Monster Theatres

The 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art celebrates a thirty-year milestone with ‘Monster Theatres’, curated by Leigh Robb, who is also Art Gallery of South Australia’s (AGSA) first Curator of Contemporary Art. The title draws from the Latin monere, a warning, and monstrare, to make visible, and it gestures toward the multiple meanings of ‘theatre’. Featuring multicultural artists across all artforms, it spans AGSA and Adelaide Botanic Gardens, transposing inside-outside narratives.

Fulvia Mantelli: Always looking to artists as a starting point, Robb began by speaking with many previous exhibitors about their perspectives, such as Fiona Hall – whose 1990 Biennial experience was a pivotal moment.
Leigh Robb: It allowed Fiona to completely change artforms and mediums, with her first iconic Paradisus Terrestris sardine tins series. I asked for her advice about what’s important and what’s at stake. She said that aside from being a huge profile builder, there needs to be space for experimentation, to shapeshift your practice and have the curator’s support and confidence to be able to take those risks.

This sort of artist and curator relationship – underpinned by trust and creative curiosity – is what makes Robb tick. In over fifteen years of exhibition-making within diverse contexts across the globe, she has collaborated with notable artists on many bold, experimental and elaborate projects.
As curators, we’re always thinking about finding the conditions that allow for works to evolve and be nurtured. This exhibition title is a provocation: in thinking about things on a monstrous scale, they tend to take up a lot of space, conceptually or physically. Nearly all the works are hermetic, each requiring their own environment, architecture, stage. It’s like curating twenty-three solo shows, and it needs to be.

Robb’s practice is firmly rooted in her deep engagement with the ways that artists contribute to how we perceive and negotiate the world. Her selection of Biennial artists reflects how contemporary art is ramping-up their reactions to our turbulent times.
I was led by their work, the responses I keep seeing: gender in the twenty-first century, patriarchy, climate change, technology, spirituality, subjectivity. Without a doubt we live in monstrous times of increasing polarity and vulnerability. I’ve seen shifts toward harnessing action and more politically overt works, coming from real fears. Some of these artists have shaped Australian art history and transformed international contemporary art discourse – pioneers who are still at the top of their game and indefatigable.

Robb previously worked with Stelarc on an ambitious project in WA: a performance with live optical and audio inputs from London and New York, and an exoskeleton arm manipulated by gallery audiences and online internationally. His Biennial work extends that project to new heights.
Stelarc still wants to deal with ideas of control, power and outsourcing the senses and the body as obsolete, but with a more physical interface: a voodoo element where the public choreographs a small robot, both in-situ and online, to animate its nine-meter counterpart. It’s been a collaborative process across robotics and technology, with engineers, programmers, automation companies – working with elements that haven’t even been used in industry on this scale, it’s all being supplied, made, designed and built in Adelaide. This work explores a more complex system of interaction between human and machine.

Robb refers to our time as being ‘in the grip of the age of the Anthropocene’. The devastating impact of humans on the earth’s ecosystems and the resulting climate crisis is a something many of the Biennial artists are responding to, such as Mike Bianco, an apiarist, ceramicist, performance artist and activist.
At a time where human lifestyle threatens to render the honey bee extinct, Mike’s Anthrocomb project highlights our interdependence with these remarkable insects. His recent project at the Science Gallery London harnessed the heat generated by a colony of urban bees to power an incubator to grow and sustain human skin cells. His participatory work at the Botanic Gardens invites you to rest with 50,000 bees moving beneath you, the scent of the propolis and the hive’s sound are all-consuming.

Like Bianco, Yhonnie Scarce investigates ways of negotiating monsters of fear and anxiety. Also at the Botanic Gardens, her new site-specific work occupies the Dead House, which was once a morgue for the Lunatic Asylum. Robb sees this work as ‘closest to the Frankensteinian story’.
Yhonnie’s large blown-glass bush bananas, peeled back like a body undergoing autopsy, look like apparitions with their beautiful milky white alabaster colour. She looks at the treatment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal patients, how human remains were sent overseas, and the key protagonists of these dark histories of trauma and dismemberment.

Interested in how monsters are manifested, in particular that a warning is ‘both a sound and a presence’, Robb cites the works of Megan Cope and Julia Robinson which play on the double-meaning of ‘siren’.
Megan is an incredibly influential voice regarding the impact of colonisation. Using rocks extracted through mining, her new work is a lamentation for an exploded country. A beautiful instrument that, when played, echoes the sound of the threatened curlew bird, known as a harbinger of death or a warning. It’s about radical empathy.

Julia touches on that too. Her haunting work brings together Scylla, a multi-limbed goddess with an insatiable appetite, and Beatrice, a protagonist from Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1844 gothic novel, in which a scientist grew a poisonous garden that only his daughter could tend. Julia’s tentacular, tendril-like work, based on a lethal flower, talks about new hybrid forms for ‘disobedient’ or ‘toxic’ women and alternative forms.

‘Monster Theatres’ features major new commissions as well as ambitious works that are reimagined in unprecedented ways.
All of the artists have put their ideas and practices on the line, to make really ambitious work: inspiring, moving, profound and transformative. Although some are daunting, there are very sensitive works with alternative speculations about inter-species intimacy, or collaborating and listening. A lot of empathy, tenderness and beautiful, poetic moments.

In the wake of the landmark survey ‘Australian Perspecta’ (NSW 1981–2000) and the short-lived ‘Melbourne International Biennial’ (1999), and in the context of ‘The National’ (NSW since 2017) and ‘Melbourne Triennial’ (since 2018), Robb comments on the successes and challenges of Adelaide Festival’s visual arts flagship:
Enduring platforms for contemporary and experimental practice are driven by relevance, urgency and necessity. Some have prevailed different directors, economies and formats. Similarly, Adelaide Biennial’s remit, venues and curatorial agendas have changed over time. It expands with each iteration and right now it’s about ‘a slow looking’: intimate, deep-time encounters with artists’ work.’

The Adelaide Biennial is the longest enduring curated platform for contemporary Australian practice in the nation. The city is a nexus, where its particular history and geography – between the country’s north south east and west – make it a poignant place to be able to explore dangerous ideas.

Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres
29 February – 8 June 2020
Art Gallery of South Australia and Adelaide Botanic Garden

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