All this and Heaven too
Exhibition review All this and Heaven too Curated by Juliana Engberg The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art Art Gallery of South Australia 28 February - 13 April 1998
The Adelaide Biennial sits within the visual arts calendar as an opportunity for curators to take risks. The two Sydney surveys, Biennale and Perspecta, bear responsibilities as international and initiatory events, respectively. The other triennials serve regional or media interests.
Last Adelaide festival, Chris Chapman ventured schlock into the halls of good taste. Before that, the three curators brought east and west together outside the gallery. So, what is the risk with All this and Heaven too?
Out of context, the title sounds like a cheap advertisement, as though the afterlife were a set of steak knifes to cap off the great bargain of life. Placed on the catalogue cover image, featuring a boy witness before landscape, this phrase reads more seriously as an eschatology of childhood. The notion that heaven can be found in the first years of life is by no means a new thought - a fragment from the old Greek Heraclitis says, "Eternity is a child at play". This venerable sentiment appears to be the Biennial's contribution to the festival theme of 'sacred and profane" and, as visitors, we are invited to play along.
Robert MacPherson and Helen Fuller's works greet the visitor with elements of the quotidian world that have been blessed with the authority of a museum. Both artists draw from an everyday that is made sacred by its distance from museum bureaucracy. MacPherson's roadside signs honour the play of form and content that occurs in purely naïve settings.
While Fuller's appropriation of her father's shed is imaginatively arranged for its Biennial reincarnation, there seems a confusion of tone. The surreal joke of barbecue bench made of books is out of keeping with the more reverent scientific display of tools on the walls. MacPherson and Fuller offer our last glimpse of a world beyond the museum before we enter the Biennial proper.
Inside the main rooms are works that play games with the museum. The 'girl' jokes allude to domestic and racial repressions that support the patriarchal business of collecting. This includes Fiona McDonald's colonial paintings woven into 'baggage', Margaret Morgan's Duchampian take on the museum plumbing, Julie Gough's kitchen museum and Christine Morrow's tea towel painting. The 'boy' jokes bolster this critique with satires of male ego. David Watt's train set and Rodney Spooner's mock-heroic video undermine the seriousness of male contributions to art history. While mostly engaging, these works highlight how comfortably the museum now accommodates critiques of itself.
On a more didactic level, Elizabeth Gertsakis attacks the institutionalising processes of the museum. This more confrontational approach is welcome, but she should have adopted the method of Anne Ooms' Biennial contribution, The Invitation, and provided visitors with chairs to sit and read her interesting but lengthy texts.
Beyond these asides are works that exercise a subliminal effect on visitors. Jane Burton's institutional photographs offer scenes bathed in the light afforded by large windows of modernist architecture. A more phenomenological kind of light is provided by Caroline Eskdale's furniture swathed in gauze. Eskdale's Untitled Room assists many of the other works by returning us to that place of childhood, in the backseat of worldly affairs, where everything is enfolded in the aloof mystery of adulthood. This mood is shared by Joy Hardman's video-hymnal Scrying, evoking the one-dimensional consciousness of childhood through a deadpan recital of religious songs.
At the very end of the exhibition, Colin Duncan's Sleeplessness stirs some macabre emanations. The video of headlights is abstract enough to draw out the most fanciful imaginings. At one point, the moving lights appear like the glistening outline of a monster emerging from the lagoon. This mystery is heightened by the sound of a tinkling piano, beckoning visitors to nod off into the shadowy world of half-sleep. The beds made of paper, along with the museum sign warning of their fragility, frame the space with excruciating delicacy. As one of the most beautiful works seen recently in a contemporary exhibition, much credit is due the curators for not only choosing to display it but also providing a separate space for it.
A work touching less successfully on this poetic reverie is Christopher Langton's Untitled (Animal). His inflatables have become a regular component of group shows, but he is stretching to make this medium address a level of meaning beyond pop surrealism. I'm not sure either that Greg Creek's tables work well outside their place of origin in Temple artists' space. While their effect in his Prahran gallery was to dramatise a shift from vertical to horizontal, in a Biennial with so little on the wall, they seem solipsistic. The same can be said of Gail Hastings' private art strategies.
The two Aboriginal artists, Robert Ambrose Cole and Linda Syddick Napaltjarri help us find a way out of this egocentrism. Though certainly whimsical, we know as visitors to approach both artists within a tribal context. Consequently, I've heard the question raised: "Why do curators think only blackfellas can paint?"
While I don't always tune into complaints about political correctness, it seems clear that white artists in this exhibition speak either for themselves or the institutions that house them. The right to speak for one's people, as arrogated in the traditions of painting, no longer holds for whitefellas. Feyness appears the alternative voice offered artists in the Adelaide Biennial. The license to explore curious nooks of the world, filled with private meaning, offers artists a territory safe from post-colonial crossfire. However, it's hard to find a context for it outside some purely private recreation of the sacred.
Searching for wider context, I recalled one of Juliana Engberg's first shows in 1988, when she was director of Melbourne University's George Paton Gallery. In such a cynical time, its affirmative tone was quite surprising, and I made sure to keep the catalogue. In it, Engberg described postmodernism "as a means to a new end which will go on for a long time". With this earlier 'love affair with art', All this and Heaven too shares a libertarian aesthetic that celebrates the freedom of artistic imagination against the strictures of adult moral life. The current Biennial gives this an academic twist, with a Satrean re-reading of Freud, but the advancement of artistic licence is consistent.
So, what is the risk with this Adelaide Biennial? If anything, the primary gambit seems to be solipsism : the freedom of artists to present purely personal reverie as public reality. This gamble sometimes pays off with startling poetic dividends. In many cases, however, the winning currency is for private tender only, with no legitimacy outside the museum. While we can enjoy a space made safe from the mortal coil of adult power games, someone at some point has to open the door.