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Do you believe in magic?

Gina Fairley

The 2016 Adelaide Biennial will convert the most cynical non-believer that object-based materiality commands the museum and contemporary curatorial concerns.
Do you believe in magic?

Michael Zavros, The Poodle, 2014; Courtesy the artist, Starkwhite, Auckland, and Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane.

‘Every artist is a conjuror,’ says Lisa Slade, Curator of this year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art and Assistant Director Artistic Programs at the Art Gallery of SA (AGSA).

The theme of her Biennial - which has got the visual art world pondering - is Magic Object. It breaks from the kind of cookie-cutter biennale vernacular we have become accustomed to and, rather, turns to a somewhat analogue material illusionism to question the state of making in Australian art now.

Slade has happily adopted the tag of the neo-Wunderkammer for her exhibition, prompting all to think about the role of transformation through the art object. The Wunderkammer - or cabinet of curiosities - is a Victorian concept of collecting, collating, displaying and "awe-ing" through the exotic and eccentric object.

She expanded in her catalogue essay: ‘The neo-Wunderkammer is neither a thematic approach nor a conceptual straightjacket; it aims to offer a space where free associations and insights are made possible by both artists and audiences.'

'The artists selected for Magic Object make work that defies classification; work that troubles the sanctioned categories of art and science, logic and magic, subject and object,’ she continued.

It is a timely exhibition that comes off the wave of a global maker movement, and a rethinking of how we interact with, and display objects, in our museums given the prevalence of installation art and digital media.

It is not surprising then that the few photographic and digital works in Slade’s Biennial have a more bodily foundation to decipher this world, reliant on the object to deliver their magic – such as Robyn Stacey’s room-sized Camera Obscuras and Jacqui Stockdale’s magic souvenir portraits that are stage sets blurring time.

Reality is considered in all its inflections and nuances by Slade.

Robyn Stacey, Comfort Inn Rivera, SAHMRI (2015); Courtesy the artist, Stills Gallery Sydney and Jan Manton Art Brisbane

The word “magic” has been thrown around liberally to describe this Biennial. While it might conjure a slight of hand, a deception or a kind of foolery we don’t usually reserve for such “serious” exhibitions, Slade has been able to bridge - through her theme - conceptual rigour with popularist wonder.   

As Mitzevich described: ‘The world itself conjures meaning beyond our known realm.’ Is contemporary making then such a stretch beyond everyday acceptance? Slade argues not, making the unfamiliar and wondrous so totally enjoyable and welcoming.

What is undeniable is that there is certainly something magic going on in Adelaide.

The exhibition attracted over 12,000 for its opening weekend. The last Biennial spiked attendances up 10%, attracting 110,000 to Director Nick Mitzevich’s Dark Heart.

This year the Adelaide Biennial is expected to build on that reputation, pushing beyond its own architecture through partnering with other venues.

‘It is not just a land grab,’ Mitzevich said. ‘This exhibition is about evolving in a manner that benefits the artists and the vision of our extraordinary curator.’

AGSA had partnered with the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, JamFactory, Santos Museum of Economic Botany and Carrick Hill to present the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.

Material illusionism and the power to transform

Slade recently described herself as a ‘curator who likes to trouble convention and challenge the canon!’

It could be easily believed. To think that a biennale has embraced lumpy pottery, ceramics, orange textiles, kitsch glass, delicate watercolours and robust feminism is astounding – but that it argues their place both in the contemporary museum context and biennale dialogue flicks off its 1970s baggage with steroid-sized bravado.

Is that magic, or is it part of a zeitgeist that is rethinking creative practices and the history of objects in museums? If the latter, Slade – and the gallery – can only then be celebrated for being on the mark with this exhibition.

Slade said: ‘Nick describes it as a vitamin pill – the Biennial gives this institution incredible energy, but I am hoping it does more than that. It should power Australian art; what is happening here should in many ways change the face of what is happening in Australian art.’

She explained: ‘Magic Object is an exhibition that looks at the idea, and begs the question, are contemporary artists the last magicians – can artists take us into a new world, can artists manipulate materials in a way that we are transformed and transported?’ Slade proves her thesis across her exhibition.

