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Post Mortem: Architecture and Art in Adelaide

Several years ago, The Australian published a surprising headline asking: “what is the point of Perth?” At the time, the question seemed—although amusing—gratuitous. However, it’s now transparent that Perth is not the only Australian city which needs to re-examine its raisons d’être in response to the imminent era of telecommunications and tourism: another worry is Adelaide.

Although Colonel Light’s dream polis has beautiful natural assets, abundant opportunities for gentile diversions and one of the world’s most urbane café districts (east Rundle Street), it’s choking with conservatism and on a downer that may be terminal. Accepting its hopelessness like an AA member, the city has been flying in specialists to try three cures: arrest the depression evident in the CBD, treat the multi-function polis to perambulate without crutches or else expire, and reclaim the cultural stature dissipated since the golden governance of Don Dunstan in the 1970s.

Front elevation of Red Square

Left: Front elevation of Red Square, designed by Steve Grieve.

At least that last mission has been boosted by the latest Adelaide Arts Festival, directed by Barrie Kosky, a luminous import from Melbourne and a gamble that romped home for the vested interests. Kosky’s gaze across the cultural landscape focused—unusually intensely for this festival—on visual arts and architecture. About a dozen events drew several hundred interstate academics, artists, architects, urbanists, critics and curators, seeking sensational moments of copulation between disciplines. Unfortunately, the numerous frissons did not fertilise many promising relationships.

Important opportunities were lost through one problem: the disconnection of the RAIA’s Intersections conference on art and architecture from the festival’s arts program (to which the conference and other art/architecture events were intended to belong). Thus, artists and architects who had produced significant festival installations were unable to have those works debated in a forum of both disciplines.

Instead, art connoisseurs drifted off to talks in a suburban hall on the north side of the River Torrens, while architects (and some artists who either trained as architects or whose work is considered “architecturally based”) made speeches in the convention centre. Conference organisers seemed oblivious of those arts people who would have liked to connect with architects but couldn’t afford registration. Conversely, many Adelaide architects were ignorant of the conference. Claiming to be unfamiliar with that pompous concept of discourse, they droned on in their ateliers.

For the 350 who did register, Intersections delivered a range of valuable perceptions: notably those from Catherin Bull (asking architects to public-spiritedly contribute fresh urban visions without seeking fees), Richard Dunn (accurately noting, as did John Denton, that architects prefer artists to work politely within the set), Alex Tzannes (urging architects to respond to new demands implicit in community expectations of their work), Phillip Adams (who tried to introduce issues about the planet’s future which went above many heads), plus artist Janet Laurence and architect Andrew Andersons (on the same wavelength about the need to design art galleries to accommodate, rather than exemplify, art). The four foreign speakers—Marco Zanini and Francesco Mendini from Italy and Deanna Petherbridge and Charles Landry from Britain—added value but did not set the house afire.


Left: Jeanne Sillett’s Ruin of the Future.

Ultimately, predictably, the range of views at Intersections did not amount to any synthesis or manifesto to carry on with. We are left with the problem once chillingly identified by the Art Gallery of NSW’s Terence Maloon: that the task of any artist—presumably including architects—is to subvert the brief; while the inevitable agenda of those holding power and/or purse strings is to reign the artists into palatable positions. Yet Janet Laurence’s incontestable complaint that some architect-designed galleries are appalling environments for art triggers a reasonable question: where were art’s custodians—the gallery directors and curators—when such designs were briefed and approved?

Away from the conference, at least 36 hours were required to visit the principal installations of the visual arts program—some more worthwhile than others. A two-hour stroll along the river’s south bank was well rewarded by encounters with six Ruins of the Future commissioned by RMIT’s Leon van Schaik from Australian and international artists in various disciplines. These triggered musings about the impacts of colonialism—including Colonel Light’s Adelaide grid—and the effects of being marginalised from mainstream culture or place of origin. As a complement across the river, colonial concepts of spirituality were addressed in the Light collaboration by philosopher/writer Paul Carter, choreographer Chandrabhanu and artist Hossein Valamanesh.

Less challenging, but also of interest, were exhibitions about three incomparable architects: Alvar Aalto, Peter Corrigan and Harry Seidler. The Aalto show (already seen in other cities) offered models, furniture and photographs to the faithful; Corrigan eschewed his work for memorabilia supporting his myths; and Seidler’s was a straight run of posters of the Vienna housing and Melbourne Tower.

Among the art exhibitions, Sydney artist Anne Graham’s night show in the Adelaide Railway Station was powerful—old train movies flickering across canvas forms evoking the tents of early track layers—and the South Australian biennale in the new Andrew Andersons wing of the SA Gallery included memorable works by two young artists: Perth’s James Angus and Melbourne’s Kate Benyon.


Left: Constanze Zikos’ Soft Flag 1 installed in an Adelaide bedroom.

Conceptually intriguing—but a flop—was the Compost walkabout of 15 works by young artists installed in ordinary homes in Norwood. While the idea of extracting art from the pristine context of the gallery is to be pursued, these works did not engage either their domestic settings or footsore observers.

Only two art/architecture events truly crossed disciplines to thrill the punters:

  • Operation: Orfeo—a cool musical presentation by Danish group Hotel Proforma of the myth of Orpheus’ descent into Hades. Cloaked figures constantly recomposed (Madonna’s strike the pose) under changing light on a staircase framed by a black-bordered panel of sheer cloth—offering a counterfeit slide show critiquing some conceits to which post modern architects subscribe.
  • Red Square, a post-apocalyptic mountain of shipping containers and firestairs, constructed on the Torrens Parade Ground to a design by local architect Steve Grieve. At 11pm every night, queues formed to get inside this six-storey amphitheatre of raw groove: to dance and watch witty plein-air performances (a ballet by bobcats; graders in love; a Houdini underwater; flames at the feet of stilt-dancers in drag)— and it was regretted next morning that the realms of art and architecture so rarely connect so effervescently.

Davina Jackson is the editor of Architecture Australia and curate the Synthesis: Art + Architecture exhibitions in Sydney in 1992.

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Published online: 1 May 1996

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Architecture Australia, May 1996

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