Under the theme ‘Magic Object’, this year’s Adelaide Biennial is expanding beyond the Art Gallery of South Australia, incorporating five venues.
Lisa Slade, curator of the Biennial, continues her long fascination with artists whose work focusses on materiality and, in particular, those who use it playfully. Slade is interested in how artists use materials and how these materials speak to the audience. Magic Object is inspired by the Wunderkammer concept (cabinets of curiosities) and includes artists who seek to create a level of curiosity by presenting work that isn’t what it appears to be – it promises to do one thing but does something else. The Biennial reflects the diversity of contemporary Australian art with a selection of artists working in a variety of media and covering an age range from 27 to 105 years old. The Adelaide Review was lucky enough to be invited into the studios of a few of the featured artists to gain an insight into their practice and the spaces they occupy. NELL (NSW) Nell currently occupies a studio space at Alaska Projects in Darlinghurst, Sydney, but at the time of our visit was packing up to move into one of the studios at Artspace in Woolloomooloo. As you walk into her studio you’re immediately struck by a number of faces staring at you. Even Nell says, “Sometimes I walk in and think, ‘What the hell are you looking at?’” These are the faces of her “spirit creatures” which make up the work The Wake which features in the Biennial. “As soon as you put a face on something it gives it a spirit,” she says. The works are mainly made of clay but also include other materials like bronze, concrete, glass and a meditation cushion. Nell tries to incorporate elements of the natural world into her installations, for example these works feature items like sticks, feathers, dried flowers and gold leaf. “I love the inherent magic and history of material,” Nell says. Each of Nell’s spirit creatures sits on a second-hand stool sourced from various places. “The stools have their own inherent materiality and histories which add to the natural materials and the materials I have transformed through my own handmaking,” she says. “It makes them more anthropomorphic; they look like legs giving the spirits even more character.” All of Nell’s spirit creatures have faces except one, which is intentional; she says “it’s awaiting its true character”. e creatures are in fluenced by ancient Japanese terracotta figures called Haniwa which were thought to ward off evil spirits when you die. the faces are all di fferent, a result of the material used and a re flection of how Nell was feeling when she made each piece. The work includes elements of joy and sorrow with some works lighthearted and uplifting and others more poignant and sad. “It’s the universality of faces that interests me. I want to make works where it doesn’t matter how old you are or what culture you are from, you know what a tear coming out of an eye means,” Nell says. “I want to make art that is a bit more primal or tribal. That’s the magic element for me – the feathers and other bits and pieces – it’s like contemporary voodoo.” CLARE MILLEDGE (NSW ) An interesting connection: Clare Milledge currently occupies a studio at Artspace in Woolloomooloo where Nell is due to move this month. For Milledge her residency at Artspace, which ends this month, has helped take her art to the next level. The opportunity to create relationships with other artists and share knowledge, as well as have visiting curators come through the doors to view her work, has been invaluable. Much of Milledge’s practice focusses on the relationship between the artist and the shaman – her PhD was titled The Artist, the Shaman and the Gift of Sight and made the point that the role of both the artist and shaman is to stand between two worlds: that of the visible and the invisible. “I am interested in the way vision is constructed and how it relates to this idea of accessing the natural world,” she says. Milledge’s parents are both environmental scientists – her mum a botanist and her dad a zoologist – so she often goes on research trips with them exploring our responses and connection to the environment. She is interested in how people connect with place and space, something she believes we are increasingly losing. Milledge describes her works in the Biennial as “constellations of objects”. Works like Geosmin and Mycelium holder are made up of a number of materials that have been reworked and reused such as glass, copper, silk, hessian, linen, beeswax, ink and bronze. “ The more you are working with an object the more it’s imbued with this value and what people would associate this idea of magic with,” she says. Milledge primarily works with glass in the form of reverse glass painting (a German tradition called Hinterglasmalerei) but she also uses a lot of hessian (a stand in for sand or earth) as well as bronze and silk. The bronze is in the form of close readers – creatures which Milledge has developed specifically to hold the glass up but it’s also about this idea of reading the object, hence the name. Milledge’s work is very process-based; she likes to remain open and let things happen, creating an immersive environment. “Everything around you is a material; everything has it’s own agency. I don’t think to myself ‘I’m going to make a work about this’,” Milledge says. “It’s more about the transformation of the materials that are at hand and the way you develop a narrative.” GARETH SANSOM (VIC) Visiting Gareth Sansom’s studio in Sorrento, on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula, it’s easy to see why these days he spends most of his time working from here rather than his space in the city. Nestled in a house designed by award-winning architect John Wardle, Sansom’s studio is flooded with natural light and surrounded by nature. While his studio might be in the idyllic surrounds of Sorrento, Sansom’s paintings aren’t necessarily inspired by nature. “When you are working in familiar circumstances like the studio you have to rely on what’s in your head. I’m not the sort of person who goes out and observes something and then takes it back into the studio,” he says. Sansom believes that his inclusion in the Biennial is because his art is not easily classified. “In 50 years of painting, critics have always had trouble fitting me into an easy slot,” he says. “I never make art that aspires to be this or that; it’s a stream of consciousness where the picture doesn’t gel until the picture may almost be resolved finally.” There are four large-scale paintings and one triptych included in the exhibition. One of the works, The Split, focusses on the stress of divorce and the custody of a child, based on Sansom’s own experiences. The main shape is of a head splitting in two. The work also includes his recurring motifs of the star and the infinity symbol. Another work, Pope Pius, is inspired by the longest serving Pope who brought in the concept of Papal Infallibility. “I painted this in a slightly threatening way because the Royal Commissions were happening in Melbourne at the time,” Sansom says. Sansom is busy preparing for a huge retrospective of his work next year at the National Gallery of Victoria. It will date back to 1964 and will feature 200 works. “The wonderment in my paintings is if they can surprise me. If I can go in, in the morning after a days painting the previous day, and they can still surprise me then I know I am getting somewhere.” KATE ROHDE (VIC) Seven years ago Kate Rohde moved into the warehouse space in Northcote, Melbourne, where she currently lives and works. The 300 square metres of floor space has been life-changing in terms of her art practice. “It has meant I have been able to do really big projects,” says Rohde. “Also the fact that it is very industrial and shed-like means I don’t have to be precious about it.” Materiality is central to Rohde’s practice with resin her preferred medium. The process for making the works starts with a mould made from sculpting plasticine from which she then creates a silicone mould and then a resin cast. “One of the things I love about the resin is that it’s really versatile. It can be worked quite a lot after you have done the casting. You can add bits on.” Some people find resin difficult to work with but it has always worked for Rohde. “I have always felt a real sense of how to work with it. How it can be pushed and can’t be pushed.” Rohde is also attracted to the colourful nature of resin. “It can be transparent, opaque, really colourful, really subtle, quite glassy. There are all these possibilities that you can work with,” she says. Rohde’s work in Magic Object comprises a number of vessels sitting on top of a table she has made in place of a plinth. “The vessels are based loosely on classical shapes but are also given a weird fantastical twist,” Rohde says. “A lot of the pieces are drawing on the historical collections of specimens.” One of them is a small vase based on a historical engraving of a mutant kitten. Rohde’s work is influenced by museum collection displays. She brings together elements of the natural world, animal, mineral and vegetable all in the one piece. Rohde sees the magic in the hands-on nature of making these objects. “A lot of my work is about my love of the natural world and reconstituting it in this way. It relates to how you might experience the natural world. I have come to appreciate nature a lot more but I would probably rather see it in a museum,” she says. “I prefer someone to go and hand pick what they think is the most interesting aspect of it.” 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object Art Gallery of South Australia, Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, JamFactory, Carrick Hill and the Santos Museum of Economic Botany February 27 to May 15 adelaidebiennial.com.au The Adelaide Review travelled to the artists’ studios courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Studio photographs: John Montesi Slideshow images: Gareth Sansom, A universal timeless allegory, 2014 (detail), oil and enamel on linen, 213 x 274 cm; Private collection, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photo: Sam Cranstoun Nell, The Wake, 2014–16 (detail), mixed media, dimensions variable; Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and STATION, Melbourne Clare Milledge, Unresolved Pineapple, 2015, oil on tempered glass, bronze, 90 x 90 x 0.4cm. Courtesy the artist and The Commercial, Sydney Kate Rohde, Ornament Crimes, 2015, Rigg Design Prize 2015, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. photo: Brooke Holm