February 2022

Arts & Letters

From little things: 23rd Biennale of Sydney

By Brook Turner

René Block installing 7000 Oaks on behalf of Joseph Beuys as part of the 1984 Biennale of Sydney. Observers in the background (from left): Leon Paroissien, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, Edmund Capon, Timothy d’Offay and Anthony d’Offay. Image courtesy of the Biennale of Sydney

The story behind the 40-year-old tree centring ‘rīvus’, José Roca’s Biennale

For most of the past year, all that had been visible of one of Australia’s most illustrious artworks were its big, meaty leaves protruding from the hoarding next to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Stare in at Gate 3 of the gallery’s Sydney Modern extension, past the razor wire and cyclone fencing, and there it was: a young Moreton Bay fig behind a shade-cloth screen. You had to know what you were looking for, though. Even dedicated art lovers had been walking past for decades, oblivious.

Planted almost 40 years ago – a teenager to the century-plus figs of Sydney’s Domain – the tree is a largely forgotten reminder of Leon Paroissien’s largely forgotten 1984 Biennale of Sydney. A single photograph exists of its installation on the gallery’s then-blank right flank. In the foreground, German gallerist and curator René Block is a blur as he wields a shovel, packing soil around a 4-foot sapling. Behind, the marginally taller figure of Biennale of Sydney founder Franco Belgiorno-Nettis watches on, flanked by Paroissien, founding director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and newish AGNSW director Edmund Capon.

The photo marked a moment more potent than it could ever capture. After a pallid first outing, at the new Sydney Opera House in 1973, the Biennale had been scandalising and energising Australia in equal measure for just over a decade. Intervening iterations – particularly Thomas G. McCullough’s ground-breaking 1976 edition and the revolution worked by Nick Waterlow in 1979 – had expanded our understanding of what art was, what it could do, and where (and whether) it finished and life began.

Along the way, the Biennale had started forging the kind of links with the wider art world that had been lacking in Australia. The unprepossessing Moreton Bay sapling was the fruit of those networks. Two years earlier, Joseph Beuys, a former Luftwaffe crewman who had gone on to co-found Germany’s Green Party and become one of the most influential figures in postwar contemporary art, had launched his 7000 Oaks project at documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. For the project, 7000 basalt steles (columns) from a nearby volcanic quarry were delivered to the Museum Fridericianum’s front lawn in the centre of Kassel. Viewed from above, the piled steles formed a giant arrow pointing to a single tree planted by Beuys, who announced that a stele could only be removed if it was paired with a newly planted oak tree in a new location.

Subtitled City Forestation Instead of City Administration, the 7000 Oaks project was the ultimate expression of Beuys’ romantic (critics said naive) belief in what he saw as the uniquely restorative power of art. Particularly in Germany, where World War Two had laid waste to cities but also to the country’s extensive urban forests. With that kind of historic time scale in mind, Beuys had chosen the number 7000 to ensure, as he put it, “a very strong visible result in 300 years”. And he always intended that result to go global.

In the coming years, oaks and their steles appeared outside of Kassel: at Oslo’s Art Institute; in New York, where 23 trees were planted in the ’80s and ’90s; and at the Leeds Art Gallery. The AGNSW “oak” – transmogrified into a climate-appropriate fig – is thought to have been the first planted away from Kassel. Certainly it remains the only one in the southern hemisphere.

“It is such an important work,” curator and chair of the City of Sydney’s Public Art Advisory Panel Felicity Fenner, who has chronicled the fate of the AGNSW tree, says of 7000 Oaks. “It’s probably the world’s most significant environmental art project in terms of impact and legacy. We’re used to artists doing gardens now, but this was the first to be embedded into a city’s civic landscaping.”

It only happened because Paroissien had asked Block – Beuys’ dealer and enabler, who had accompanied an earlier work, Ausfegen (Sweeping Up), to the 1979 Biennale and who would later direct the 1990 Biennale – to help select 1984’s German contingent. “For me, it was very important to show a work by Beuys in Sydney,” Block recalls via email from Berlin. “Since it was not possible for Beuys to travel to Australia and create something new, we decided to plant a tree from the [ 7000 Oaks] project in Sydney. That is, to expand the locally conceived project internationally.”

