In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic tale Rappacini’s Daughter, a young scholar falls in love with the lonely, cloistered daughter of a scientist who specialises in plant-based poisons, only to discover that this young woman — Beatrice — is in fact one of her father’s experiments, and has poisoned him by proximity.
Beatrice has breath that kills, is deadly to the touch, and has a “sister” who is an equally poisonous purple-flowered plant. She is called monstrous by her erstwhile lover — but it’s clear to the reader that she is the only really good and innocent character in Hawthorne’s tale.
Visitors to Adelaide Botanic Gardens in March were able to judge for themselves: Beatrice is currently in residence there, inside the Museum of Economic Botany — where (prior to the COVID-19 shutdown of galleries and museums) she was taking visitors.
This Beatrice is plush and purple and tentacled — more creature than woman. Whether visitors found her compelling or repellent might be the subject of artist Julia Robinson’s own experiment.
The creature’s tentacles are covered in lush silk, some of it shot through with iridescence — but this “skin” is patterned with small incisions, or gashes, through which nodules of incipient life bulge.
“My vision of Beatrice is that she’s this kind of metamorphic, loud, brash, birthing, splitting and hybridised creature that’s trying to break the edges of her boundaries to sort of tease herself out of this mess,” says Robinson.
Beatrice is part of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, one of more than 120 works by 25 artists presented in an edition themed “Monster Theatres”, curated by the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Leigh Robb. It marks the 30th anniversary of the nation’s longest-running survey of Australian art.
Robinson was reading a book on poisons when she came across a reference to Rappacini’s Daughter.
At that point, Robb had already offered the Adelaide artist a spot within the Museum of Economic Botany — and she felt like serendipity put the idea in her path.
“I was like ‘Oh my God’, because it describes Beatrice as this toxic plant-woman,” Robinson recalls.
The setting of the museum is more poignant the longer you look: monstrous and monstered Beatrice is hemmed in by glass cases full of pinned specimens — while just outside the museum, in the gardens, her botanical habitat awaits.
The eye of the beholder
Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, Rappacini’s Daughter turns the tables on the reader to reveal that the monster is in fact the man who created the “monstrous” being.
That the doctors in both stories care more for science than humankind, and are guided by arrogance rather than compassion, reveals a lot about the era that both authors were writing in.
But more timelessly, these tales reveal the secret truth of monsters: that like beauty, they are in the eye of the beholder; what to one person is monstrous, to another is wonderful.
And so this year’s Adelaide Biennial becomes a kind of litmus test of our times — for it reveals what each artist, and each audience member, most fears, loathes or rejects (in her curator’s essay, Leigh Robb points out that the Latin roots of “monster” are the words for “to warn” and “to show”).
Robb says she picked the artists before the theme: “I’d [initially] looked at 10 artists that I wanted to see together, and that I saw as representing really vital strands in Australian contemporary art practice, and ones that had either defined Australian art history or were in the process of reshaping it through pivotal new work, and shapeshifting, interdisciplinary practices.”
She says that the work of this core group of artists revealed common interests and trends: artists using narrative, figuration (as opposed to abstraction) and immersion to sound warnings about, or simply probe, major sources of trauma and anxiety — climate change, colonisation, patriarchy, to name a few biggies.
From there, she selected other artists and works that more explicitly fit her theme of “Monster Theatres”.
The resulting line-up takes us through from pioneering performance artist Mike Parr to young polymath provocateur Abdul Abdullah; from LA and London-based artist Polly Borland (famous for her 90s photo series Adult Babies) to local hero Karla Dickens.
This Biennial offers visitors Mike Bianco’s quixotic, intimate experience of “resting with bees” in the Botanic Gardens, on the one hand, and the spectacular robot-sculpture of veteran performance and body artist Stelarc, on the other.
Some works position themselves in opposition to particular monsters: Hobart-based artist Willoh S. Weiland says “patriarchy is the monster”, and has created a video tribute to the 300 women, most over the age of 50, who volunteer as guides at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
She presents her work inside a curtained, single-person “shrine” within the gallery, inviting visitors to pay tribute to these under-recognised (and often “invisible”) women who mediate many of our experiences with art in the gallery.
