November 29, 2023

To get in the door of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), visitors typically pass through the colonnaded portico on North Terrace — which is currently hung with a series of vertical banners, patterned in emergency-orange, turquoise and royal-blue geometric shapes. The effect is ambiguous: is this a beacon, or a warning?

The orange parts of the banners are made from ‘storm sails’, explains curator Sebastian Goldspink, helming AGSA’s 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.

“All big yachts carry storm sails. And while they’re not really an effective sail for day-to-day use, in storms they’re very rigid, and they will get you out of trouble; they’re almost like a lifejacket,” Goldspink explains.

The banners are the work of Warrang/Sydney artist Kate Scardifield, who has titled the work ALARUM — after the Elizabethan-era stage direction indicating a state of disarray (“Like in Shakespeare, when the scene sort of starts in panic,” says Goldspink).

It’s a beacon, and a warning — and an analogue for Goldspink’s belief that in times of trouble, artists must hold steady; stay the course. Be our guides.

The Sydney-based curator, descended from the Burramattagal people, has chosen 25 artists from around the country to do just that, as part of his edition of the Adelaide Biennial, subtitled “Free/State”.

Geometric patterned banners in tangerine, royal blue and cyan hang between pillars outside the Art Gallery of South Australia
Artist Kate Scardifield has been working with sail-cloth and repurposed sails for a number of years.(Supplied: AGSA/Saul Steed)

Ideas of freedom and state

“Free/State” is a deliberately slippery theme that Goldspink intended to be a provocation more than a prescription. While it was inspired by his interest in history — specifically, the history of South Australia as a so-called “free colony” — it also nods to states of being and psychology, and different notions of freedom.

The works in the exhibition explore social and family history, colonisation, life in lockdown, incarceration, freedom of expression and its consequences, freedom of choice, spiritualism and the state of climate emergency.

Grey haired and bearded man in black suit with printed t-shirt stands in gallery hall beside abstract painting.
Goldspink founded ALASKA Projects in 2011, showing contemporary art in a Kings Cross car park, among other places.(Supplied: AGSA/Saul Steed)

Goldspink says he knew from the get-go that he didn’t want to make a Biennial about COVID; but inevitably, given the topic and the fact that most of the works were created during the pandemic, lockdown life is a subject within the exhibition.

Naarm/Melbourne artist Shaun Gladwell stars in his 21-minute video work Key Strikes, riding a BMX in one sequence and climbing (and hanging upside down from) a monument in another.

Taking place in the urban environment and occasionally in the virtual realm of Grand Theft Auto, Gladwell’s video cycles through various chapters of lockdown life in public space, including CLIMBING, SEEING, DRINKING (people drink from public water fountains) and DANCING (lo-fi footage of a street dancer).

Elsewhere in the gallery, Warrang/Sydney artist JD Reformer has transcribed eight of his daily lockdown runs into fragments of neon tubing affixed to the ceiling and walls. A framed map nearby demarcates the precise 5-kilometre-radius zone of his ‘confinement’.

“I run as exercise generally, and then during the lockdown that parameter of the 5 kilometre radius around where I live became a performance boundary, in a way,” says the artist.

On the opposite wall, a life-size photograph of Reforma running through a rigidly-plotted glade of gumtrees in south-west Sydney (back in 2013) feels like a portal to freedom while simultaneously heightening the sense of our confinement in a subterranean gallery.

Tanned man with dark hair and trim beard wears white singlet and cap and stands with folded arms in front of light installation
Reforma says he was drawn to neon “because in lockdown I was thinking about those simple binaries: light and dark, inside and outside. East/west. Free and confined”.(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

Busting out of the institution

There’s a sense of ‘busting out’ of institutional constraints in the show’s opening stretch, which leads visitors who enter through the building’s front entrance through the gallery’s Elder Wing: a bastion of late-19th-century classical architecture.

A series of large, bright, paintings by Warrang/Sydney artist Tom Polo greet viewers as they cross the threshold into the Elder Wing: they’re not on the walls, but installed within the gallery space on support structures, so that they resemble ‘theatre flats’.

Polo worked with AGSA curators to position his paintings (and the misshapen, abstracted figures within them) in relation to other works on display within the Elder Wing — ‘disturbing the peace’ so to speak, but in a productive way that encourages you to look at the collection and gallery space with fresh eyes.

Gallery with wooden flooring and grey walls featuring three large colourful abstract paintings and site-work painted on an arch
Tom Polo describes the figures in his paintings as “theatrical characters or imagined personas”. “Not only are we looking at them but they’re looking back at us as well.”(Supplied: AGSA/Saul Steed)

Nearby, Pitjantjatjara artist Rhoda Tjitayi has painted her grandmother’s tjukurpa (story) directly onto the walls, alongside a hand-painted greeting: “Come in. What do you see, hear and feel? Right now you’re in my grandmother’s country.”

“Her studio is a few hundred metres away. [But] she just never felt she could come.”

