Exhibition review: Don Quixote, Sutton Gallery

An exhibition based on The Australian Ballet's adaptation of Don Quixote.

Gian Manik is one of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists. His exhibition Don Quixote is a palimpsest that pays tribute to the many layers of identity, interpretation and innovation that have characterised the history of the work. 

Manik has been represented by Sutton Contemporary since 2019 and this series of works comes after the artist approached The Australian Ballet to observe its rehearsal period for several months prior to its recent production of Don Quixote, which was staged this year. Manik took a deep dive into the relationship between Miguel de Cervante’s 17th century novel and Spanish painting of the period, as well as the ballet’s production history in Australia, where it was choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev in 1970, before he and Sir Robert Helpmann famously directed a film version in 1972. 

The exhibition encompasses portraits of dancers and directors pivotal to The Australian Ballet’s production, as well as portraits of historical figures central to Don Quixote painting tropes. These are layered with faces revealing the rich and storied history behind the character whose quest for chivalry meant shadowboxing with many ghosts. 

The exhibition begins with an arresting collage in oil, felt tip and acrylic, which juxtaposes portraits of faces, ranging from historical painters to present day dancers. This reveals how the Don Quixote brand is imbued with the different contexts that characterise the after life of the original work. It also introduces the warm palette that suffuses the exhibition, rich with reds and ochres that nod to the Spanish provenance of the story.

A series of large dreamscapes presents the three acts of the ballet, referencing the drama of interiors where characters meet in the boisterous sociality for which the story is known. These dreamscapes suggest the drama, rather than depict it, and show instead a series of Spanish interiors in rich, warm detail. 

A final series of portraits juxtapose the earlier Australian Ballet production of Don Quixote with the current production, interpreting a still photograph of one of the principal dancers preparing for her on-screen role, as well as the headshots of the principal dancers from the current production. A portrait of Nureyev from a photograph by Antony Armstrong-Jones captures the dancer’s impression of concentrated energy as his eyes convey a physical intelligence that could spring to life at any moment. 

Read: Exhibition review: Know My Name: Making it Modern, NGA

Manik’s lively portraits convey the physicality of Don Quixote while alluding to something bigger: the layered memory of the place the novel and the ballet take in a cultural history of a character as defined by his wanderlust as his love of life. 

Gian Manik’s Don Quixote will be exhibited until 30 September 2023 at Sutton Gallery, 254 Brunswick Street, Fitzroym Victoria.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin