Exhibition review: Fantastical Worlds

A playful survey that showcases the work of four artists and designer across styles and centuries.

For its latest exhibition, The David Roche Foundation Museum in Adelaide has teamed up with Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Fantastical Worlds is built around four eye-catching works from a quartet of prominent modern artists and designers, accompanied by a selection of contemporary and antique pieces from both collections.

These displays showcase the playfulness, wonder, and elaborate ornamentation of Baroque, Rococo, and Empire art styles, and demonstrate how these same elements continue to delight audiences and inspire artists today.   

The first of the four central pieces is Gorgonia 15, a branching candelabra-like sculpture by Australian artist Timothy Horn. Glittering with nickel-plated bronze and oversized blown-glass pearls, this work is part of a series exploring the threat posed by climate change to our country’s coral reefs.

Further on, a gilded evening dress from British designer Alexander McQueen’s final runway collection stands beside Bloody Empire: a subversive and boldly patterned wallpaper design that reworks Napoleonic emblems, from Glaswegian team Timorous Beasties.

Saving perhaps the most exciting piece until last, Australian artist Kate Rohde’s polyurethane Deer Vase (surrounded by Animal, her digital wallpaper) is given a room of its own: ample space to enjoy this liquescent, eerily glowing, candy-coloured reinterpretation of a decorative vase from every angle. 

Other highlights from the Powerhouse Collection include a whimsical glass sculpture from Adelaide-based artist Tom Moore, and Yeesookyung’s reworking of broken ceramics into a bulging, gold-laced vessel, at once beautiful and uncanny. Alongside these contemporary contributions are a Regency-era harp, ornate 18th century formal-wear and jewellery, and Rococo Revival lacquered furniture.

One particularly remarkable historical piece is a dainty lace square from the mid-1600s portraying the story of Judith beheading Holofernes (the same scene depicted by Artemisia Gentileschi, Caravaggio, and a host of other Baroque painters). This particular interpretation is also woven with human hair. 

The David Roche Collection is largely represented by display cabinets full of 18th century porcelain figures and historical portraits of European nobility. One highlight is a charming French Empire-style ceramic ‘zoological coffee and tea service’, each piece of which features a delicately painted exotic animal. 

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Although it contains works from across centuries and art styles, Fantastical Worlds seems more interested in evoking a general feeling of decorative opulence than in using these pieces to tell a story about art history.

When it does explain the links between the historical and contemporary works – as in the case of Kate Rhode’s work or the Timorous Beasties wallpaper – it is fascinating. While viewers may not find a memorable narrative, they will certainly see some curious and beautiful objects. 

Fantastical Worlds,
The David Roche Foundation Adelaide in partnership with The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Tickets: $12-$15
Children under 12 free

Fantastical Worlds will be on display until 24 December 2022

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.