Hiromi Tango, Lizard Tail (breaking cycle), no. 3, 2015, pigment print on paper. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

Return to the Wunderkammer

Eve Sullivan interviews Lisa Slade Curator of the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object 

Tarryn Gill, Guardian Figure
Tarryn Gill, Guardian Figure, 2015, foam, fabric, LED lights. Courtesy the artist

There is something refreshingly retro about an exhibition that foregrounds the magic of the object and the exchange of meaning between creative practices and object histories. I understand that this comes from your ongoing research into ideas of the Wunderkammer. 

I’m glad you find its retro and rather analogue nature refreshing! About ten years ago I started looking at the similarities between the Wunderkammer and the experience of contemporary art. This was in 2007 and it was concurrent with the period that Nick Mitzevich and I were at Newcastle Region Art Gallery and we developed a travelling exhibition, Strange Cargo: Contemporary Art as a State of Encounter. While this exhibition was fixed firmly on the contemporary, it started my fascination for the collector’s cabinets of the Renaissance period as a way of seeing and experiencing the world; and contemporary art as a tool to rethink art histories more generally.

The collection at Newcastle, so rich in work by convict artists in particular, as a site of secondary punishment, led me to reconsider the raft of cultural production from the early decades of the nineteenth century involving Aboriginal people, convicts and colonisers. This introduced the colonial period as a third historical context to my interests and led to the 2010 exhibition Curious Colony: A twenty-first century Wunderkammer. Underpinning this entire period, right up until today – as a kind of conceptual engine room – is my doctoral research with Monash University. This research is about finding an Antipodean and postcolonial model for curating that makes sense of our place in the world. I want to use curiosity as a transhistorical key for unlocking and rethinking art’s objects and histories.

Another example of this engagement with exotic objects, artists and collections is the exhibition you curated last year for the Art Gallery of South Australia, The Extreme Climate of Nicholas Folland, looking at voyaging and particularly maritime histories in reference to the incredible journeys made to the polar regions by Europeans in the 19th-century. Nicholas Folland’s use of crystal glassware, maps and real iceencrusted refrigeration mechanisms to recreate the physical experience of an extreme climate was a great example of this interpreted Baroque or Renaissance object sensibility. I like the way in this exhibition a few works by other historical and contemporary artists (like Ian North and Frank Hurley) were slipped in like friends or fellow voyagers. Will we see similar relational juxtapositions in Magic Object?

Thanks for those insights Eve. It was, as you say, another example of approaching the object with a Neo-Baroque disposition. This late Renaissance and Neo Baroque love of paradoxes, eye foolery and material riddles has inspired my approach to the 2016 Adelaide Biennial Magic Object. I am teasing out the ricochets and the rebounds that run from one artist’s work to another and from venue to venue. For example, taking on board the illusionists like Chris Bond and Michael Zavros with the former showing at the Samstag Museum and the latter at the Art Gallery of South Australia. There are also shared interests and ideas in the work of Nell and Tarryn Gill, both of whom are fascinated by Japanese funerary objects called Haniwa. And the sculptural work of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah literally appears in a photographic tableaux of Jacqui Stockdale. So, I see, and hope the viewer will experience these relationships across the exhibition and discover their own too.

So, the traditional separation between objects or works in a museum becomes the material or relational space. This is the magic isn’t it? You have proposed a number or works, like the interactive Proximity by Gary Stewart and the Australian Dance Theatre, the eclectic worlds of detritus by Hiromi Tango and the optical encounters of Robyn Stacey that support this re-enchantment of places and spaces. Is this where the Wunderkammer turns into a kind of Phantasmagoria?

We could certainly employ the idea of phantasmagoria to describe the dreamlike experience of the viewer in Magic Object. In his catalogue essay, Craig Judd cites the appearance in Sydney in 1834 of phantasmagoric lanterns and camera obscura. Reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1834, these apparitions and deceptions that enchanted nineteenth-century audiences are recreated in the 21st century in the camera obscura made for Magic Object by Robyn Stacey. By charming building owners and managers across the city of Adelaide, Stacey has transformed unique spaces into temporary cameras that capture the view outside within. This is simple, anachronic magic. Stacey’s photographs will be exhibited at the Art Gallery and viewers will also have the experience of stepping inside such rooms themselves on North Terrace and at Carrick Hill.

Stacey has for decades used photography to extend the photographic. Her early works could be described as films made through photography. Her celebrated still life images are essentially genre paintings made with light. And now, through the camera obscura, she recreates an optical device that collapses time and place.

Robyn Stacey’s installations have done a lot to make us preserve historical memories as beautiful illusions. Following on from her exhibition Cloud Land at the Museum of Brisbane, this sense of loss or disjuncture – literally presenting an upside-down world – is a significant motivation isn’t it? You also conceive of this exhibition in Adelaide as somehow restorative. This is not going to be one of those exhibitions where the digital or photographic takes over is it?  There is a big focus on physical agency and material things.

Material thinking characterises a lot of the best contemporary art in Australian right now. Materials are undeniably magical, also in terms of healing, for an artist like Hiromi Tango. In relation to a particular body of her work that we are going to show – Breaking Cycle (Lizard tail) – she asks the question: If we were lizards which tails would we decide to lose? Which would we regrow? In her words, “What if we had the power of the lizard to separate parts of ourselves and leave them behind? Could we heal our trauma and regenerate our minds and hearts.” So the act of making that she will share with audiences is both cathartic and  reparative. This curative tendency in contemporary art is one that I’m fascinated by – an instrumental turn that I also identified in the work of Julia Robinson and Caroline Rothwell in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial.

I think it’s worth underscoring the role that one exhibition plays, often unintentionally, in recasting another. Magic Object is, in part, a response to Dark Heart – perhaps even a tonic for Dark Heart

Robyn Stacey, King William Room, Parliament House
Robyn Stacey, King William Room, Parliament House, 2015, type C print. Courtesy the artist, Stills Gallery, Sydney and Jan Manton Art, Brisbane


Lisa Slade is Assistant Director, Artistic Programs, Art Gallery of South Australia and Curator, Magic Object: Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, 27 February – 15 May 2016