Thursday, April 8, 2010


Feb 27 – May 2
Art Gallery of South Australia

After the success of the 2008 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art Handle with Care, there has been much anticipation awaiting it successor Before and After Science. So it is not without some reservation that I admit my overall disappointment. I’d like to put it down to the fact that no exhibition could really do justice to the theme of science and the irreversible effects it’s had on art but that isn’t the whole truth. The fact is, while some of the art works might be strong individually, that strength is lost in the company of works that really don’t hold there own and often fail to connect with the theme by more than the most tenuous strands.

But perhaps the great irony of Before and After Science is that, through its very failure, it might actually present an excellent, if not unwitting, comment on the effect that science has had on art. As you walk from one cold, white room to the next and examine yet another interesting object that questions life far more than it affirms life’s value, one could be forgiven for longing after art that shows some more unity or even dogmatic certainty.

But unity and certainty can be ridiculed by a contemporary world that worships the question mark above all other icons. That’s why so much contemporary art is so painfully light. It’s a defence mechanism that amounts to having as little tangible substance as possible so that there’s simply nothing there to criticise or attack.

Can we really blame science and the unstoppable rise of rational thought for backing contemporary art into this absurdly esoteric corner? It’s tempting to say yes for the sake of finding some poignancy in Before and After Science. But unfortunately the Adelaide Biennial’s failure cannot be redeemed by irony because it actually comes down some obvious problems with contemporary curatorial practice.

Firstly, don’t have an exhibition of contemporary art in an institution that carries the authority of historically significant art. All it serves to do is state “This art is good and important” rather than “Do you think this art is good and or important?” When most contemporary works are destined for the dustbin of history it’s almost cheating to presume the authority to fast track certain works past the trials of public scrutiny and put them strait into a museum. In short, Adelaide needs its own contemporary art centre, at lease, one that isn’t hidden somewhere in the suburbs.

But the main failing of Before and After Science is symptomatic of something much larger. When future generations look back at this period of art history in which the supposedly subversive, the ambiguous and, above all, the esoteric have become so enshrined within the established art institutions that they begin to appear common place, quite boring and often completely idiotic they will, no doubt, ask ‘why?’ The answer will come blaring back ‘it was the curators and the institutions! They’re the ones who preferenced works that had an ever-increasing dependence upon the surrounding text and, therefore, an ever increasing dependence upon curators and the institutions.’ In this sense, postmodernism has exhausted its usefulness as a force for positive change. It exists now, only as a tool of oppression by which the stakeholders who commentate can maintain a dominant position of influence over those who actually create the art.

But even if you do buy the catalogue for the Adelaide Biennial or are privileged enough to receive an explanatory tour from one of the curators you might still find it questionable that Michelle Nikou’s darkened room, hung with shapes of glow-in-the-dark plastic, possess some mystical or occult meaning, some intuitive spark. It’s not because you don’t ‘get it’ that such works seems absurd, it’s because they are absurd. But unlike the works of Dada that had the good grace to acknowledge and embrace their absurdity, today’s contemporary works, that are so indebted to the Duchamp’s example, are embarrassingly unaware of their own absurdity.

But if you invest enough of yourself in the curatorial ‘art speak’ that encases institutions like the Adelaide Biennial there will come a point where you won’t care if there’s actually any substance within the work itself. With the right attitude, anyone can join the flock of those who worship the question mark. You’ll enter shows like Before and After Science, identify the key questions and feel the reward of uncertainty wash over you.

But as you stand before the enormous, mostly white, painting by 12 Martumili women you may find that your Po-Mo fix is suddenly interrupted. It’s a work that draws on such a rich and affirmative tradition that it unwittingly serves to mock the surrounding conceptual follies with the power of its certainty. Works like that of the Martumili artists remind us of art’s potential to answer our enduring need to affirm and unite rather than question and divide. It’s a need that’s gone grossly unanswered by the art of recent decades because such works are generally filtered out by curators who feel redundant in the face of art that communicates on its own behalf. Such communication occurs directly between the artist and their audience and, long after the curators have ‘de-installed’ the oddities of the day, that age-old connection will still be there with all the force of a lightning bolt.

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