Biennale of Sydney

The 18th Biennale of Sydney (all our relations) is open till the 16th September, 2012. Last week’s visit was to Cockatoo Island, one of the five venues hosting the Biennale this year. The Cockatoo Island exhibition is labelled Stories, Senses and Spheres (not lower-case like the overall title).

To create a context for my review, I will begin with a few points about contemporary art, and how to read it.

  • Contemporary art strives to be in dialogue with other artworks, both historical and contemporary. This is to challenge the notion that culture can make statements independently from the historical and cultural context in which it finds itself embedded. A way to read a contemporary work is to look for influences, precursors and appropriations that reference and engage with other cultural material.
  • For much of western art history, one point perspective was the viewpoint of most artists. This viewpoint was rationalist and objective, meaning the artist (and consumer) of the artwork were removed from the subject, observing from a distance. Western perspective, an innovation of the European renaissance era, is the best example of this, with subjects disappearing towards a vanishing point. Contemporary art strives to contradict this.
  • Everything in the work has meaning and serves the ultimate purpose of communication. Medium is not a utilitarian device subjugated in service to the message. The medium should be read as part of the message in and of itself, in other words as a language. Look at the materials. What language does styrofoam speak, as opposed to concrete? fabric? sand?
  • The use of repetition and multiples is often a reference to industrialism and consumer culture and our unprecedented ability to mass produce culture at all levels.
  • Romantic notions of art (such as ‘the artist as genius’ or ‘the golden ages’) are to be questioned. These are seen as mystifying art to increase it’s value and to elevate certain practices and ideas. Contemporary art seeks to demystify art for a secular society that has no truck with the super-natural.
  • Modernism can be roughly defined as the period between the beginning of the industrial revolution (1750) to around the Vietnam war. The dominant feature of this era was progress, moving forward in a linear structure. Post-modernism asserts that progress is a hierarchical concept that preferences some achievements over others, and strives to contradict this.
  • When viewing contemporary art, look for the messages about power versus relationship, the public sphere versus the private, inner and outer lives, subject and object, sacred and profane, valued and devalued objects, the ordinary versus the extraordinary.
  • If you want to know more, read some of the 20th century French philosophers that are still influential (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard).

Now we are armed, let us proceed to the Island of Cockatoos (we’ve all seen one or two) on the free and regular ferry / river-cat service provided by our maternal city council, on a sunny winter’s day, harbour glittering before us.

Cockatoo Island has served Sydney and surrounds as a penal facility, a quarry and a shipyards. It is itself a reference to Australia’s convict history, industrial achievements, and a metaphor for disconnection from the home-country, something all non-aboriginal Australians engage with periodically. The enormous sheds containing massive cranes and other heavy metal machinery are heritage listed, and therefore aging almost uninterrupted by restoration. The beauty of this aging process and the stories it tells are monumental and breathtaking. As a venue, artworks have to compete with it’s imposing and authentic beauty, not an easy feat.

A number of the works appeared to engage with the site using strategies such as size and volume, and contrasting materials (soft, delicate, perishable and impermanent). Large spaces filled with textiles creating a womb-like space inside an industrial complex constituted several pieces, such as Cal Lane’s Sand Lace, Reinier Rietveld and Craigie Horsfield’s Confusion, Peter Robinson’s Snow Ball Blind Time, Ed Pien with Tanya Tagaq’s Source, Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Series, Khadija Baker’s Coffin-Nest, even Li Hongbo’s Ocean of Flowers (for which we lined up for 45 minutes) plus about five more in this vein. By the time I got to Cecilia Vicuna’s Quipu Austral, (Nina en el fuego) I was over it in a big way. I felt like one feels when the same point has been made twelve times.

Although these works all invited us, physically, into their space, encouraging participation, as opposed to an objective voyeuristic experience, I felt excluded. Maybe it was the lack of intimacy in the works. They seemed to position me squarely as what I am – one of half a million people lined up for edu-tainment. This experience, though authentic, is not particularly interesting or unique. For me, the only work that was successful at engaging credibly with the large spaces was Confusion. The sound artists created a backdrop of complex sound conjuring decades of people working and living in the turbine hall, ghostly, beautiful and poetic.

Jonathan Jones, untitled (oysters and tea cups), showed us a midden of oyster relics (read indigenous Sydney) heaped together with teacups (read colonial Britain). I enjoyed the simplicity and materiality of this statement. I had the urge to roll around in the work, inviting a visceral cringe as I remembered the feel of oyster shell on skin. If the cups had been shattered into shards the masochistic fantasy would have been complete.

My first love is, and always will be, the hand-drawn image. From hand to eye to heart to soul is the sequence that rocks my boat. Therefore the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island experience was rescued for me by the works of Imran Qureshi They Shimmer Still, Nadia Myre’s The Scar Project (I could have lived without the backstory) and Everlyn Nicodemus’s Bystander on Probation No. 14. . But only just.