Art Gallery of South Australia lost its crowd but gained a worldwide audience with Monster Theatres

The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres took an unanticipated turn when forced to shut down earlier this year, but how did the gallery continue this eerily relevant show and what’s it like to be back up and running?

(Image: 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring Understudy by Abdul Abdullah, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.)

By Nikita Skuse | @nikita_skuse

Celebrating its 30th year, the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, presented by the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), is the longest-running survey of Australian artists.

This year’s exhibition theme, Monster Theatres, was chosen by curator Leigh Robb. With the word ‘monster’ coming from the Latin ‘monere’ meaning ‘to warn’, Leigh said in a press release that the Australian artists’ works in this exhibition are “warnings made manifest”.

“Monsters ask us to interrogate our relationships with each other, the environment and technology. They force us to question our empathy towards difference across race, gender, sexuality and spirituality,” she said.

Biennial project officer Erin Davidson said many of the exhibition works are incredibly relevant to what is happening in the world in 2020, with one artist’s unintentional foreshadowing setting the scene for the current pandemic.

Mikala Dwyer’s work, Bay of Sick, starts with the banners at the very front of the gallery and works its way into the vestibule as audiences enter. It expresses illness, disease, recovery and healing through an immersive quarantine experience. Erin explained that Mikala was interested in the idea of sickness and had been reading up on quarantine well before we found ourselves where we are now.

Other works explore current ideas such as race, war, politics, gender and colonialism.

“It’s just such a snapshot of what’s been happening in the [last] 12 months … which is a little bit scary,” Erin said.

“A lot of them are so on point.”

2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring Bay of Sick by Mikala Dwyer, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.

Not long after it began, the exhibition was shut down thanks to the pandemic, leaving AGSA with the dilemma of how to deliver artists’ work to audiences.

The gallery decided to move Monster Theatres—as well as other AGSA events—online, which is something it hadn’t done before.

This included a virtual tour, podcasts, online events and an interactive Reclining Stickman robot created by artist, Stelarc, that can be animated by audiences online and viewed via a live stream.

Stelarc with his work Reclining Stickman, 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres; photo: Saul Steed.

Letti Koutsouliotas-Ewing, the communications officer at AGSA, said, “The digital responses that we’ve created in response to COVID-19 have been something that has been so far-reaching and something we never really anticipated would happen.”

She said taking the exhibition online created greater accessibility for those who can’t come into the gallery, or for those who live interstate or overseas, as well as creating greater platforms to amplify the voices of artists.  

“The movement that some of the Biennial artists are really pushing for—like Karla Dickens who responds directly to colonialism in Australia, and Megan Cope who responds to the colonial desecration of Aboriginal land—is just speaking so loudly right now,” she said.

“To be able to have that disseminated to everyone in Australia and everyone across the Asia Pacific or over the other side of the world is really wonderful.

“It’s just so great to be able to have these sorts of things on record forever.”

2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring A Dickensian Country Show by Karla Dickens, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.
2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres featuring Untitled (Death Song) by Megan Cope, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.

AGSA could be in for a fascinating future with the new-found possibilities of showcasing works online.  

Project officer Erin said, “Looking forward, we’re not sure what will stay digital or what we’ll do but we think there’ll be a real push to at least keep one event a year to the digital platform.”

Having said this, the AGSA team could not have been more eager to welcome audiences back into the gallery on June 8. With regulars lined up at the doors, Erin was out welcoming those keen to get their well-awaited art fix in-person again. 

“It was something people were definitely missing, but we’re very excited to be able to reopen and have people in this space again,” Erin said.

She said the Biennial has a way of being understood and felt by everyone, no matter their understanding of art.

“I love watching people react to works … just watching them and how they take a work and can relate it, especially given what we’ve just gone through and how it affects them, even if it’s for a moment.”

“I think you can definitely walk away every time with something that will stick with you.”

The Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres has been extended until August 2. You can catch the exhibition for free at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Adelaide Botanic Garden. For more information head to the AGSA website.

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