It is a time-honoured tradition that large museum surveys of contemporary art should have titles so vague and all-encompassing as to be effectively meaningless. Yet it may be that with Divided Worlds, Erica Green, the curator of the 2018 Adelaide Biennial, has found a title that actually feels relevant.
Two decades into the 21st century the world is a long way from the Age of Aquarius, becoming ever more riven and tribalised. In the west there was once a degree of mutual respect between opposing political parties and their supporters but now the divisions have become chasms. The United States has led the way, but (as usual) our leaders are hastening to follow.
Goodbye civilisation, welcome back blind partisanship! If there is an answer to the growth of division it has to come from the realm of culture. Once we begin to appreciate the art, music or cuisine of another group of people we've begun to break down the barriers that keep us locked in our own little enclaves.
Green envisages a world "where 'difference' is the natural order of things and a strength to be celebrated". It sounds banal but so many of our problems derive from the drive to conformity and fear of the Other. Art may not be a panacea but at the very least it asks us to think in a different way, or in this case, 30 different ways.
Of the 30 artists or groups of artists in the biennial there are not many shared themes. Politics plays a leading role in the work of figures such as Khaled Sabsabi, whose whose small hand-painted photos make postcards out of the ruins of war-torn Beirut; or Vernon Ah Kee, whose word-mural, Unwashed (2017) confronts the power of hate speech and racial stereotyping.
On the other hand there is a suite of large, gestural paintings by John R Walker that seem to be chiefly concerned with conveying a vivid impression of the hot, dry landscape of the Flinders Ranges. I know Walker is full of political convictions, but they don't make their way into his pictures.
One might be on another planet with a room of wall-sized sculptures of coral and pearls by Tim Horn, which look like bling for a race of giants. The surprise is to read that these mega-baubles are full of references to the bleaching of the Barrier Reef, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and Nazi atrocities. Most viewers might argue this is not immediately obvious, but artists' minds rarely follow the straight and narrow path.
There is also a fairy grotto by Pip + Pop (aka Tanya Schultz) made out of pink icing sugar, and a wall of mirrored glass by Nike Savvas. It would require a strenuous effort of the imagination to find an ideological agenda in such works, but after the Horn experience, I'm not so certain. Khai Liew's wall sculpture that looks like a piece of elegant, incomprehensible furniture is viewed by the artist as a mask of identity harking back to his childhood in Malaysia.
Green has been so even-handed in her selection it's impossible to discern any vestige of her personal taste. In sidestepping "master narratives" in favour of "benign anarchy" she has made "difference" the abiding principle of her choices, demonstrating an objectivity that few of us would be able to emulate. Indeed, the viewer that could admire everything in this show would be no more than a cultural sponge.
All things considered this is probably better than those shows in which a curator inflicts an utterly rarefied view of contemporary art on an audience. This means that alongside the large videos and installations there is room for painting – not just Walker's abstracted landscapes, but three imposing western desert canvases by the Ken Sisters; a series of witty, surreal figurative works by Lisa Adams; and a wall of startling portraits by Louise Hearman.
Hearman is in the strange position that everyone seems to love her work, but few people want to own it. This may be because her skills with the brush are usually put at the service of something slightly unsettling. This is the case with the biennial pieces, which feature the heads of brutal, thuggish-looking guys surrounded by coloured haloes. The paintings have a magnetic quality, but each head seems to be saying: "You lookin' at me?"
Division and duality are not a problem for Australian art's favourite Buddhist, Lindy Lee. Out the front of the gallery she has set a towering, hollow stainless steel sculpture called Life of Stars. As the sculpture is pierced by tiny holes, light seems to reflect from the both the surface and from within. In a work called True Ch'ien, she uses a series of blackened works on paper to reproduce a Chinese parable that asks perennial, unanswerable questions about which self is the true self.
It sounds banal but so many of our problems derive from the drive to conformity and fear of the Other.
The most out-of-the-way part of the biennial is to be found in the Botanic Garden, where there is a sound work by Christian Thompson, and Tamara Dean's photos at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany.
If you've never been to this museum, it's simply one of the most remarkable sights in Adelaide, or all of Australia. A beautiful building of neo-classical proportions with an array of specimens exhibited in a single large room, it rejects all the gimmickry beloved of contemporary museums and transports us back in time.
Dean's photos have never looked better than they do in this setting. Her images of young, feral types romping in the undergrowth like disciples of Pan, are perfectly framed by Victorian-era displays that present an encyclopaedic – almost hallucinogenic – vision of natural abundance. In this environment, Dean's figures seem more than ever a part of nature, acting as a free-spirited counterpart to the scientists' desire to analyse and classify the world.
There's more botanical eroticism at JamFactory, with Maria Fernanda Cardoso's Naked Flora, which features photos of brightly coloured, uninhibited plants waving fronds and tendrils in all directions. Cardoso seems happy with the idea that when it comes to art one can't really improve on nature. Or perhaps she's implying that all art is made with the underlying aim of sexual display and reproduction. After seeing these works you'll never look at your garden in the same way again.
The 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Divided Worlds is at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, JamFactory, Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Garden, until June 3.
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