It wasn’t possible because Beuys’ health was failing. By the time the last tree was planted, in Kassel in 1987, the man himself was gone – an event greeted more like the passing of statesman than an artist. Beuys’ son would plant that final tree, as his father had the first.

By then, the trifecta of Beuys, Block and the Biennale of Sydney was well established. The artist starred in three of the first five editions and would go on to tie, posthumously, with Mike Parr as the Biennale’s most exhibited artist, with seven appearances. But the most transformative of Sydney’s early editions didn’t just include major Beuys works. They were underpinned by his thesis that art alone had the power to transform individuals, cities, societies.

7000 Oaks would prove a high-water mark of Beuys’ belief that living was in fact a creative act, society itself a great work of art to which we all contributed. Indeed, that belief was already ebbing as Beuys triumphed. By 1982, art critic Robert Hughes would write that, having believed it could shock the world into change in the previous decade, the avant-garde had run out of steam, co-opted by the market. Another decade and the belief in art’s healing power had been replaced by the neoliberal view of it as a driver of everything from a city’s brand to educational outcomes.

This is one reason, perhaps, why Beuys’ fig was no sooner planted in Australia than it was forgotten, though reasons abound in a city that exists in the perpetual present, in a country founded on erasure. At some point in 1988 the tree’s basalt stele went missing. Rumour had it that Edmund Capon, who liked to pantomime shock at contemporary art’s wilder forays, was responsible for the disappearance of the thing that made the tree art as much as nature. More likely it was gathered in some bicentennial clean-up by the Royal Botanic Garden. An outraged René Block, in Australia to direct the 1990 Biennale (titled The Readymade Boomerang: Certain Relations in 20th Century Art), finally hunted the stele down in a shed and shipped it back to Berlin.

More recently, the Sydney Modern project almost competed that erasure. Worried that the tree’s all-too-real roots would in time play havoc with walkways, and its foliage block the building, the AGNSW considered moving it. Only after further studies revealed that its location – hemmed by footpaths and an escarpment – would keep it sufficiently bonsai was it decided it could stay. And so the tree disappeared into a shade-cloth chrysalis.

Given this backstory, it is all the more remarkable that the Beuys tree will this year finally receive its due. In March, it will star in Colombian curator José Roca’s environmentally focused Biennale, rīvus, which means “stream” in Latin and shares the same linguistic root as “rivalry”.

Roca has conceived a Biennale that he describes as “all about water bodies and the ecologies they sustain” around a series of “conceptual wetlands populated by artworks”. Appropriately, the Beuys tree will anchor Roca’s theme of “caring for country and ‘rewilding’” – one, he says, that grew out “of the idea behind Beuys, that an artwork can also be an ecological movement”.

That anchor won’t be visible during the Biennale, however; it will be hidden by the makings of Sydney Modern, which isn’t due to open until late 2022. When it does emerge, the Beuys tree – with its stele, and so standing as an artwork, restored – will find itself at the entrance to Sydney Modern’s new sculpture garden, itself the entrance to the museum. Not only will the tree have survived the $344 million revamp, its status will be radically revised.

As director Michael Brand says, the AGNSW is a gallery that has always reflected its evolving city. Sydney Modern, like modern Sydney, will be unapologetically maximalist, overrunning that blank flank pictured in 1984, and upgrading Sydney’s contemporary credentials at the same time that Melbourne prepares its latest salvo in the inter-city brand competition, the new 10,000-square-metre NGV Contemporary.

The word “modern” has come to mean a lot at the revamped AGNSW. “‘Modern’ is an optimistic word, an international word; ‘contemporary’, you’re narrowing slightly,” says Brand, explaining the logic of the new name without mentioning the NGV. Considering this focus, it’s significant that Beuys’ tree, dropped outside the AGNSW as if by a passing bird, will be the first artwork greeting visitors as they enter Sydney Modern. “It’s terrific that the tree will be the entrance to the whole campus,” Brand says. “It’s conceptual, it’s landscape, and it ties Sydney in with Beuys, with international art. It shows the importance of having a biennale, which has been such an important part of the idea of Sydney as an international city.”

