June 2010

Arts & Letters

Artful excess

By Juliana Engberg

The 17th Biennale of Sydney

The marketing material for the seventeenth Biennale of Sydney displays a lusty engagement with the semiotics of font. Using the agitprop colours of red, black and white, the über-cool British designers Barnbrook deliver a bastard mix of divine and dirty lettering, combining the styles of Deutsche-Gothic and Soviet modern with cosmological geometric diagrams.

The graphic design being featured tells us a lot about the aesthetics and politics of the Biennale’s artistic director, the widely travelled Englishman David Elliott. He is anti-purist, searching always for social, poetic and political pluralism, and able to withstand excesses of materiality. Eclecticism is the hallmark of his event. Even its title is a mishmash of distinct concepts: The Beauty of Distance and Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age. There is a musicality to Elliott’s work, and even to his spruiking – he refers to his artistic “orchestrations”, and to modulations “symphonic”.

Opera is a feature of this year’s Biennale. The Indigenous Australian artist Christian Thompson films a baroque singer performing from a libretto written in his Bidjara language; you cannot help but be struck by the beautiful complexity of the cadences, evocative somehow of the intricacy of Bach. In a video work by the Peruvian artist Jota Castro, the spat between Italian president Silvio Berlusconi and German socialist Martin Schultz – which occurred in 2003 after Berlusconi suggested Schultz should be cast as a Nazi in a forthcoming movie – is interpreted as an aria by French soprano Maud Gnidzaz.

Mahler gets a look in too, notably in the work of the Singaporean artist Ming Wong, who casts himself in the twin roles of the ageing Gustav von Auschenbach and the beautiful boy Tadzio from Death in Venice. Wong meticulously restages Visconti’s 1971 film of the Thomas Mann novella, splitting the story across two screens. On a third screen, Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’ from his Symphony No. 5 is played on the piano.

The collective Chto Delat performs Perestroika Songspiel, a representation of the events of 21 August 1991 in Russia, the day after the restorationist coup was defeated. Each vignette presents a different perspective: revolutionary, feminist, nationalist, democratic. These deliberately didactic ‘plays’ are interspersed with rousing chorus commentary by the ensemble choir. Chto Delat humorously channels the Soviet propaganda plays of the revolution.

Richard Grayson’s video installation shows the Australian country and western band The Midnight Amblers singing segments of Handel’s oratorio Messiah in American accents. In this reworking, the lofty classicism of Handel’s original takes on a disturbing redneck-Christian-fundamentalist quality. Made in 2004, the piece registers the role of religion in American politics during the Bush administration. Also toying with notions of faith – in particular blind faith – is British artist Mark Wallinger; he performs Hymn with the sweetness of a child, his falsetto assisted by helium.

The Slave Pianos collective hangs an antique grand from a gallows scaffold, referencing the penal origins of the Cockatoo Island venue, and the musical history of the Sydney Biennale itself. The piano is regularly hoisted and lowered in a cycle of damnation and redemption. Despite the reference it makes to public hangings, though, Penalogical Pianology is one of the more spritely offerings.

Elsewhere the Biennale presents a world not only less musical, but literally dog-eat-dog. The “survival” element of the program is a grim black-and-white affair. Yang Fudong’s video installation presents wild dogs scavenging and highlights the meagre subsistence of those living east of Que Village in Northern China. In this context, dogs and men alike are fringe-dwellers in a precarious, sombre place.

Wild dogs are taunted with meat boleadoras in Crudo by the Argentinean artist Miguel Angel Rios. A man dressed in a white tuxedo dances the traditional malambo, while dogs are provoked to the point of vicious desperation. The Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo makes comment on the abuse of women and political prisoners in her Confesión. She depicts herself being tortured by a massive militarist man, who pushes her head into a drum of water.

Although her work is colourful and seems on first sighting to be composed of innocuous, naive drawings of family life, the Canadian Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook lures the viewer into a world of domestic violence, substance abuse and dysfunction that characterises the breakdown of Indigenous culture. Traditions, hunting and a life in tune with the land have been replaced by the savage domesticity of daytime TV and broken families.

