In 1786 the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made a celebrated excursion to Italy. Though Raphael had previously been Goethe’s favourite artist, the writer was so overwhelmed by the power of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling that thereafter even Raphael looked insipid and weak. Goethe concluded, “It is so difficult to comprehend one great talent, let alone two at the same time. To make things easier for us, we take sides; that is why the reputation of artists and writers is always fluctuating.”
At first glance, Goethe’s conundrum has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation of contemporary art. Instead of confronting extraordinary masters fighting for dominance within a single classical tradition, we are urged to welcome diversity, to be more inclusive and accepting of radically different works from radically different places. We are enjoined to enjoy painting, videos, sculpture, installations, performances, text-based constructions and so on, as if all must be welcomed as having equal claims in the world of art.
This, at least, is the message that you can’t help but take from the public declarations issuing from the fifteenth Sydney Biennale. Larger, richer and more dynamic than ever, thanks to increased government funding and the exertions of the Biennale staff, this incarnation bears the suggestive title Zones of Contact. Its current artistic director and curator, Charles Merewether, proposes an exploration of “what it means to be … shaped by the uneasy contradictions between cultures”.
To this end, Merewether went to a lot of trouble to select artists who are far outside the standard art circuits – “the work of 85 artists and collaborations from 44 countries”, as the blurb has it. I hadn’t heard of many of these artists before the Biennale’s publicity machine started spraying, and a large number of local art-professionals (almost) shamefacedly confessed to me that they hadn’t either. Merewether’s energy and ambitions have also seen this Biennale spread beyond the blue-ribbon venues of the MCA, the AGNSW and Pier 2/3 to the less-trodden Blacktown and Campbelltown arts centres far away in Sydney’s outer west.
There is an enormous amount to see, and it may appear, at first, to be about nearly everything. There’s Mona Hatoum’s Mobile Home II, two metal crowd barricades supporting wires on which little fluffy toys, embroidered handkerchiefs and suitcases have been strung. The wires shift from side to side, moving the items almost imperceptibly. There are Olga Chernysheva’s engaging videos, such as Russian Museum, in which we look at people looking at pictures, reflected in the protective glass. Rose Nolan’s Big Words (Not Mine) misappropriates the conceptual artist Sol Le Witt’s famous sententia for art itself. She must be onto something, as her red-and-white banner at the MCA, which bears the legend “5. Irrational judgments should be followed absolutely and logically”, was echoed by a red-and-white banner for a fashion store’s sale at the same time, in the same block.
There’s Milica Tomic’s shipping container riddled with bullet holes, and Miroslaw Balka’s Winterrreise/The Stop, a kind of bus shelter with a transparent roof bearing the image of a pond near Birkenau. There are Tom Nicholson’s enlarged photographs of the title pages of sundry books, which run up the walls in pairs like the tombstones of married couples. Tacita Dean’s melancholic architectural videos evince a comparable restraint. Other pieces are more bombastic, like Cao Fei’s Osram Village project; still others are demented bricolages, such as Ujino Muneteru’s The Rotators, in which cars, turntables, radios, modified guitars and blenders create a bizarre noise performance. Then there’s Adrian Paci’s giant chandelier Noise of Light, powered by on-site generators. If you get there at the right time, the generators will be on, making a lot of sound and smoke to illuminate a few measly bulbs.
When I asked the MCA’s Justine McLisky how she would explain one of Calin Dan’s Emotional Architecture videos to children, she immediately answered, “It’s about the failure of utopian dreams in Eastern Europe.” I was impressed. I wish someone had said something like that to me when I was a ten-year-old. But it also helped to crystallise something else: the explicit politics of the works in this Biennale mostly reduce to two themes. First, geopolitical conflicts and their attendant emotions. As Immanuel Wallerstein has suggested, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant less the end of communism than the decay of liberalism: hence the wholesale export of authoritarian political techniques to the capitalist West, and the unleashing of unrestrained capitalism on the new nations of the ex-communist bloc. Secondly, enforced movement and its attendant emotions. As the Biennale’s managing director, Paula Latos-Valier, said, in a happy turn of phrase, “We’re all globile now.” It’s true, and one of the features of this “globility” is that everything and everyone is forced into endless circulation, whether as wealthy cosmopolitan or as terrorised refugee.
But explicitly political messages don’t necessarily make a work political; nor do ambiguous poetic meditations necessarily transfigure politics into successful art. Moreover, it’s often not clear what message the Biennale is trying to convey, beyond fuzzy inclusivity. During one of the artists’ talks, two Melbourne curators were giggling about the welcoming text that had been plastered in big letters on the MCA’s walls: “Zones of Contact deals with events, ideas and concerns that shape our lives today, as well as our sense of both past and future.” One curator mocked, “It’s the same, but different; it’s here, but there; it’s now, but then.” The other added, “You can’t argue with it.” In order to cope with the strain of all the competing interests, from politicians to investors to art professionals to the general public, the “framing concept” that is “Zones of Contact” becomes worthy, wordy … and vacuous.