Down the road, at the harbour’s edge, the Biennale played a similarly catalytic role in the evolution of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2000, the museum’s director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, resolved to abolish entrance fees to lift visitation out of the doldrums. Against the advice of staff, Macgregor not only chose that year’s Biennale as the make-or-break event on which to go free, she turned the entire museum over to it. “My marketing manager said, ‘Why would you align one damaged brand with another damaged brand?’” Macgregor recalled last year, towards the end of her 22-year tenure. “It gave me sleepless nights at the time, but I wanted to show the breadth of contemporary art and get away from the idea it was narrow. And when we opened the doors, it was fantastic, partly because 2000 was the great Nick Waterlow moment, the Biennale of greatest hits.”

Overall, MCA visitor numbers doubled that year, marking the start of a rise that culminated in it being named the most visited contemporary art museum in the world by The Art Newspaper in 2019.

The most eloquent tribute to the Biennale’s legacy, though, will come this year. Roca’s rīvus draws together major strands of the Biennale’s five decades: re-imagining the city via art, celebrating First Nations’ knowledge and cultural practice, and expanding our sense of what art is and does. The 23rd Biennale includes architects, engineers and designers among what it designates as “participants” rather than artists, an evolution of Brook Andrew’s explosion of the categories to include chefs and scientists in his acclaimed 2020 Biennale, NIRIN.

It’s no accident that rīvus is at once quintessentially of the moment – ecologically focused at a time of climate crisis, resolutely local in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic – and redolent of the Biennale’s past. “I wouldn’t say that it is an intellectual construct in the sense that I know the history of exhibitions so well that I’m trying to have all those references,” Roca says of the echoes. “Some are conscious, but many are unconscious. They just happen.”

They “just happen” because the times have again turned. These days, Germany’s forests, replanted after the war, are again threatened – this time by climate change, with 80 per cent of trees estimated to be unhealthy. The Biennale’s selection of Roca as artistic director is another case in point. FLORA ars+natura, the contemporary art space he co-founded in his home city of Bogotá a decade ago, defines itself as specialising “in the relationship between art, nature and the body”. It could be a child of Beuys’ multi-disciplinary, somatic, ecological practice.

Macgregor visited FLORA in 2018. “It was the most beautiful experience because rather than a big glamorous gallery, it was this series of residencies with this wonderful blending of art and environment,” she says of the space. “I hadn’t seen an organisation where the idea of art and environment was so deeply embedded, and where the process of engagement with community was so important.” Subsequently, Macgregor suggested Roca to the Biennale selection committee. “I believed he was a curator for the times. Little did I know how much more relevant his approach would be when COVID hit.”

But even before COVID, Roca was intent on reversing the ever-expanding footprint of the big contemporary biennales and art fairs that had become symptoms and symbols of globalisation. Unusually, he moved to Sydney 18 months ahead of the event to get to know the place, work locally, and to establish a curatorium that includes representatives of Biennale venues (AGNSW, MCA and Artspace) and First Nations programmer Hannah Donnelly. Roca says that “they know the local context better than I do; I provide something that they might not have as much, which is this international career”.

The first thing he circulated among the curatorium was a set of principles to ensure the Biennale would be “conscious of the impact of our decisions and actions on the social, political and natural environment”.

Not only does Roca want the 23rd edition “to go down in history as the biennale that did not build walls and drywalls that then get thrown into the landfill”, he decided early that it would rely on a network of international advisers, search for projects already under way and that he would not travel. “I’ve crisscrossed the globe for other projects for 20 years, built relationships and worked with people,” explains Roca, who has co-curated biennales in São Paulo and Porto Alegre in Brazil and Medellín in Colombia, as well as the Philagrafika triennial in Philadelphia.

“Why wouldn’t all that be my research? I’m trying to show that biennales need not be about rupture. They should be about continuity. A biennale isn’t a technology fair, all about the latest. The danger of travelling for a biennale is that you end up just picking up the artists that are in someone else’s biennale.”

COVID’s closed borders and travel bans were the ultimate test of that thesis, intensifying rīvus’s focus on recycling and refinement, rather than the shock of the new. In April, it was reported that the Biennale would be a leaner, smaller affair due to an expected reduction in philanthropic support and sponsorship, which comprised more than half the 2020 budget.