At times, the poverty and bleakness of the works in Survival are juxtaposed with excessive decadence. For instance, the Russian collaborators AES+F present Feast of Trimalchio, an animation sequence that parodies our hedonistic lifestyle. Trimalchio’s orgiastic days are played out in a hyperconsumerist spa-world of deluxe, where guests wear ubiquitous designer sportswear; attendants, fitted out in mufti attire or chambermaid ensembles, administer ‘treatments’; neo-fascist, body-waxed youths exercise on gym equipment; and society matrons are serviced by black gigolos. Nouveau riche, faux and plastic: this is a world made of Teflon, and therefore resistant to its own muck.

Japanese provocateur Makoto Aida presents DOG (Typhoon), in which a nude, teenage geisha is leashed and posed in the doggie position, her amputated extremities on display. Aida’s works mutate the soft hues of Nihonga painting by incorporating the more forthright subject matter of manga; this ‘perversion’ is no doubt a critique of the rarefied beauty of traditionalism. It’s annoying that bad-boy artists still think it is OK to bind and abuse women to make their point. Meanwhile, as if to drive home the issue, a naked woman is hit repeatedly by missile ping-pong balls in a pointless play-off between male protagonists in Adel Abidin’s film Une Souris Verte/Green Mouse.

Perhaps as a kind of antidote to this general mood, Elliott has also gathered works that have a poetic and mythological storytelling capacity, reminding us that humanity relies on imagination and narrative to make sense, and even nonsense, of itself. The Escapist tendencies of the imagination become a theme in works such as the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman’s Journey to the Moon, a playful, invented narrative interspersed with ‘expert’ commentaries relating the urban myth of a group of villagers from the Erzincan Province who attempt to fly to the moon using the spire of a minaret.

The Sarajevon artist Danica Daki? stages a set of mini-plays in front of opulent utopian-island wallpaper. These featuring the residents of an institutional home for intellectually disabled people in Pazari?, who perform in Victorian masquerade disguises. Daki?’s compelling Isola Bella dips and soars, as it moves between sadness and humour.

This combination of light and dark is also evident in the work of the Australian artist Dale Frank. With their shiny, chimerical surfaces, Frank’s series of paintings form a distorting set of mirrors along the Turbine Hall of Cockatoo Island. His titles give the work a deeper undertow, suggesting these are also portraits of previous inhabitants of this space on the former convict island.

The British artist Isaac Julien contributes a majestic installation, Ten Thousand Waves, which moves between documentary and fiction. Julien’s beautiful images syncopate the ghostly, spiritual languor of ancient China with glimpses of frenetic, modern-day Shanghai. As is typical of his work, reality impinges at every turn on the world of the imagination. This work encapsulates the “Beauty” in Elliott’s title. But it is fragile and quixotic: modernity is brittle.

Christian Jankowski’s collaboration with TV celebrities and news reporters is possibly the most amusing work. This current affairs project, in which reporters follow Jankowski’s progress, trials and tribulations, self-doubt and eventual triumph has all the hallmarks of Masterchef, with enough cut-through to make sense to a typical reality-TV audience, even though its roots are deeply theoretical.

There is a productive anarchy about much that Elliott has gathered. The mad rantings of John Bock, dressed as an Enlightenment fop and held captive in a clinical chamber, will bewilder most people, but it’s great. While Rodney Graham’s City Self / Country Self is not a new project, it is a terrific satire on the shift from agrarianism to modern ‘enlightened’ culture. Elliott returns numerous times to the brutal underbelly of the Enlightenment period and its colonial projects.

As visitors bounce on Brook Andrews’ inflated Jumping Castle War Memorial, making skulls bob about in plastic turrets, I wonder if it will register that they are metaphorically dancing on Indigenous graves.

Cover: June 2010
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