When we read about art and the art world, we’re confronted by stories of rivalry, Darwinian competition, and the occasional bad-tempered critic. But, more often than not, the art world ticks over by collaboration. Even among the commanders of the contemporary art world collaboration is key, as is clear in the webinars Art Basel has been producing between its Director, Marc Spiegeler, and the leaders of major commercial galleries from around the world. This week, Dr Nick Gordon looks at some highlights online that are the result of different forms of collaboration in art.

Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (reopening on June 8)
Work by Polly Borland at the 2020 Adelaide Biennial, Monster Theatres. Photograph © Saul Steed

The Adelaide Biennial is Australia’s oldest and is dedicated to showcasing only contemporary Australian art. Its track record is very strong: its first outing in 1990 included Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris, the instantly recognisable sardine can sculpture that cemented Hall’s reputation as she moved from photography to a host of other media.

This year’s Biennial, curated by Leigh Robb, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of SA, is no different. The show, Monster Theatres, was conceived by Robb as a way for artists to make the hidden monsters of our world visible. The relatively small number of artists involved effectively gives each artist more space to work with, but it is a form of collaboration between artists and curator that could easily go wrong, leading to an underwhelming show or a lack of cohesion. When it works, as it does here, you get a diversity of views, styles and experiences.

Stelarc’s keynote address to the Adelaide Biennial is available online as part of the virtual tour. He speaks in depth about his practice and the development of his body of work, with an unpretentious clarity. One of the most interesting recurrences in his address to my mind was his lucid remembrance of the audiences of his early performances, while hanging from meat hooks – that even while spectating, they were participants in the art. The virtual tour then proceeds with short videos exploring the works of seven of the other artists. The production quality is high and there is plenty of information about the artist and his or her work, given by one or more of the curatorial team.

Abdul Abdullah’s Understudy at the 2020 Adelaide Biennial. Photograph © Saul Steed

Among the works included on the virtual tour, it is perhaps Abdul Abdullah’s Understudy that best captures the spirit of the show. It is one of his street-attired, man-sized monkeys sitting alone before an empty open-mike stage. The work is a continuation of Abdullah’s focus on the displacement, alienation and othering experienced by communities in Australia and abroad after September 11. It’s a motif he has used before, but in this case it strikes a peculiar resonance with the exhibition – a theatre within a theatre, in which our reactions are the performance.

The 2020 Adelaide Biennial, Monster Theatres, will reopen on June 8 and will now run until August 2.

Google Art Projects: Vermeer
The Milkmaid by Johnannes Vermeer (c. 1658), now in the Rijskmuseum, Amsterdam

When we think of Google, collaboration is not the first association we are likely to make. And yet, Google Art Projects is turning out to be a genuinely collaborative endeavour to increase online access to and engagement with the visual arts. The projects can still be hit and miss: the quality, volume of information, and the means of touring a gallery online are all variable.

The Vermeer Project, however, is truly excellent. Google has been working with 17 major art institutions – including the Rijksmuseum, National Gallery, London and Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardiner – to create an online blockbuster. The galleries and museums supply the content, so there is no sense of ‘cut and paste from Wikipedia’ here. The content ranges from up-close analysis of each painting, advancing detail by detail; to in-depth essays on different aspects of Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age; and videos on Vermeer in popular culture.

The museums work in partnership with Google Arts & Culture, a not-for-profit organisation that draws on Google’s expertise to digitise collections and make them available. For Vermeer, it has gone a step further and has made a virtual museum, accessible with a mobile, free app and coffee table. The museum exists only in cyberspace, for Vermeer’s works have never all been in one place, and it is well curated, with thematically focused rooms that you ‘walk’ around. Information about the art is available at the click of a button, and there is an enviable degree of resolution when you ‘walk’ up close to a painting.

Part of what we love about Vermeer is how much of a window he provides into the world of the Dutch Golden Age. If it’s a subject you’d like to take the time to learn more about, then you might enjoy leaving the Google Art Project to take a virtual tour of the Rijksmuseum, or listening to the lectures from The Frick’s 2103/14 Golden Age exhibition, which include a fascinating discussion with contemporary photographer Rineke Dijkstra on portraiture.

National Gallery London: Behind the Scenes
A shot from the video Restoring Artemisia, which is part of the National Gallery's Behind the Scenes online program

Conservation is the Holy Spirit of art: rarely seen, yet its effects felt everywhere. But conservation and restoration are where you see an extraordinary degree of collaboration – between scientists from various disciplines, restorers, fine artists, art historians and technicians. To give you a closer look inside this rarefied world, the National Gallery in London has a wide range of videos and articles freely available online.

In these you can see how a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi or a Anthony van Dyck were restored, learn how the Scientific Department identifies exactly which pigments were blended to make what colour, or discover how conservators identified two unattributed paintings as the work of Verrocchio, Leonardo’s master. This kind of access to the backrooms is excellent, and reflects a broader move within museums to have works restored in public.

To go even deeper into the subject, the National Gallery in London is one of a number of institutions, including the Getty and Smithsonian, that has also made many of its technical reports and conference proceedings freely available. Technical analysis is expensive; making it available is quite the gift. The collaboration between scientists, art historians, conservators and curators requires these to be in plain English – all involved contribute, and consequently what these teams of experts do is as accessible as it fascinating.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.