Audiences are faced with paintings that look like books (Chris Bond), glass sculptures that are zoological hybrids (Tom Moore), hyperreal paintings that turn floral arrangements into animals (Michael Zavros, pictured top), sculptures that look like fabled Banksia men ( Heather B Swann) and watercolours into animation (Fiona McMonagle).

Chris Bond, svampkris ig perrrgin vantlish la steken, 2015; Courtesy the artist, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, and THIS IS NO FANTASY + Dianne Tanzer Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Joanne Moloney

It is a topsy-turvy world where the power of transformation and celebration of the artist’s imagination and skill sit central. Yes skill – it is not a word often we use in a biennale environment.

Glass artist Tom Moore nails it in the comments about his work: ‘It is, I guess, trying to shock – just a little, like a pleasant cognitive shift that makes you think a bit differently about stuff.’

He told ArtsHub: ‘I like the mark of the hand; I like the trickery to be obvious. There are a lot of jokes here and different ways of reading something.’

Installation detail of Tom Moore's work at the AGSA; Photo Saul Steed

Moore’s work was exhibited across three venues. It is a kind of bounce that Slade employs to tease out her ideas of illusion, as artist appear and reappear and have conversations across sites, familiar yet different. 

Most obvious are Chris Bond’s hyperreal books at Samstag with Zavros’ floral illusions at AGSA, and Nell’s work at the gallery with Tarryn Gill’s pieces at Samstag.

Clay plays a big role in Magic Object, and while some might criticize its fashionable moment, its place here is more totemic, reaching to a further underlying theme of the exhibition – animism and object-bound spirituality.

Presentation is key and, if anything, is more about a conversation about contemporizing the politics of presentation of the object in the museum. Nell, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, and Glenn Barkley all subvert traditional plinths, Barkley creating his own custom-made Wunderkammer, blatantly flagging and up-loading contemporary viewing with history.

Installation view Glenn Barkley at AGSA; Courtesy the artist and Utopia Art Sydney; Photo ArtsHub

Again there is a strange conversation between Barkley's work and that of Kate Rhode's which offers the first "object punch" as visitors enter the gallery through the traditional wing.

Both seem to ratchet the object into hi-viz intensity as if to reassert its place in the museum with a "look at me" cry that seemingly usurps the fabric of museological presentation and has a good laugh at it.

Kate Rhode installation view AGSA - and below detail; Photo Saul Steed

The exhibition is not without a strong representation of Indigenous Australian artists. There is fantastic work from Bluey Roberts at Samstag; Pepai Jangala Carroll, Danie Mellor, Tiger Yaltangki, and the 105 year old Loongkoonan who traveled from her Western Australia community for the opening.

A poignant and stunning addition were the “ilma” or dancing rods from Bardi elder Roy Wiggan (who passed away late last year during the exhibition's planning) offering a superbly bridge between contemporary aesthetic consideration with an ancient potency that is unspeakably “magical”.

This is the exact duality that Slade has mined through her Biennial, and that will be remembered.

Installation view Roy Wiggan at AGSA; Photo ArtsHub

Is the artist then an illusionist? Is art making magical in our times?

While this exhibition allows audiences to dwell in a certain surface Baroque, it has a thriving, driving conceptual heart that ask some big questions of collecting, showing and engaging with art today.

To recall the words of Hiromi Tango: ‘What if we had the power of the lizard to separate part of ourselves and leave them behind, could we heal our trauma and regenerate our minds and hearts?’

Perhaps it is a metaphor for what Slade had attempted with her Magic Object Biennial of Australian art.

Magic Object: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art runs from 27 February to 15 May 2016 at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah (WA), Glenn Barkley (NSW), Chris Bond (VIC), Pepai Carroll (SA), Tarryn Gill (WA), Louise Haselton (SA), Juz Kitson (NSW), Loongkoonan (WA), Fiona McMonagle (VIC), Danie Mellor (NSW), Clare Milledge (NSW), Tom Moore (SA), Nell (NSW), Ramesh Mario-Nithiyendran (NSW), Bluey Roberts (SA), Gareth Sansom (VIC), Robyn Stacey (NSW), Garry Stewart & Australian Dance Theatre (SA), Jacqui Stockdale (VIC), Heather B Swann (ACT), Hiromi Tango (NSW), Roy Wiggan (WA), Tiger Yaltangi (SA) and Michael Zavros (QLD).

The writer travelled to Adelaide as a guest of the gallery.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley.

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