Pitjantjatjara woman with curly brown hair and glasses wears navy dress and stands in front of richly coloured painting.
Several of Rhoda Tjitayi’s massive paintings of her grandmother’s Country and tjukurpa are included in the exhibition.(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

Also in the opening room of the exhibition is Ukrainian-Australian artist Stanislava Pinchuk‘s installation The Wine Dark Sea (titled after a phrase from Homer’s Odyssey): a meditation on the refugee experience that’s impact is heightened by the current Ukraine-Russian conflict.

Pinchuk was born and raised in the city of Kharkiv before migrating to Australia aged 10, and has been ‘mapping’ the impact of conflict in that country (and others) through her arts practice, since the escalation of Russian aggression in late 2013 and early 2014.

For the Biennial, she worked with a grave-maker to inscribe marble offcuts with lines from both the Odyssey and leaked cables detailing refugee experiences in Australia’s offshore detention facilities in Manus and Nauru. The similarity in lines from these ostensibly disparate texts inspired her to ‘prank’ the audience: each line is falsely attributed to the alternate source.

“So everywhere that you read Odysseus or the Cyclops, Telemachus, Penelope — it is actually a line from Nauru. And everywhere that you read ‘redacted’ is actually a line from The Odyssey,” she explains.

Pinchuk describes Homer’s epic poem as “the original quote-unquote migrant novel”.

“[My artwork] was kind of very much about interrogating what narratives we accept as the foundations of Western literature and what we refuse to publish or to talk about, to acknowledge.”

White woman with shoulder-length hair and fringe wears denim blue shirt and stands with arms folded in gallery space.
“It was really about interrogating: What is a free state? What is Australia as a free state?” Stanislava Pinchuk says of her Biennial work.(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

Slavery in the so-called ‘free’ state

On December 28 of 1836, freshly-appointed Governor John Hindmarsh officially declared the commencement of government for the “free colony” of South Australia: not a penal colony (like New South Wales) but a colony of free men.

In the same address, Hindmarsh declared that the laws of this new, free state would apply equally to its “native population”.

This (misguided) ‘ideal’ was the leaping off point for Goldspink’s conception of his Biennial.

Two of the works deal explicitly with the broken promise and hypocrisy at the heart of South Australia’s treatment of First Peoples and Country.

Partners and collaborators James Tylor and Rebecca Selleck draw on his Kaurna heritage and family history in their installation, which explores South Australia’s history of slavery.

Tylor and Selleck’s installation, titled Warpulyainthi (Colonial Slavery in South Australia), comprises carved furniture, photographic prints and bronze-cast flora and fauna, to create an eerie, period-ambiguous ‘colonial’ kitchen space — complete with a butter churn, onion and potato bin, flour trough, food safe and kitchen table carved from blue gum.

Kaurna man with dark hair wears black shirt standing beside white woman with long dark hair and grey shirt in gallery
James Tylor and Rebecca Selleck have independent arts practices as well as their joint one.(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

“[The furniture blends] a Georgian-esque style to a modernist style, which is the time frame that servitude happened in; going from colonialism in the 19th century all the way through to the 1950s, when Aboriginal people were still unpaid servants,” says Tylor — noting that it is all “lower class furniture”.

“My great-great-grandmother was a servant … but most Aboriginal families have some relationship either to the missions, or to servitude,” he adds.

A dead kangaroo joey is laid out on a bench seat at the kitchen table, which is strewn with bronze-cast versions of Kaurna staples (oysters, mullet, saltbush, warrigal greens, samphire) that were ultimately endangered by colonial land management. Underneath the table, a handful of quandong seeds lay spilled, like marbles.

For the artists, the artworks represent both loss and endurance; what remains is evidenced by the installation itself — including the flora and fauna, and the engraved patterns on furniture and photo prints, which represent a Kaurna body design specific to the northern plains (the kuri pattern).

There is a poetic justice to presenting the work in an institution like the Art Gallery of South Australia, which sits on a strip of heritage architecture that must have been funded, at least in part, by slave labour (in the form of donations from pastoralists, in an era where unpaid Aboriginal labour on farms was commonplace).

A photograph of a taupe coloured hillside landscape with diamond-like geometric patterns printed over the top.
This photographic work, part of Tylor and Selleck’s installation, features the ‘kuri’ pattern, a Kaurna body design specific to the northern plains.(Supplied)

Colonisation as a free-for-all

South Australian artist Sera Waters also explores the lie of the ‘free state’ in her work for the Biennial: a textile installation called Storied Sail Cloths, comprising a series of embroidered landscapes on sail-cloth, arranged in a sail formation on the walls of AGSA.

Waters comes from five generations of settler-colonists stretching back to 1838, when her ancestors, sail-makers, came to South Australia.

Her practice as an artist draws on this family history as well as traditional British needle-work techniques, to reckon with the impacts of colonisation.

For the Adelaide Biennial, she examines the colonial mismanagement of land and environment in various regions of South Australia.

One embroidered ‘sail’ depicts Port Adelaide and the destruction of oyster beds to create mortar for colonial construction; another looks at wetlands in the south-east that were drained to create pastoral land; yet another looks at mining.

“I’m asking, as that generation who inherited their legacies — a lot of a lot of damage, a lot of waste buried under areas that we still live with the repercussions of — how do we take responsibility? How do we acknowledge what’s happened, and then start to change?”

