Eighteenth Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art – Inner Sanctum

Inner Sanctum 1Inner Sanctum. Art Gallery of South Australia. 4 Mar 2024


Title image: Lawrence English. Photo © Chris Reid


On arrival at the Art Gallery of South Australia, visitors are greeted by a huge bell occupying the space between the two central pillars at the gallery’s entrance. The bell is suggestive of a cathedral bell, evoking a place of worship, and visitors are prompted to reimagine the gallery and its role in their lives.


The Eighteenth Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art is much more than an exhibition of art objects, as it includes musical performances, talks and a film screening. The extensive and beautifully produced catalogue includes poetry and essays exploring the lives and works of the artists. Indeed, the exhibition catalogue is an equal partner in the Biennial, a parallel artwork in which viewers can immerse themselves.


Whereas many biennials are characterised by art that critiques aspects of society, this biennial, subtitled inner sanctum, invites viewers to reflect inwardly.


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Installation view: 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum 2024 featuring My Painted Country 1 by George Cooley, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Saul Steed


Inside the main entrance, the vestibule wall is filled from end to end with George Cooley’s expressionistic painting of a Coober Pedy landscape.


The positioning of Cooley’s work provides a gateway to the exhibition visually and thematically. Cooley is also a singer and songwriter, and his songs concern Country and his life there. His songs can be heard at the AGSA Soundcloud page here


Adelaide Biennial curator José Da Silva, director of UNSW Galleries, divided the 24 artists and poets of this Biennial into five thematic groups. Part 1 is entitled The Inland Sea and features several large paintings by Cooley that represent his Country. Da Silva indicates that the theme of the inland sea, “introduces ideas of deep time, local knowledge and stewardship of Country through painting, bush ballads and poetry”.


Part 2 of the Biennial is entitled A Clearing, A Periphery, and the artworks evoke places of stillness and contemplation. Teelah George’s embroidered depictions of the sky possess a powerful materiality and tactility. The painstaking method of producing them suggests the meditative state into which one might enter in one’s studio, one’s inner sanctum.


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Installation view: 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum 2024, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Saul Steed



George’s pieces are amongst several in the Biennial that are juxtaposed with works from the AGSA collection, and the co-location of her A Clearing, a Periphery (second from right, above) with John Russell’s A clearing in the forest (extreme right, above) illuminates the range of possible approaches to representing an arcadian outdoor scene. In both works, the peaceful setting becomes a sanctum. The Biennial acts as a window onto nearby works and highlights AGSA’s strategy of co-locating works with a thematic affinity to elaborate that theme.


At the official opening, Lawrence English rang his huge, sonorous bell 18 times, as if calling the faithful to prayer, its magnificent sound enveloping the audience.


As well as providing the bell, English, a renowned sound artist, contributed Proximities to the Biennial, performances in which audience members were invited participate in two ten-minute bell-ringing events that coincided with the tolling of the Town Hall clock bell. As many as 40 people brought their own bells and lined North Terrance to participate in the 5.00 pm performances, engaging the audience, and the many passers-by, in a deeply symbolic act. The Biennial thus emerged into a major thoroughfare to address the public directly.


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Clara Adolphs, born Sydney, New South Wales 1985, Water’s Edge, 2023, oil on linen, 185.0 x 271.0 cm; Courtesy of the artist, Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide and Chalk Horse, Sydney © Clara Adolphs



Clara Adolphs makes paintings from found, discarded photographs. These works meditate on the daydreams of anonymous others, inviting viewers to consider their lost memories. Her 14 paintings cover an entire wall, like photos in an album, and their neutral tones create a wistful feeling — we can never know the people depicted or their thoughts.


Also included in Part 3 is a poem entitled Faith by celebrated Adelaide poet Kate Llewelyn AM, which was commissioned for the Biennial. A choral work, All Flesh is Fire, adapted from the poem by Adelaide composer Anne Cawrse, was given several delightful performances by the Adelaide Chamber Singers.

Recordings of All Flesh is Fire can be found on Soundcloud here


Part 3: The River Path “considers relationships between the body and belonging, ancestral knowledge and spiritual guidance, and speaks to conceptions of the spirit in First Nations and non-Indigenous communities.” The title The River Path was taken from a Hans Heysen print of that name, and some of his works from the AGSA collection are shown adjacent to Biennial works.


The River Path comprises some powerful artworks that show how one’s sense of self is the product of one’s upbringing and cultural lineage. Christopher Bassi contributed a large painting, Meeting a Mangrove, in which he depicts himself reaching to touch a mangrove, and a poem, Memory of a Mangrove. Both works attest the importance of mangroves in Bassi’s Torres Strait Islander culture and traditions. In his artist’s talk, he indicated that his representation of himself touching the mangrove parallels Michelangelo’s depiction of God touching Adam’s finger in the painting in the Sistine Chapel and is intended to evoke a corresponding sacredness.


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Production image from Ko e Mataliki ‘o e Mo’ui, 2023, Courtesy of the artist © Ruha Fifita



Born in Tonga and resident in Queensland, Ruha Fifita, together with her family in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, created a large-scale ngatu — a rectangle of painted cloth made from mulberry tree bark. The creation and use of the ngatu is an essential element of Tongan culture.


As well as contributing an installation, Knowing Beyond (2024), Lebanese-born Khaled Sabsabi arranged an Anasheed performance of Islamic spiritual songs and devotional chants to connect Muslim communities in Western Sydney with those in Adelaide. This entrancing vocal performance was presented by members of the Al Rahma Islamic Association from Western Sydney. In his introduction, Sabsabi dedicated it to the men, women and children of Gaza.


In Part 4: A Quiet Spot, Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s captivating As Above, So Below (2022–23) referenced the nineteenth century practice of bringing South Sea Islanders to Australia as indentured labourers. Many were forced labourers. Togo-Brisby’s work comprises hundreds of small replica tam tams, or slit drums, cast in plaster, and arranged on the gallery floor to create the outline of the hull of the British slave ship Brookes, which transported slaves between Africa and Jamaica.


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Installation view: 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum 2024 featuring As Above So Below by Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Saul Steed


Tam tams are large drums that are embedded in the ground and, when played, create reverberant sounds that can travel long distances and between islands. In this work, each replica tam tam might be seen to symbolise a slave, or an indentured labourer confined inside the ship. They also represent ancestors’ voices.


Part 5, the Finding of Love and Writing it, involved the Sydney Gay and Lesbian choir singing Jazz Money’s poem This is How we Love. A recording of this gorgeous choral work can be heard periodically on an array of overhead speakers in the gallery. The sound in this space is magnificent, again reminding the viewer of the majesty and stillness of a cathedral. The human voice is an essential element of this Biennial.


Paul Knight’s Naked Souls includes the text of a machine-learning conversation between two lovers. Knight’s work makes clear that machine-learning (often inappropriately referred to as artificial intelligence) can never replicate the subtleties and nuances of human expressions of love.


This Adelaide Biennial is a magnificent exhibition that will stand as a landmark in the AGSA’s exhibiting history.


Chris ReidInner Sactum Title


When: 1 Mar to 2 Jun

Where: Art Gallery of South Australia

Bookings: agsa.sa.gov.au