In the adjacent gallery space, Sydney artist Abdul Abdullah strikes out against the dynamics of exclusion, with Understudy: a spot-lit microphone on a small stage, with red curtains behind and seating rows in front — and one sole figure sitting expectantly, clothed in head-to-toe fake designer-wear, as if waiting for the main act.
Visitors who venture to the front of this faux theatre will see that the figure is a human-primate hybrid with large moist eyes and a snubbed skull-shaped nose — an uneasy mix of endearing and grotesque.
Abdullah’s work is one of several that pitch their camp at the threshold between horror and wonder, and are made by artists who are subverting mainstream ideas of what is “monstrous” or deserving of rejection.
For Perth duo Erin Coates and Anna Nazzari, the male-dominated cinema of “body horror” is ripe for an intervention: their short film Dark Water taps into tropes of the monstrous feminine, following a grieving young woman into a watery subterranean zone beneath her house, where her body is transformed or re-birthed.
The horror in Dark Water draws from a real medical syndrome: when one twin dies in the womb, sometimes the survivor absorbs their body — and carries remnants of their deceased sibling within their body for life.
Dark Water is the third film Coates and Nazzari have made together, and the result of roughly four years of work (including an army of volunteers and an elaborate hand-built backyard aquatic set — from which Coates’s lawn hasn’t recovered).
They spent months making the props, which include the fantastical aquatic lifeforms: “evolved” versions of species endemic to Western Australia’s coastal waters.
All their work together centres around ideas of women and water — specifically, the mythologies and superstitions around the sea and sailors. They share an interest in the aesthetics of Australian gothic and “eco horror”, and describe their work as “oceanic gothic”.
For Coates, an interest in the sea stems partly from growing up in the coastal town of Albany (a former whaling town), with a dad who is a diver; Nazzari, conversely, grew up in the landlocked, bone-dry mining town of Kalgoorlie, and developed a fascination with water from the perspective of scarcity.
Their interest in horror, meanwhile, is harder to pin down — but Coates says: “I think both of us — and we’ve talked about this before — have always had this interest in really looking at things closely, and not looking away.
“I remember as a child, if I saw a dead animal I’d always want to know what happened: How did it die? What did it look like inside? It was that sort of interest in biology; in the blood and guts of what’s inside of me.”
They see Dark Water as reclaiming the unique female potential of horror — a genre that has historically been made by and for men.
Nazzari says: “A lot of why women are interested in horror is to do with education and protecting and preserving yourself … We will happily watch the woman holding her car keys and being scared, because in some ways we’re thinking — how does that protect you?”
Coates chimes in: “I think also, when they say that horror and the abject is this unfamiliarity with the insides of our bodies, and this rejection of it — I don’t entirely agree with that. I think for women, we’re actually not unfamiliar with the insides of our bodies. We bleed every month and we give birth.”
The colonial nightmare
Bad scientists and body horror don’t just belong to fiction, of course — and one of the Biennial’s most compelling works is inspired by a real-life Australian monster.
In the Dead House, by Yhonnie Scarce (Kokatha/Nukunu peoples), responds to Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ dark history as a site where Scottish-born doctor and anthropologist William Ramsay Smith conducted experiments on the corpses of Aboriginal people and “unclaimed” bodies, in his position as Adelaide Coroner.
Ramsay Smith’s own writings reveal he robbed graves for his collection; he also stole remains from Aboriginal burial grounds. After his death, 182 skulls were found in his home.
“He had this macabre interest in decapitating Aboriginal bodies and sending their remains internationally — mostly to the UK,” says Scarce.
“Because he was the coroner, it’s almost like he had free rein.”
Scarce’s installation occupies a small square brick building that was formerly a morgue attached to the Adelaide Lunatic Asylum.
Inside, 30 bulbous forms in translucent, cloudy glass are arranged in careful rows. Scarce explains that these are “bush bananas”, endemic to central and western Australia.
Each bulb has been cut open, with the glass curling outwards from each wound, like skin.
“They’ve been cut open to represent that old way of dissecting bodies. It was really important to show that disrespect [with which Ramsay Smith treated the bodies] — the flaying of the bananas was done very roughly.”