This can have hilarious consequences. At official functions on the freezing opening night, everyone began to apologise to the “foreign artists” for the weather, as if seasonal variation still came as a surprise to the locals, or as if arts bureaucrats have a say in it. A series of speeches by officials offered a melange of exhortation, travelogue, exculpation and self-congratulation. Just as under Stalinism, there is a constant drone of bureaucratic self-reference. Symposia about the status of biennales are part of the Biennale itself; large banners bearing the legend “A World of Art. Here. Now.” flap along Macquarie Street; videoed greetings by Our Artistic Director Merewether are constantly replayed on screens in the major galleries. Internal administrative functions have become public interface. All that was missing were dancing girls draping tanks with flowers.
A few works go beyond all this. Sebastián Díaz Morales’ video bears the unambivalent title Lucharemos Hasta Anular la Ley (We Shall Fight Until They Cancel the Law). Rectified footage of a Buenos Aires street protest is projected onto a black wall, and we see and hear dark figures smashing windows and firing slingshots in an unbearably sluggish motion. The effect is of a fury so primal and sinister I even heard one gallery-goer declare the work “evil”.
If there’s one piece that has met with near-universal approbation, it’s Antony Gormley’s Asian Field, which occupies the entire upstairs of Pier 2/3. The installation is divided in two: in one half of the vast level, there are 180,000 little clay mannequins made by the denizens of a Chinese village; in the other, a sequence of photographs of the makers, each accompanied by an example of their handiwork.
No photograph can prepare you for the physical shock of the thing. You stand, overlooking a seething array of uncountable figures packed shoulder to shoulder, completely filling the space. The figures can turn on you in an instant: those pleading mouthless heads with two tiny scoops for eyes can mutate into snouts, a snuffling horror-show of inhuman beings. You can pick out features only in the closest figures: here, a two-eyed penis; there a miniature pietà, its whole body a melancholy wail; there again a voracious wraith, its flesh peeling from its ribs; and so on, and on, and on. The vast numbers quickly start to blur all details, until your gaze becomes lost in the variations of colour and size, and drowns in bounded immensity.
There is no “content” to Gormley’s work in the sense that it deals with this or that economic, sexual, national, religious or ethnic issue. In its disfigurations of scale (at once tiny and enormous), of space (at once suffocatingly close and airily vast), and of site (here but from elsewhere), the work is more cosmological than cosmopolitan. Asian Field is so overwhelming that I defy anyone, whether art-lover or art-hater, to resist its deranging powers. No one I spoke to could agree about the interest or value of anything else in the Biennale.
In many ways, Djambawa Marawili’s work couldn’t be more different. A leader of the Blue Mud Bay people from the Northern Territory, themselves part of a broader Yolngu language group, Marawili sees his participations in events such as the Biennale as a form of education. In 1996, Wäka Mununggurr, who performed the crocodile dance at the Biennale with Marawili and others, discovered an illegal fishing camp at Garrangali. This desecration of land sparked Marawili to start a painting project that now includes the well-known book Saltwater. His Biennale work occupies the far end of Pier 2/3, a sandy allotment with memorial poles. Around the walls are a series of bark paintings, depicting various creatures and landscapes. The mounds represent the hills of his tribal land.
Marawili’s installation, paintings and performance add up to a legal event: the Blue Mud Bay native title claim is still going through the courts. His work constitutes an indissoluble “ritual complex”, at once a demonstration of knowledge, a form of mapping of an environment, a deed of ownership, a reaffirmation of a people, a personal statement. A tribal leader has to be a polymath: an artist, lawyer, singer, and priest. As such, this installation runs counter to the institutional criteria that govern contemporary art, just as the claims it makes run counter to the strictures of existing Australian law.
I lost count of the number of people whining about how Marawili’s work “isn’t really art”, is “merely folkloric”, or is simply “tokenistic”. Maybe they have a point, but they’re also undoubtedly disturbed by how such a project ups all our expectations of art. As Marawili says, “I don’t want to go to exhibitions and galleries and see people only looking at pretty pictures anymore. I want people to look at my paintings and recognise our law. It’s all I can do.” This moves the “sacred” from a zone of spirituality to being a force in ongoing legal and political struggles. The difference between the state’s treatment of local indigenous sites and such extraterritorial locales as Gallipoli – now regularly denominated “sacred” by the prime minister – starts to look more than merely hypocritical. As the writer Tony Birch put it, speaking of the activities of the group Black GST (Genocide–Sovereignty–Treaty), such works “continue to shock some today simply by the affront of their presence”.
So it’s neither in the right-minded publicity, nor in the consistency of the art, that you’ll discern what’s great about this Biennale. On the contrary, it’s in the vacuity of its publicity and the radical inconsistency of its art that it makes an important intervention. And that’s the way it should and has to be. In the works of Díaz Morales, Gormley and Marawili something powerfully atavistic yet absolutely contemporary erupts and holds sway. Goethe may well have approved. These artists aren’t proposing different experiences for our aesthetic delectation; they’re attempting to reorganise experience itself.
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