All this and heaven too

Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art 1998
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

The 1998 Adelaide Biennial, curated by Juliana Engberg and Ewen McDonald, appears to fall between two stools: a little too comfortable for the die-hard conceptual purists yet still too linguistically introverted for the visual pleasure principle enthusiasts. To my mind these operational modes are interdependent—textual rigour really lives when presented with aesthetic panache. In this instance, however, neither camp seems very happy.

As a whole, the show, somewhat overcrowded, wears a slightly retrospective air. Mehmet Adil's backward video gaze at empty wet Glasgow streets—domestic by-ways viewed through the letters THOUGHT—might seem to be a metaphor for the show's quiet convolutions within a familiar context. This intimacy of view may result, however, from a nineties' cocooning against a disjunctive future, seen for instance in the couchy uncertainty of Christopher Langton's unnameable forms, or Ricky Swallow's cuddlesome blanket-sharks acting out de-fanged nursery danger like media euphemisms.

The Adelaide Festival 's theme of sacred/profane appears as the exhibition's rationale—the sacred immanence of daily life as replacement for a theologically framed heaven, as is indirectly referenced, for example, in Robert Ambrose Cole's refined spirit paintings. With Modernism's agenda progressing us only to a Utopia of 'the everyday', the show posits internal spiritual questing through the pervasively profane. Everyone, however, seems to be just getting on with the usual—redemptive values or not. Linda Syddick Napaltjarri's exuberant incorporation of ET into her own arcana deftly affirms the impact of our involvement with twentieth century icons, but Joy Hardman's sunbeams-for-Jesus songs seem to have more to do with identity.

I seem not to have engaged with some work (in the catalogue's terms) including Peter Tyndall's imagery or the reductio ad minimum of Margaret Morgan's plumbing. My architecturally warped mind often misconnects, no doubt prompted here by Jane Burton's pristine hospital presentations or, in contrast, the delicate drawing board surfaces of Greg Creek's serried tables, recalling spectral scribble on long-lost backing sheets. Not to mention the precisely sixties located delineations of Gail Hastings. As a minor functionary of the 'Bureau of Artistic Meaning' I am unsure whether I have suitably lined up 'the chair with one curved corner'—to misquote her jocose text. I am aware, however, that 'this art opinion job report' is only one amongst a 'most alarming number' of possibilities.

Carolyn Eskdale's veiled furniture evokes those novels of a country house dust-sheeted till the 'season'—recurrent familiarity awaiting use. Here, one gazes at an image of self-evanescence in the dressing table mirror: a generational ghost dissolving in muslin mist in a work more mortally poignant than the accompanying textual suggestion. Frailty also contrasts with the monumental in Rodney Spooner's touching video, whose point I almost missed through poor projection. His tiny matchstick constructs live their little incidents for a day in the centre of a heartless piazza, almost ignored by passing pedestrians, the final sculpture rescued with sly bravado, appropriately, by an urban official. Ozymandias in Milan.

Ruth Fazakerley's elegant oscillation between territories of travel and home-coming, recalls the homely comfort of smaller Japanese cities, each similar apart from 'tourist site markers'.[1] Adelaide, as 'a beautiful place to live', requires only that one iconic presence that fires the inner heart. Here tiny tourist-pamphlet tags urge one on to the elusive marker that doesn't quite exist—here, or anywhere?

The plangent insistence of plink-plunk piano notes-almost ceasing, drifting off—the astral recurrence of hazy stars, space, celestial headlights, projected above frail paper beds, encourages contemplation in Colin Duncan's Sleeplessness. Expanding and dissolving insomniac cycles, atoms in the night's half-life. Unsoothed, needing David Rosetzky's spartan cubicle for unknown acts in private, or Anne Ooms's slender volumes waiting beside her armchairs to solace with worlds of fantasy and memory.

The circularity of 'the usual route' returns one to the eternal verities of sustenance. Space restricted, Helen Fuller's book-built barbie becomes a mocking altar preparing for the self-immolation of gallery culture, underpinned by true Oz life-supports of 'CARFIXIT: Understand your Car Data Sheets' and The New International Australian Illustrated Encyclopedia, oxymoronic Diderot of the fifties. Lares and Penates, Savonarola bonfire, or paternal funeral pyre.

Robert MacPherson's deus ex machina of gutsy black and white paint placards resolutely opposes any fin-de-siè-cle nihilism, affirming ordinary life in a cheerful assertion of the fish and chipness of things.

I ruminate on text and visual presence and the balance between how much is offered visually, and how much the catalogue giveth and taketh away.


[1] McCanell, Dean; The Tourist: a New Theory of the Leisure Class; New York. Schocken Books, 197 6.