That budget was understood to be looking much healthier by the end of last year, however, with an improvement across philanthropy and sponsorship, and government support and grants. While Biennale chief executive Barbara Moore declined to discuss numbers, she did say there had “been a real thirst for ephemeral art at the moment as a way of keeping people connected”.

Nevertheless, rīvus will have a smaller footprint than previous editions. It’s not using Cockatoo Island, for example, a venue that has been a litmus test for editions since Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev first used it in 2008. But only because Roca wants visitors to be able to experience rīvus differently to the sprawling, bigger-is-better shows of yore.

Roca says that it is going to be an eminently local Biennale. “Most of the venues should be within walking distance … I’m thinking about the experience of the viewer, that you can go and walk and spend a day there.”

In that, Roca and COVID have restored to the Biennale much of the purpose for which it was established: to bring the art of the times and the world to a local audience. And done so at a time when that role was widely seen to have been usurped by everything from art fairs to Instagram.

The 23rd Biennale of Sydney’s emphasis on continuity means it will in a sense pick up where NIRIN, which had no sooner opened in March 2020 than it was closed by COVID, left off. Artists from Andrew’s truncated 22nd Biennale have been invited again, “because maybe they couldn’t reach their full potential”, says Roca, adding, “I believe in that.”

That emphasis on recycling and refinement extends to the edition’s thesis, too, which Roca says is the culmination of a theme he has been evolving for years. It began with his work at FLORA, and continued through his contribution to the São Paulo biennale, which focused on a part of the Brazilian Amazon near the city of Rio Branco, and a project he did in New York called Waterweavers, about the rivers and material culture of Colombia.

“Weaving Water” was in fact the placeholder title of Roca’s original proposal to the Biennale. “When the invitation for Sydney came, I thought, Well, maybe I’ll take Waterweavers and do rivers and their ecologies globally,” he says.

Roca’s Biennale proposal opened with a quote from perhaps the most influential curator of the last half of the 20th century: “Harald Szeemann once said that all we curators can really do is put our personal obsessions in the public sphere, time and again.” Of the Swiss curator, Roca says that “even though we only met twice, I saw many of his shows, he was a sort of intellectual mentor for me”. Szeemann redefined curating as a creative act in itself, in the process creating the contemporary auteur curator. Roca’s Biennale follows suit: “River systems and their ecologies have been a recurring theme and obsession for me, I’m just putting it in the public, and bringing in all the other ideas of my co-curators.”

That curatorial echo is another way in which its 23rd edition brings the Biennale full circle. Szeemann visited Australia in 1971, during which time he curated a survey of local art titled I want to leave a nice well-done child here, a year ahead of his ground-breaking documenta 5 in Kassel, organised, like rīvus, around various sections including ones titled “Artist’s Museum” and “Individual Mythologies”.

Szeemann generally helped “shape the expectations of the Biennale of Sydney’s early organizers about what an ambitious survey of contemporary art might be”, Charles Green and Anthony Gardner write in their book Biennials, Triennials and documenta. It was his “thematically organised, not survey-based” documenta 5, however, that particularly influenced Nick Waterlow’s 1979 Biennale.

That edition in turn not only secured the Biennale’s future, which had been in doubt throughout the ’70s, but also crystallised the template for future Sydney biennales. And in departing from the Venice Biennale model of dividing artists by national representation, Sydney forged an approach that the global proliferation of biennales has followed since, according to Gardner and Green.

It’s only one of the ways, big and small, in which the Biennale will reference its history this year. Take that mysterious stele, for example, removed in the 1980s, which will return by the time Sydney Modern opens. Its restoration has been funded by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and his wife, Anita.

The middle son of Biennale founder Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, Luca hit the headlines when he quit as Biennale chair in the face of a boycott threat by artists involved that year, over its links with Transfield Holdings. Belgiorno-Nettis’s private company was at the time a shareholder in the publicly listed Transfield  Services, which managed Australia’s detention centre in Nauru.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’s departure ended the family’s 40-year association with the event, a rupture that has rankled ever since, not least with long-time Biennale supporters. The restoration of the tree’s stele is one of the more unlikely proofs of Beuys’ belief in the healing power of art.

