The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Australia’s longest running survey of contemporary art, has opened for 2022 – but under a shroud of sadness.
The recent deaths of one of the exhibition’s key artists, Hossein Valamanesh, and the biennial’s principal sponsor, Neil Balnaves, have permeated the atmosphere: both men died suddenly in the lead-up to the 37th Adelaide festival, Valamanesh in January and Balnaves in mid -February.
Their deaths have added a layer of poignancy to the 2022 event, titled Free/State, a celebratory and cerebral examination of human freedom, with curator Sebastian Goldspik drawing together the work of 25 leading Australian artists from across the country, each interpreting the concepts of human freedom state and freedom in their own ways.
Developed during what Goldspik refers to as the “wild and unpredictable” environment of Covid-19 lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter protests, the biennial’s focus first came to the curator in early 2020.
Sydney-based Goldspik started from a specifically Adeladian perspective: “I was fascinated by the history of South Australia, its status as a free colony in opposition to New South Wales … and the idealistic values South Australia embraced early on, partly as a response to that status. When Covid hit, there became a real political focus on the sovereignty of individual states.”
Our new normal is reflected in works such as Laith McGregor’s installation Strange Days, with more than 1,000 bottles spelling out SOS. And the hand-crafted knives of Tasmanian artist Loren Kronemyer make reference to the need for individual responsibility in a time of chaos, and survival in an apocalyptic world.
The state of freedom curtailed is examined in Ukrainian-born artist Stanislava Pinchuk’s marble installation, The Wine Dark Sea, merging the text of Homer’s Odyssey with whistleblower reports from the detention centres of Nauru and Manus Island.
Personal freedom and responsibility informs Sydney artist Julie Rrap’s large-scale multimedia work Write Me, which invites her audience to post social-media style comments about 26 digitally manipulated images of her face, superimposed on to a computer keyboard grid.
Her interest in the collision of free speech and accountability developed during the lockdowns, Rrap says, amid public debates over personal freedom.
“Covid kind of sort of shrunk my options, which turned out to be really useful,” she says.
While the idea of manipulating her image on to an alphabetical keyboard had been developing over a number of years, displaying the public’s responses on a large overhead screen came more recently.
“[The viewer] is commenting in a public space with other people watching, so I’m looking at notions of free speech and what people think they can say and can’t say in the debate,” Rrap says.
No respectable biennial would be without an element of in-your-face grossness and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah obliges with In the Name, a series of graphically realistic animal carcasses suspended from the ceiling. Described in the catalogue as “seductive … and simultaneously repellent” , Abdullah draws on his childhood memories in Perth, watching his father slaughtering a sheep bought from a local feedlot.
First Nations artists Dennis Golding and Reko Rennie also mined their childhood experiences for inspiration.
Golding, a Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist, deconstructs the Victorian architecture of Redfern, the neighbourhood of his youth, specifically the Block. His chandelier, created from iron lace balconies salvaged from the social housing development, totally owns its prominent space.
And Rennie’s video installation takes viewers on a journey through the working class western suburbs of Melbourne, where the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist grew up. A lurid magenta Monaro Holden coupe moving through landscapes of refineries, abattoirs and the Westgate Bridge features in the work, titled Initiation.
Rennie says he wanted to pay homage to the car’s central place in his suburb’s culture.
“There’s a westie car culture – some might call it a bogan culture – where people are very proud of their vehicles and spend a lot of time working on them, and that was the way it was when I was growing up,” he says. “There was a real sense of pride in creating a cool car, and that was something I always wanted too when I was a kid – a nice-looking muscle car.”
The choice of a 1970s Monaro was inspired by a marketing campaign of that time by General Motors Holden. The word Monaro is an Aboriginal word meaning “high plain” or “high plateau”.
The juxtaposition of Indigenous culture to contemporary mainstream mundanity also feeds into Rennie’s sense of what it means to be a First Nations man born and bred in the city.
“There’s a romanticised notion of Aboriginality that defines authentic as living in a desert, painting dots, dancing around, hunting and gathering food,” he says. “But the reality is that many of us grow up and live in urban environments, and mine was very much a working-class one.
“It was a multicultural society of the 70s and 80s, where I never had any issues with racism because everyone else came from somewhere else. But there were run-ins with law and justice, drugs, alcohol – those were the [elements] of my initiation.”
Rennie collaborated with Yorta Yorta soprano, composer and actor Deborah Cheetham for the soundtrack, a beautiful mournful work composed and performed by Cheetham with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
The music has a deeply personal significance for Rennie. Like Cheetham, his grandmother was a member of the Stolen Generation. Although showing promise as a bel canto soprano, she was prevented from developing a music career by her adoptive white family, who used her as a housekeeper.
“That dream was shattered,” says Rennie. “And that’s something I always remember.”
2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Free/State is part of Adelaide festival, on show at the Art Gallery of South Australia until 5 June. Guardian Australia travelled to Adelaide as a guest of Adelaide festival