What is a monster? It’s easy to identify the mythological kind: vampires; zombies; science experiments gone wrong. But the real monsters in our world are not always so easy to spot. The relationship between the dark aesthetics of fictional monsters and those that are real (whether people, ideologies or injustices) has been explored by many Australian artists in recent years, and it’s a theme that Leigh Robb, the curator of next year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres, is excited about.

“The word monster comes from [the Latin] ‘monere’, which is ‘to warn’, and ‘monstrare’, which is to show or reveal,” Robb explains. “So it sort of dovetails the idea of the showing – or the revelation – with theatres. I was thinking about these different sorts of spaces, not just in terms of the reading of ‘theatre’ as an arena of action … but also as an operating theatre or a dissecting table: a place to examine and dissect certain issues, and a place to suture and bring things back together.”

Artists involved in the Biennial were invited to “make visible the monsters of now”. There’ll be an emphasis on performance and live art, but you can also expect installation, painting, photography, sculpture, textiles, film, video and sound.

Seventh-generation Australian Muslim Abdul Abdullah is one of the artists exhibiting. He refers to his monster – an augmented image of the rare Yunnan snub-nosed monkey – as a “threat on the horizon”. “He’s really interested in looking at what it means to be an outsider in society, and the dehumanisation of people that don’t conform,” says Robb. For the Biennial, Abdullah will be making a life-sized creature that almost takes human form, but has a monkey’s head. NSW-based Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens will also address socio-political monstrosities in her work. Robb describes her 13 collages for the Biennial as “scathing critiques of Australia’s colonialism”.

The looming monsters associated with new technology, such as data wars, will also be highlighted. Perhaps the biggest technological drawcard will be the unveiling of a giant robot, currently being developed by performance artist Stelarc (famous for growing an ear on his arm) in partnership with Flinders University and local automation group Festo. It will feature patented rubber muscles, and will be constructed at SA’s Tonsley Innovation District.

The monster of grief is explored in the narrative-based short film Dark Water by WA-based artists Erin Coates and Anna Nazzari. Shot in an underwater set, the screening room will be accompanied by a newly built antechamber for the Biennial – expect a luxuriant, aquatic-themed space. “It tells the story of a grieving woman … she goes down a cavity in her house and the whole house becomes an ocean. It’s drawn from the genre of horror, and body horror ... they're really interested in female protagonists and feminist horror as well. They’re looking at a sense of [psychological] loss, but also habitat loss in our oceans … it’s really dark.”

Also in the realm of film, Victorian-based artist Polly Borland has created a holographic video using the old-school “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion technique. “They’ll be of ambiguous forms that are constantly shape-shifting,” says Robb. “It follows the evolution and growth and change of these creatures.”

An antithesis to the monstrous forms on display will be a “Pavilion of Transformation” in the Botanic Gardens. Designed by bioartist, ceramicist and beekeeper Mike Bianco, the converted gazebo (formerly a 1920s refreshment stand) will feature a bed sitting on a hive of 50,000 bees – to encourage “inter-species intimacy”. At performance times, audiences will be invited to lie with the bees, drink pollen tea and wear a “larval poncho”.

Other exhibiting artists include celebrated performance artist Mike Parr – who’s doing a six-day "endurance performance" that looks back at the last 30 years of his practice as well as creating a new performance piece for the Biennial. The SA contingent is Aldo Iacobelli, Pierre Mukeba, Julia Robinson, Yhonnie Scarce, Mark Valenzuela, and Garry Stewart and Australian Dance Theatre.

The 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres runs from February 29 to June 8 at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.