Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The 2010 Biennale of Sydney

(Long post)

Last week I paid a short visit to Sydney to see the large international art festival, the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, which opened in May and runs until 1st August. The director is British curator David Elliott. The two main locations for the Biennale were the Museum of Contemporary Art near Circular Quay and Cockatoo Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour.  Free ferries were provided from Circular Quay to the island.  There were smaller numbers of works in the Sydney Botanic Gardens, at the Opera House, at the Art Gallery of NSW, at Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay and at Artspace in Woolloomoo.  I visited all the venues except Pier 2/3, but I certainly couldn't engage with every work.  Most of the performances associated with the Biennale took place in its opening week, so I missed them.

The Biennale's theme was "The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age", but as usual the theme didn't mean very much.  My first impression was that the Biennale should have been called "The Post-Colonial Art Show", as a large number of works referred in some way to the aftermath of colonisation, from New Zealand artist Brett Graham's stealth bomber decorated with Maori carvings to Canadian Kent Monkman's fanciful panoramas introducing the female (and scantily clad)  "Miss Chief Eagle Testickle" into the mythologised history of the American West. 

Of course one of the things that both a colonial and a post-colonial emphasis do is to highlight questions of ethnic identity.  I should note that Brett Graham is identified as being from the Ngati Koroki sub-tribe of Tainui, and that Kent Monkman has Cree ancestry.

Added to the specifically post-colonial works were another group of works, mostly by Asian artists, relating to cultural disruption that is not directly of Western colonial origin, including the Tibetan/American artist Gonkar Gyatso's response to Tibet's situation within China, and Japanese artist Yamaguchi Akira's panels showing the construction of the modern Shiba Tower in traditional Japanese isometric style, complete with isometric smog.  Completing the non-Western theme were some groups of works by Indigenous artists pursuing their own cultural concerns, including an impressive group of funeral poles by Yolngu artists from Arnhem Land and bark-cloth works from Dapeni Jonevari (Mokokari) and Mala Nari (Matosi), two women from, respectively, the Emate and Ă–mie groups in Papua New Guinea. 

There were quite a few works that didn't fit into the groups that I have listed, such as American artist Bill Viola's video Incarnation, one of his series where people walk through a wall of water, and quite compelling.  Perhaps the best-known artist represented in the Biennale was the French/American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, represented by several striking sculptures, including one of her "cell" constructions.  Bourgeois recently died at the age of 98 after a distinguished career.

It is clear from David Elliott's history as a curator that he is interested in cultural disruption and power relationships between cultures, so the emphasis of the Biennale is not surprising.  What did surprise me was the small number of works relating to climate change, rising sea levels, loss of bio-diversity and the like, surely very pressing contemporary concerns, and appropriate to "survival in a precarious age".  There were a few works on this theme, such as Australian Janet Laurence's "hospital for sick plants" in the Botanic Gardens.  And French/German/North African artist Kader Attia's installation Kasbah, a construction representing the roofs of a shanty-town, certainly refers to over-population and over-crowded cities.

Cockatoo Island is a remarkable location, packed with buildings reflecting its history first as a prison and then as an important naval dockyard  and ship-building yard.  There are large cranes and other machines and huge sheds, as well as tunnels through the sandstone; the environment is in danger of upstaging the art works.  This didn't apply to the spectacular installation by Chinese/American artist Cai Guo-Qiang, consisting of nine white motorcars (real ones), seven of them suspended in the air and with rods bearing flashing lights protruding from them.  The whole thing looks like, and is intended to look like, a sequence of stills from a movie of an exploding car.  Another installation that fitted well into its space was the full-scale plywood mock-up of the Hubble Space Telescope by Australian artist Peter Hennessy.  A third installation at Cockatoo Island that fitted its location well, and one that I really liked, was the photographs of electrical discharges by Japanese/American artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.  These images, which were both delicate and powerful, were placed in the old Power House, where electric current from the mainland was transformed to meet the requirements of the island; a lot of the electrical apparatus remains. 

Of the small number of works relating art and science, Sugimoto's was my favourite, though the large sculpture Neuron outside the Musem of Contemporary Art by American Roxy Paine came a close second.  The installation Molecular in the old guardhouse on Cockatoo island by Romanian/American artist Serge Spitzer was a disappointment to me.  It consisted of a large number of small grey balls spread about on the floor (and they weren't grouped into molecules).  Unfortunately I missed Brodie Ellis's work based on a solar eclipse.

The occurrence in the Biennale of both Australian Aboriginal art and art relating to science led me to think about the sorts of knowledge needed to appreciate different kinds of art.  I feel at a loss with Aboriginal art because I do not know the associated stories, images and tracts of country, and so I cannot tell how the stories and so forth are being treated in the works; I can only admire the works as abstract aesthetic objects.  Since I have a scientific background I feel that I can make some judgement on how scientific ideas are treated in a work of art.

It appears that at some stage there was an intent to structure at least part of the Bienniale around the work of the American film-maker, animator and influential collector of various forms of folk and indigenous music, Harry Smith; the Biennale subtitle "Songs of Survival" suggests this.  In the event there were only a few pieces that really related to Smith's work.  There was a long and rather surreal animation by Smith himself at Artspace, and a project by Eileen Simpson and Ben White to make available out-of-copyright recordings of versions of the folk songs collected by Smith.  The work using folksongs by Warren Fahey and Mic Gruchy at Cockatoo Island is also linked to Smith's work.

A bigger theme, at least as far as catalogue essays were concerned, was the supposed final end of the European Enlightenment project, linked with the purportedly "equal playing field of contemporary art, where no culture can assume superiority over any other" (from Elliott's introductory essay).  Sydney art critic John McDonald noted that a disproportionate number of the non-Indigenous local artists in the Biennale are or have been represented by the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney, which suggests a certain hierarchy in Elliott's view of the local art scene.  More fundamentally, although there may not be a hierarchy of cultures in the Biennale, there is a hierarchy of taste: realism (except perhaps in video) is out; magical surrealism is in, as is a certain sort of political commentary acceptable to Western art critics.  This is no surprise: the Sydney Biennale is just following the norm for such events in representing a globalised contemporary elite Western taste, as described by Julian Stallabrass in his book Art Incorporated (2004).

I didn't like the graphic design created for the Biennale by British designer Jonathan Barnbrook: I found it cluttered, distracting, difficult to read (in this respect the antithesis of good design) and full of what appeared to be irrelevant graphics from old mathematical and scientific sources.  To defend Barnbrook on the last point: some of these graphics have a connection with the animation work of Harry Smith mentioned above, and perhaps when Barnbrook received his brief Smith's work was expected to play a bigger role.

Conclusions?  A lot of interesting things to see, certainly.  A curator ought to be allowed to have a particular viewpoint, so I don't know if the rather small representation of works about the environment represents a widespread view among international curators or simply Elliott's own interest or lack thereof.  And my favourite work amongst those I saw?  Probably the painting Black Light by the Iranian/English artist Shirazeh Houshiary, with minute and very detailed calligraphy, and part of a striking triptych.  Though I also very much liked the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto mentioned above, and I had a soft spot for the painting Big Raven by American artist Fred Tomaselli. And then I could add one of Gonkar Gyatso's hyper-collages, or Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's videos about the reactions of Thai villagers to Western art...  So, yes, lots of interesting things to see, and it is unreasonable to expect more than that in such a big and sprawling show.

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