Visual Arts at the 2006 Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts
'For things to remain the same everything else has to change'. Whoever arrived at this conclusion must have had half an eye on cultural fashions which invariably run in elliptical cycles and have habit of ending at the beginning. Who would have predicted that in 2006 John Nixon might have been re-badged as a senior leader of a brat-pack of modernistas?
His Festival double act, a solo show at the Contemporary Art Centre of SA and an eye-grabbing wall and table installation within 21st Century Modern at the Art Gallery of SA contributed a necessary gravitas to the Festival's visual art program, not only in terms of its quintessentially late 20C fin de siècle feel for surface but in its role as a viewing device through which a received body of theory and studio practice linked to the modernist project could be brought into focus. The artist once commented: 'the EPW is a workshop for experimental painting & a vehicle for an independent investigation into painting'. In this statement and in the body of original work accessible to Adelaide festival viewing audiences – particularly within the context of 21st Century Modern and that project's aspiration to check the pulse beat of early 21C studio practice, lay Nixon's essential contribution to the overall program.
The formatting of the two Nixon presentations – items laid out in catalogue or trade display style – should have alerted viewers to issues related to a re-emergence within contemporary painting of multiple/ productivist strategies once associated with artists including Duchamp, Beuys and certainly Warhol.
With Nixon towering over proceedings in Adelaide, the Palmer Sculpture Biennial 2006 occupied the high ground (literally) in the rain-shadow hills country about an hour's drive north-east of Adelaide. Palmer 04 set the formula; a selection of artists from first year graduates to established sculptors including Bert Flugelman, Max Lyle and Geoffrey Bartlett all staking a claim on a pocket of land and siting sculptures which in some sense were in dialogue with their surroundings. It probably escaped the youngest of this cross-generational 04 Palmer pack, but certainly senior sculptors Lyle and Flugelman must have been singing Swing Down Sweet Mildura as they gazed around. Palmer 06 was a battlefield; take-no-prisoners art activism made the more interesting by the various strategies used by the artists to accommodate or be accommodated by this tough site. Thus we saw the decision of some artists to acquiesce at the outset and hope for a little natural grace and favour in return. Craige Andrae's cocky-crested tree provided the agitato to keep the more compliant of the boulder-huggers in the 06 group on edge – and notice.
Meanwhile back in the city at The Experimental Art Foundation Inflatable Bodies (A New Generation of Robotic Sculpture from Amorphic Robot Works: artist Chico MacMurtrie) was pumping and wheezing like a Heath Robinson contraption. Like Nixon's ongoing interrogation of painting and Palmer's re-connection with site-specificity earth art style, Inflatable Bodies acted as a trigger for engagement with a rich (and at times spooky) tradition of robotics within late modern culture from Six Million Dollar Man and Blade Runner to Honda Corp's humanoid robot 'P3' and Tamaguchi Barbies. Which is where some work within No Histories at Greenaway Gallery came in with Jin Kurashige's DVD of the robotic behaviour of two men acting out a studio soccer game sequence and Hiroko Okada's crazed Japanese housewife bursting from her apartment, doing a Gene Kelly number then committing harakiri with a plastic umbrella. Still photos by the same artist representing an absolutely crazy urban craft of sliced bread sculpture served to remind that the 'serious' agendas of artists who wish to re-investigate painting or re-invigorate landscape-sculptural traditions may be missing out on a bit of fun in their lives.
Restorative peace, beauty and cultural connections flowed from Writing a Painting at the South Australian school of Art, the kind of art project that Adelaide always does well and in curator Vivonne Thwaites' hands, extremely well. This poetic and richly layered presentation (exploring Australia's relationship with China through recent work by locally based artists, Helen Fuller and Robin Best, in association with Huang Xiuqian of Jingdezhen, China and Nyukana (Daisy) Baker of Ernabella) pushed the persistent but seemingly coincidental undercurrent of cultural roots within the entire AF06 visual art program in other directions.