When life imi­tates art: a cau­tion­ary tale

Leigh Robb
In Daily

When Mikala Dwyer pro­posed her instal­la­tion for the 2020 Ade­laide Bien­ni­al of Aus­tralian Art: Mon­ster The­atres more than a year ago, she had been research­ing the Quar­an­tine or Q” flag – a bright yel­low mar­itime flag that was his­tor­i­cal­ly hoist­ed from ships to warn of dis­ease on board.

For the Bien­ni­al, Dwyer had been invit­ed to cre­ate a work in two parts – for the exter­nal neo-clas­si­cal façade of the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, and for the inter­nal vestibule – the first port of call and entry where vis­i­tors are wel­comed into the gallery.

Respond­ing to the dual provo­ca­tion of the the­atre and the mon­ster, or warn­ing, Dwyer want­ed to cre­ate a Bay of Sick, a med­ical the­atre turned dystopi­an well­ness centre.

She cloaked the gallery’s columns floor to ceil­ing in acid yel­low and black ban­ners. This is then echoed inside on a vast 10m-long back­drop sport­ing a design with con­cen­tric cir­cles ref­er­enc­ing the bio­haz­ard sym­bol, like an omi­nous cur­tain set­ting the scene of what is to come, and a fore­shad­ow­ing for a 21st-cen­tu­ry glob­al crisis.

The space is divid­ed into yel­low on the left and black on the right. Behind the front desk, the gallery atten­dants wear aproned cos­tumes designed by the artist.

Flank­ing the walls are large black and white caped cos­tumes and beaked masks, like loom­ing nurs­es or sen­tinels, not dis­sim­i­lar to the masks worn by Venet­ian doc­tors dur­ing the Black Plague.

We opened the exhi­bi­tion on Feb­ru­ary 29 BC, or Before COVID” times, and had three weeks of nor­mal” atten­dance, see­ing tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors through the front doors. Then in late March, the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, along­side all gal­leries and muse­ums around the world, closed its doors to the pub­lic for more than 10 weeks, re-open­ing on June 5.

Dwyer’s work has always walked the line between rit­u­al and kin­ship, inter­est­ed in meta­phys­i­cal explo­ration of space and the sym­bol­ic pow­er of images.

In light of COVID-19, her instal­la­tion reads as extra­or­di­nar­i­ly prophet­ic. Her the­atre has re-opened, and has shift­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly from its spec­u­la­tive” pro­pos­al, a work of sci­ence-fic­tion, into a docu-dra­ma – a hyper-real sick bay where all vis­i­tors are treat­ed like patients, and duti­ful­ly per­form their roles like well-trained actors.

There are new props in the form of hand-sani­tis­ing sta­tions and con­tact-trac­ing slips. There’s a revised script for all of us, but every­one already knows their marks and cues – sign­post­ed on the floor in yel­low and black.

The time apart has made the space between us even more charged; we are all acute­ly aware of social and spa­tial distance.

Dwyer’s instal­la­tion speaks to the height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ties and remark­able abil­i­ty of artists to tap into anx­i­eties and fears, to not only heed the warn­ings but sound them loud­er. It is a thresh­old work that demar­cates the bound­ary of a new real­i­ty; just as the present pan­dem­ic is a water­shed moment in world his­to­ry sep­a­rat­ing the past from an unclear future.

What­ev­er awaits, artists will be at the fore­front of envi­sion­ing our shift­ing reality.

The 2020 Ade­laide Bien­ni­al of Aus­tralian Art: Mon­ster The­atres is on at the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia and Ade­laide Botan­ic Gar­den, until 2 August.

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