Then there are the works Roca has programmed in tribute to the man he calls “the grandfather of all ecological art”. Roca was intrigued by the tree’s ambiguous status from the start. “I thought of this interesting situation of a tree that was a tree but also an artwork until the column wasn’t there anymore,” he says. “So, is it a tree or is it still an artwork? Then the stone comes back and it becomes an artwork again, but it’s hidden behind hoarding. Psychoanalytically, it’s this hidden reference that sparks a series of associated themes, based on something that no one can see.”

Roca and Mike Parr discussed the idea of the 76-year-old Parr sleeping in the tree as a tribute, as his friend, Czech conceptual artist Petr Štembera, had done in Prague in 1975. “Mike was going to be cocooned there, in the tree, for the duration of the Biennale, and it would be streamed into the [AGNSW’s entrance vestibule] since the performance would be invisible behind the hoarding,” says Roca. It was the building works rather than the artist’s age that nixed that idea in the end. “It would be a lovely piece to do,” muses Parr. “I’m getting old, but I think I could manage that. It would be a really restorative sort of piece.”

Instead, the artist has found another way to explore erasure and invisibility, riffing on his Half Way House performance at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne last year, where he attempted to paint, while “blind”, Russian proto-modernist Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square over the self-portraits he had painted in the 1980s. This time, instead of painting Black Square, Parr will “try to paint a tree, a large silhouette of Beuys’ tree, blind”, Roca says. That performance will take place at another location, probably in the Rocks, and be live-streamed into the vestibule, where video of another Parr tribute to Beuys involving the tree, 2006’s Amerika, will also play.

And with this year’s performance, his eighth, Parr will finally pip Joseph Beuys as the Biennale’s most frequently exhibited artist. “He pioneered so much,” says Parr, who visited a Kassel transformed by 7000 Oaks in 2012. “He was an extraordinary innovator and paradigm breaker. The notion of art co-constructed with the social was really Beuys’ innovation.”

Parr’s performance is just the first component of Beuys’ DNA that will be packed into the AGNSW’s entrance vestibule. Large portraits of Australian climate warriors, still being selected at the time of writing, will stand at one end of the space. “Painted” in grass, via a photosynthetic process analogous to developing a negative, they are the work British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, co-founders of the art activist group Culture Declares Emergency.

For much of last year, the Ackroyd & Harvey installation Beuys’ Acorns stood on a terrace at London’s Tate Modern gallery. Comprising 100 young oaks grown from acorns the pair gathered from the original trees in Kassel in 2007, to mark the centenary of Beuys’ birth, it was another contemporary tribute to the artist. “We feel a strong sense of protection towards these young trees in a time of enormous planetary instability, when destruction of the world’s forests increased sharply last year,” the duo wrote of the work, which they described as “a living sculpture where visitors can reconnect with art after lockdown”.

Directly beneath the Tate’s terrace, Beuys’ major work from the gallery’s collection, 31 basalt rocks entitled The End of the Twentieth Century (1983–85), was installed in the Tate’s Tanks. And so, two elements of 7000 Oaks were reunited, one above ground and one below, in much the same way the Biennale will reunite the Beuys tree outside with the works it has helped inspire in the AGNSW vestibule.

Opposite the portraits in the vestibule will be a large video screen depicting Belgian artist Naziha Mestaoui’s virtual forest, which grows with the rhythm of Biennale participants’ heartbeats until a virtual tree is created, and at this point an actual tree is planted elsewhere. Indigenous Australian artist Badger Bates’ lino-cuts about the Darling River, the Barka, will be blown up to a similar size, together with drawings of plants and animals by an elder from the Yanomami community of the Venezuelan Amazon.

It typifies the curious sense of time and place that Roca’s quintessentially local, quintessentially contemporary rīvus seeks to conjure. Real trees are planted out in the world by the most internal and intimate mechanism imaginable, a collective heartbeat. The ghost of a postwar monument, 7000 Oaks, is conjured 40 years later and a world away, as those postwar forests are again threatened, in the vestibule of a gallery about to be reborn as modern. And a biennale born of both isolation and globalisation comes full circle – in a world that has been momentarily paused – to reassert its original purpose.

Brook Turner

Brook Turner is writing a book on the Biennale of Sydney.

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