Stanislava Pinchuk, The Wine Dark Sea, 2020–, marble, enamel, dimensions variable. From the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: “Free/State.”

Stanislava Pinchuk, The Wine Dark Sea, 2020–, marble, enamel, dimensions variable. From the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: “Free/State.”

Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art

Featuring twenty-five artists, the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art is titled “Free/State.” In it, Sydney-based curator Sebastian Goldspink, a proud descendant of the Burramattagal people of Western Sydney, wants to make something of South Australia’s specific colonial history. Tarntanya/Adelaide, unceded Kaurna Country, is the state’s capital. The tale of the 1836 founding of South Australia as a “free colony”—unlike the penal colonies that began with New South Wales in 1788—is often recounted with pride. But this story tends to leave out important details, including the fact that free settlers were often former convicts. And what all of that means for the expropriation of Indigenous land, life, and resources tends to remain unstated. Before I had even arrived at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), the biennial’s host institution for more than thirty years, “Free/State” had me thinking: How much conceptual work can punctuation do?

Key works in the exhibition, beginning with Kate Scardifield’s banners on the portico, either articulate the apertures of AGSA’s Neoclassical building or make new thresholds. At the arched entrance of the Elder Wing of Australian Art, Pitjantjatjara painter Rhoda Tjitayi’s effervescent mural presents a redirected sight line through AGSA’s chronology, from colonial art to the canon of Australian settler-colonial and Indigenous modernisms. Tjitayi painted her grandmother’s story directly onto the walls around the archway and on the interior of the arch, a text (translated nearby) announces that you’re in her grandmother’s country.

State means at least three things here: nation-state, the state of South Australia, and a state of being or of mind. The last predominates in Min Wong’s new age neon urging viewers to FREE YOUR INNER GURU (Namaslay, 2022) and in the sweaty glamour photography of Darren Sylvester’s Séance, 2021. In Kamilaroi/Gamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist Reko Rennie’s three-channel video _Initiation OARR, 2021, and Queenslander Kate Mitchell’s Open Channels, 2021, such psychic space links up to the history of the nation-state. In the catalogue, Goldspink explains his title’s forward slash as indicating an interest in liminality. This is evident in the installation of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s illusionistic sculptures of semibutchered carcasses (In the name, 2015–22), which hang out of place in an uncomfortably bright corridor evoking a domestic interior. The circuitry of Abdullah’s work links the homes of people who work in processing plants and those who consume the products of their labor. Tracey Moffatt’s film Heaven, 1997, is familiar, but seeing it again here, I newly sensed car doors and beach towels doing boundary work—delineating the private space of surfer dudes while they change clothes at a Sydney public beach.

It is striking that Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, is a more insistent presence than Adelaide in the exhibition. The biennial offers no grand thesis on South Australia. However, in according a hearth-like space to two of Adelaide’s most beloved artists, Angela and Hossein Valamanesh, Goldspink affirms the importance of museums such as AGSA as institutional homes. A salon hang of small individually authored works displays the artists’ respective modes: Angela renders bodily pleasure and pain in ambiguous ceramic forms, such as Spine, 2013, and Hossein (who died suddenly this past January) inserts reflection into found objects, such as the mirror in the left heel of Untitled shoes, 1998. Composed collaboratively out of twigs and sticks and cast in bronze, Grafting 1–3, 2013, is a shared script. The couple’s work—made together and individually—emphasizes that relationships to the state and to its history are held both within ourselves and apart from one another.

This show’s best moments make a correlation between the choreography of bodies through exhibitions and the many ways bodies move through the world and across borders. Back at the beginning of the Elder Wing, Stanislava Pinchuk’s engraved marble blocks could be tombstones, plinths, or abstracted figures. In the same days that Pinchuk’s Ukrainian birthplace Kharkiv was invaded, visitors to the Biennial circled The Wine Dark Sea, 2021. Standing beside Tjitayi’s arch mural in her grandmother’s country, we read lines from Homer’s Odyssey and leaked files from Australia’s offshore detention centers chosen by Pinchuk to co-narrate the brutality enacted by war on bodies, and by this nation-state on people needing a home.