The installation has the feeling of a memorial, and like a lot of Scarce’s previous works, it deals with “unnamed” victims of historical violence.
Scarce was born in Woomera, South Australia, and has made work about the effects of 20th-century nuclear testing on the Kokatha people and members of her family.
“For me, it’s really important that I make work that is about these types of stories,” she says.
A dark circus
The monsters in Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens’ work are more abstract but no less real than William Ramsay Smith.
Her Dickensian Country Show takes over an entire gallery space and turns it into a “fun fair” with a dark twist: there’s a “Colonial Roundabout”, and rides titled “Live Stock” and “Warn a Brother” — each of these repurposing vintage carnival rides to create sinister allusions.
Around the perimeter of the room, dense collage-work “posters” mash up 19th and 20th-century carnival and circus imagery with text to provocative effect: a nightmarish assemblage of monster masks sits alongside hand-written text reading “True horror is Australia’s history of massacring its first people”.
Another poster shows Pauline Hanson in a clown nose and a blood-spattered ruff.
A spoof of a “palm reading” poster reads: “You don’t need a third eye to see the planet’s f*%ked.”
Koalas are everywhere — lightening the mood, but also avatars for country and environment.
The effect of this maximalist gallery space is almost like a 3D collage.
“Why I love collage so much is that people come in here and it’s triggering stuff in their memory,” says Dickens.
“Once people’s memories are opened a little bit, then their hearts are a bit more engaged.”
A Dickensian Country Show takes as its springboard Australia’s chequered Indigenous circus history — from 20th-century “Wizard of Wire” Con Colleano (who “passed” as Spanish during his career) to boxing tent champs like Jack Hassen and Jerry Jerome.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Indigenous Australians were kidnapped and forced to perform in circuses (including PT Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth), but over the ensuing decades, many of them adapted the form and made it their own — in some cases (like Colleano, who was world famous) turning it to their advantage.
“And the thing about circus too is that people were embraced — the misfits and the outcasts. Your colour or your disabilities were celebrated, not shunned,” says Dickens.
A Dickensian Country Show is a major work, and Dickens has created a counterpart titled A Dickensian Circus in the foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW, as part of the Biennale of Sydney.
Work of this scale was only possible thanks to a $80,000 visual arts fellowship from the Copyright Agency, and funding from Create NSW.
Death Song for country
Next door to Karla Dickens’ warped “country show” is an assemblage of rocks, rusted steel drums, wire and supersized drill bits that looks vaguely ominous — almost like an instrument of torture.
In fact it’s an instrument of sound, designed to be played by musicians using modified bows; the rocks are suspended by wires such that they produce different pitches (effectively, it’s a very unwieldy string instrument).
Quandamooka artist Megan Cope conceived this instrument as a way to recreate the distinctive, eerie cry of the yellow-eyed Bush Stone curlew, which is often likened to the wailing of a woman or baby. It’s a bird that is both native and thriving on her home of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) but endangered in New South Wales and Victoria.
For Cope, colonisation, capitalism and our ‘extraction mindset’ are the monsters.
The seed of the idea for her Biennial work, which is titled Untitled (Death Song), was sown in an earlier sound work, from 2018, in which she built an instrument using rocks from the Newcastle region (the lands of the Awabakal people) “to enable the elements of country to sing its story of change upon colonisation”.
The drill bits used in Untitled (Death Song) come from mining machinery; the rocks are from the South Australian Museum: “They’re millions of years old … [but] we overlook their knowledge,” says the artist.
When curator Leigh Robb approached Cope about being part of the Monster Theatres exhibition, the artist immediately knew she wanted to produce another sound work — “because we’re just so overstimulated, visually, these days — and we’re not really listening to the warnings”.
“And I think there’s a lot of warnings [to listen to],” she adds.
“In our culture we learn [to hear] those warnings through the process of listening — with your eyes and with your ears.”
Cope’s hope is that the musicians who play her instrument — who are asked to learn how to mimic the curlew call — are able to “connect with these deeper concepts in the work, through that process of slowing down and focusing on the call of the bird”.
Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art opened on February 28. It is currently temporarily closed due to the shutdown of museums and galleries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The writer travelled to Adelaide with the assistance of the Art Gallery of South Australia.