White woman with should-length blonde hair wears cream shirt and black necklace in front of fabric artwork hung on gallery wall.
“I’m of that generation that didn’t learn our true Australian history, or the knotty Australian history, when I went to school,” says Sera Waters.(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

Early in her career, Waters won a scholarship to study hand-embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework in the UK, and she uses methods such as white work and black work, and French and colonial knots, in her work.

“I’m thinking [about] how can we use those old skills to rethink our future?” she explains.

“I often go back to knots, because I think we can’t actually untangle what’s happened; things have changed too much. So we have to acknowledge that we live with all of these knots and tangles — [and] even though we can’t undo them, we can trace them to see all the threads that make up that knot, to understand how it came about, so that maybe we can change our our behaviours into the future.”

Reclaiming territory

Against the backdrop of historical and ongoing colonisation, several works in the Biennial assert First Peoples sovereignty and identity, and ‘reclaim’ territory.

Naarm/Melbourne artist Reko Rennie’s video works OA_RR (2016-17) and Initiation OA_RR (2021) take centre stage in the downstairs gallery of AGSA. In the first, he makes a return trip to ancestral Kamilaroi/Gamilaroi/Gamilaraay Country in a custom-painted Rolls Royce, to enact a contemporary ceremony of burn-out rings in the red dirt; in the second, he voyages through the dockside suburbs of Naarm/Melbourne’s west in a hot-pink-metallic Monaro coupe, to enact a similar ritual on the bitumen.

The dramatic soundtrack (alternating between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s Higgs Boson Blues for the earlier work, and an aria by soprano Deborah Cheetham for the later work) permeates most gallery spaces on that level — giving Rennie’s artworks an outsized presence.

Tan man with dark hair, greying beard and tattoos wears black shirt and stands in front of video panel work in gallery.
Reko Rennie’s video OA_RR was inspired by his grandmother’s story of being stolen from her family, and a photo of a white pastoralist with his Rolls Royce.(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

Around the corner, Worimi artist Dean Cross interrogates bureaucracy, cartography and boundary-making as instruments of colonisation, and their role in carving up “this sort of pre-contact ‘free state'” — or “one big paddock” — that is now called Australia.

His installation gunalgunal (contracted field) has been created on a free-standing double-walled structure with an exposed inner cavity and a doorway carved into it, through which the viewer must pass to fully experience the work.

Over one wall is layered a large-scale reproduction of Théodore Géricault’s epic 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa (depicting a real-life colonial catastrophe of shipwreck and cannibalism on the slave route); and a version of the 1974 map of Australia devised by white anthropologist Norman Tindale, in which he demarcated the “Tribal Boundaries in Aboriginal Australia” — though in Cross’s version, Tindale’s boundaries have been erased.

The wall on the other side of the structure features a patterned arrangement of 25 iron star-picket fence posts (used to demarcate boundaries across this continent), each slightly bent so that they look like boomerangs. The combined length of the posts, Cross points out, is 81 metres: the height of the flagpole topping Parliament House in Canberra.

As you walk through the doorway between the walls, the in-between cavity is exposed so that you can see the rough inner construction: plywood support structures, fencing wire. The mess and guts of the colonial construct, perhaps.

Worimi man stands through doorway in gallery framed by a renaissance style painting with a map of Australia cut into it.
The Tindale map of Australia, first published in 1940, is a contested demarcation of First Peoples communities and Country.(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

Fencing is reclaimed in Warrang/Sydney artist Dennis Golding’s work, too: a giant ‘chandelier’ made from panels of Victorian-style cast-iron fencing of the kind found in the terrace-fronts of Redfern — where Golding grew up.

Golding draws on the story of his family and of Aboriginal families more generally; his grandparents moved from their respective towns in northern New South Wales to Redfern in the 70s, “when they heard that Redfern was emerging as a community,” he says.

The orange light cast by the chandelier evokes the street lights that he remembers as a “cue to run home” in the evenings; the iron-lace panels recall those on his grandmother’s house in Eveleigh Street as well as those on the terrace front of the Settlement — a community hub where he and other children hung out in the 90s.

Warrang man with short dark hair and beard smiles wearing a tie-dyed Aboriginal flag print shirt beside large yellow chandelier
Golding says the work is about “Western architecture and ideas about land occupation, but really shifting that narrative so it becomes my own work; our own object.”(ABC Arts: Sia Duff)

Crucial to Golding’s process is that he casts the panels in epoxy resin — rather than using found objects; it speaks to the symbolic re-casting of a Western style of architecture as an Aboriginal contemporary architecture.

Mounted on the wall behind his chandelier is a ceramic “shield” that reinterprets the floral motifs and ornate design of the terrace panels.

“I’ve tried to use the objects to really shift its function as a fence,” says Golding.

“Fences are a barrier to our land and people, and they talk about occupation, land claiming. And so I’m turning all of the fences upside down, installing them in the shape of a chandelier and putting light in the centre [to make something] that talks about how we can shed light onto these experiences.”

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

The writer travelled to Adelaide with the assistance of the Adelaide Festival.


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