Three women, each approximately two-and-a-half metres tall, are arranged in a way that speaks of ritual. They communicate immense power – the first woman is frozen in a state of convulsion, the second woman newly brought to life, and the third is both participant and observer, taking in the spectacle. To behold them is to feel an unmistakeable sense of dread, and there is perhaps no better word to describe them than ‘arresting’. These three women make up Kristian Burford’s installation Cell, created for the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.

“Kristian is very interested in trying to articulate the idea that we are never really present in ourselves,” says Erica Green, curator of the Biennial. “And that we don’t really understand ourselves and that we are never fully conscious of what reality is.”

This sense of alienation, and of grappling with our own perceptions of the world, is something that Green is very much interested in. Titling this year’s exhibition Divided Worlds, she explicitly positions art as a touchstone in times of turmoil.

“As human beings we’ve participated in art since early cavemen times, and it has been a companion to us,” she explains. “In many ways, you could argue that art doesn’t have any real practical purpose, yet we do recognise the huge importance of art and art practice because it’s a companion to civilisation.”

Speaking to Green over the phone, it’s clear that the works in Divided Worlds speak in some way to the present moment. “The nature of art practice and of artists is that they are always going to be referencing what is happening in the world around them, in a particular place, in a particular time.”

Adelaide BiennialPip & Pop’s When Happiness Ruled (2016). Courtesty of the artist and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Photo: Jacqueline Ball

But it’s not all doom and gloom – least ways, not on the surface. Tanya Schultz’s rainbow-coloured sculptural installation embodies this slippery divide best. Working under the name Pip & Pop, Schultz fills a narrow gap between two exhibition spaces with glitter, sugar, clay, sequins and rainbow string, constructing an elaborate system of passageways and mountain ranges. Embedded in this miniature world are mirrors and crystal lamps that change colour, at once inviting and disorienting.

“These pinks and blues and yellows – they are highly alluring,” says Green. “But underneath this sugary sweet exterior, there is something perhaps disquieting. It might appear absolutely splendid and joyous, and our eyes might widen, but it’s like Hansel and Gretel: there’s a darker reality underneath.” The longer one beholds Schultz’s psychedelic environments – all sludgy fluorescent colours, like melted ice-cream – the more garish and cheap the effect, speaking to the idea of perception at the heart of Divided Worlds.

Even as Schultz’s work explores how alienating certain environments can be, Tamara Dean’s work for the Biennial captures the harmony that can be found in nature. In her photographic series In Our Nature, nude subjects appear to melt into the bushland and waters of the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens. In one photograph, the soft shape of a woman’s back in a pond is strikingly similar to the surrounding lily pads. Completed over a period of 12 months, the suite of photos also capture the specificity of the changing seasons.

Tamara DeanTamara Dean’s Elephant Ear (Alocasia odora) in Autumn (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary

Dean’s second work for the Biennial is a multisensory installation. Viewers walk through a darkened gallery space infused with the smell of the Australian bush, while ambient sounds produce an enveloping effect. A large reflection pool occupies the centre of the room, where an image ripples and resolves before the visitor’s gaze.

“I think what Dean is doing here is what she’s always done with her photography – she wants to draw the viewer in and have them almost enter her photographs,” Green says. “The installation is very much an extension of that impulse. I think her work really embodies that German word ‘Waldeinsamkeit’, which means to be alone and at one with nature.”

Taking a more critical eye to our relationship with nature, however, Hayden Fowler’s Eel Song speaks very clearly about how humans occupy and use the world to its detriment. An elegy for the New Zealand long-fin eel, his work features a startling depiction of a ‘taniwha’ – a supernatural creature that is said to inhabit deep waters in Maori mythology. “This is what artists do,” Green emphasises. “They explore these ideas that we need to think about in very different ways, and bring it to the people to look at and question, which is different from being told by the news.”

This belief in art to provoke important discussions is shared by Mami Kataoka, curator of the 2018 Biennale of Sydney. Titled Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement, it explores stories of migration and diasporic identities. The obvious drawcard is Ai Weiwei, who Kataoaka commends as “always inspiring. His works show us what is happening in the world today with massive scale and energy, and this makes many people feel empathy. He is one of the most important artists today who is constantly reminding us of the importance of human rights and freedom of expression.”

Ai will give the Biennale’s keynote address, while his new feature-length film will be screened at the Sydney Opera House. Titled Human Flow, it was filmed over the course of a year and examines the global refugee crisis, featuring subjects from over 23 countries.

Ai WeiweiAi Weiwei’s Law of the Journey. Photo © Ai Weiwei Studio 

Meanwhile, Cockatoo Island will be the site of Ai’s 60-metre inflatable boat installation, Law of the Journey. Made from the same rubber that is used to create the vessels that transport asylum seekers from Turkey to Greece, the installation is a plain condemnation of unjust border policies and the mistreatment of refugees.

Other highlights of the Biennale to look out for include a series of intimate video works, paintings and drawings by Belgian artist Michaël Borremans. Acclaimed for his striking portraits, Borremans takes his inspiration from the likes of Degas and Manet, yet his works are overladen with a sense of sobriety and dread that is utterly his own. Another artist to catch is Marlene Gilson, a Wathaurung Elder whose work explores the involvement of Indigenous peoples in significant historical events, such as the 1854 Eureka Stockade.

As expected, Kataoka is enthusiastic about her line up of artists, explaining that while they necessarily possess quite different approaches, “I’m looking forward to seeing how their works resonate with the others around them.”

“After all, the artists have been chosen to offer a panoramic view of how opposing interpretations can come together in a state of equilibrium.”

The 2018 Adelaide Biennial runs March 3 – June 3. This year’s Biennale of Sydney runs March 16 – June 11