“Monster” is a word that invites the most contradictory responses. We think of a monster as something hideous, out of the ordinary, dark and dangerous, but given the opportunity to see one, we come running.
This is borne out by the popularity of horror movies, the freak shows that drew audiences to carnivals and fairs, and the perennial fascination with evil that supports all those books and films about the Third Reich.
Leigh Robb, the curator of this year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, has titled her exhibition Monster Theatres. It’s a promising theme considering that we live in a world of monstrous political leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump to Rodrigo Duterte, who are reconfiguring entire nations to suit their own megalomaniac fantasies.
How did these apparent "monsters" come to power in the first place? Millions of people found them to be attractive, inspirational figures. It’s almost a relief to think that in Australia we have only buffoons.
By now Robb is probably tired of explaining to audiences that “the term ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monere, to warn, and monstrare, to show”. The derivation hints at an underlying connection between monsters and exhibitions. It’s clear that artists today are always trying to warn us about something, most often racism, sexism or climate change. Nevertheless, Monster Theatres is irresistible.
The selected works take a broad view of what might be considered monstrous. The potential monstrosities of AI and biotech are explored by artists such as Stelarc, Michael Candy and Kynan Tan. Stelarc is by far the most spectacular, his Reclining Stickman being a gigantic metallic robot that he can inhabit and operate like the mad scientist from a science fiction movie.
For artists such as Abdul Abdullah, Pierre Mukeba, Karla Dickens and Yhonnie Scarce, the “monster” is a fellow human of a different race, creed or colour that has been dehumanised by prejudice. When Robb writes that “all monsters are constructed”, this could be interpreted as meaning that we make our own monsters, viewing difference with alarm and hostility. Curiosity is instinctive but fear and hatred are learnt responses, often so ingrained they seem natural.
One reference that recurs in the catalogue is to Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who builds a monster from parts of dead bodies only to be disgusted by what he has created. The poor monster, a child abandoned by its parent, is a victim of Victor’s prejudice. The very fact that the creature looks so different is sufficient to stir the hatred of everyone he meets, until he finally embraces the evil that has been forced upon him. He is a monster twice constructed: first physically, then morally.
Novelist Claire G. Coleman discusses both Frankenstein and the xenomorph from the Alien movies in an unusually lively catalogue essay that reads like a breathless incantation but crackles with ideas. This was one of the surprises of the show, the other being a complementary exhibition of Old Masters prints from the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection, which brings together images from Bosch and Durer, to Goya and Redon.
In a selection of “greatest hits” performance videos, Mike Parr goes looking for those “monsters from the Id” – the part of the mind, where Freud located our darkest impulses. This translates into hours of self-mortification, with appropriate blood and grimaces. As a new work, Parr has adopted the comparatively painless expedient of reading aloud for six hours a day, all week, although it’s still an endurance test.
Other prominent Id-seekers include Erin Coates and Anna Nazzari, who have contributed a creepy video about a woman who finds an ocean within her own house. Only those hardened types who have sat through too many bad horror movies will watch without a lip-curling moment.
Megan Cope and Mike Bianco have taken a more benign approach, launching oblique charges against the monstrous exploitation of the land and its resources. Cope’s installation, which must be her most ambitious ever, creates an ensemble of rocks and discarded machinery that may be played like instruments to release mournful, vaguely musical sounds.
Bianco’s Bee Bed, installed on the grounds of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, is almost too friendly for this show. Dressed in a chasuble, like the high priest of a mystic cult, the artist ushers guests into a cabin where they can drink a cup of pollen tea and lie down over a bee hive, experiencing a rare opportunity for human-insect bonding. If that’s what turns you on.
By limiting the number of artists and allowing each of them a generous amount of space, the curator has given exhibitors a chance to show large, ambitious works. Polly Borland’s photos of figures bound in coloured gauze are exhibited on red walls, making these disturbingly physical images seem even more disturbing. Each image looks like an orgy taking place in a sock.
Among the large-scale standouts, I’d single out Judith Wright, David Noonan, Mark Valenzuela, Karla Dickens and Brent Harris. I’ve no room for a detailed discussion of each artist’s work so will concentrate only on the last two.
As a painter, Harris’ works have often seemed oblique and enigmatic, suspended somewhere between cartoonish figuration and hard-edged abstraction. Many believe a picture should only be judged by what meets the eye, but it was illuminating to hear the artist talk about his paintings which proved to be more personal than I’d ever suspected.
They are records of family trauma and a relationship with a monstrous father that kept Harris away from his New Zealand birthplace for 25 years. Looking at these paintings now feels like peering into a secret chamber of horrors. It’s an experience that reveals the inadequacy of any purely formal approach to reading a work of art. If there’s a credible story to be told, it needs to be told.
Were there a need to nominate a star for this show, Dickens would be the popular choice. Her large-scale installation, A Dickensian Circus: Clown Nation, is made from materials scavenged from old carnivals and travelling shows. Breathtaking in its scale and its scabrous humour, this ambitious work represents a big step up the ladder for Dickens. The display is as spooky and gothic as a Nick Cave murder ballad, filled with a simmering anger over all the things that fire the artist’s imagination, from environmental catastrophe to Pauline Hanson (an intellectual catastrophe).
Dickens is not didactic, making her points with images, words and objects. What we see is a powerful expose of the monstrous stereotypes that once passed as popular entertainment, as these gruesome artefacts were trundled around from one country town to another. It sends us back to those good ole days when cruelty and xenophobia were all the fun of the fair.
Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide Botanic Garden, until June 8.
John McDonald was a guest of the Art Gallery of South Australia.