and whether the aesthetic turn continues.


The 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1 March-11 May 2014; http://www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/agsa/home; http://adelaidebiennial.com.au

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. web

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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