Altogether Now: the 18th Biennale of Sydney
At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Pier 2/3, Cockatoo Island and Carriageworks until 16 September.
A good biennale dances a tricky pas de deux with its theme. Too little constraint lands us in Charles Foster Kane’s warehouse, too heavy a curatorial hand stifles the unruliness which is contemporary art’s great charm. The curators of this year’s Biennale of Sydney, Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, have taken an inquisitive approach to their theme. If all our relations sets itself up against a modernist heroism which must by now be as rickety as a leaky curtain wall, its pluralism does not mean anything and everything and isn’t it so groovy we’re all connected all the time? In their curatorial statement Zegher and McMaster place their biennale within “a renewed attention to how things connect” which is already at large in the world. Bad connections spark and sputter all over the place, while good ones, we hope, form in the shadows or underground, always in resistance to the dark force of an individualism of consumers instead of individuals. all our relations is not the same as “let’s get together and feel alright” and it is not, as some feared when the theme was first announced, a rejection of the visionary in favor of a dull but worthy collectivism. Both extremes are too easy, as is most territory in between.
This biennale is more tightly curated than the 2010 edition. There is more balance among the four (five if you include Carriageworks) venues; the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the newly expanded Museum of Contemporary Art are equal but different to Cockatoo Island, which if it were a museum might be the greatest on earth. Each has been given its own sub-theme. The Art Gallery is a good place to start, both geographically and because the works there assembled under the theme of In Finite Blue Planet state most forthrightly the political anxieties which animate the whole biennale. The ecological, social and economic crises of our world tend to produce in the feeling soul either anger, which is of limited use in producing art, depression, which is even worse, or activism, which though it may do good, has produced plenty of bad art. In many of these works the tension between the creative distance required by art and what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now” becomes palpable. Even as evidence of crisis mounts, in Australia and the United States in particular the language of politics and science has been unable to persuade a majority that our plight is now urgent. Clearly we are now in the realm of psychology, of denial and its gloomier relations — can art now step up to the lectern? If the little collage which inspired the AGNSW’s theme, Jorge Macchi’s Blue Planet, in which the land masses of the earth are replaced by ocean, is simultaneously exquisite and a little too on the nose, it does provide a center of gravity around which the other works in the exhibition are able to more freely orbit.
The richest works are those which manage to transform political anger into some kind of universal human mystery. It helps to belong to an artistic tradition, as does Yun-Fei Ji, whose work is steeped in Chinese landscape painting both aesthetically and in what he identifies as the tradition’s history of “speaking to power.” He distills his travels in communities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam into drawings of the dispossessed in a landscape in which suddenly nothing is solid. Both people and landscape are uprooted as though by a storm. The imagery and style are particular, but the scene could be New Orleans or Fukushima. The depredations of ‘progress’ are particularly resonant in an Australia distorted economically, physically and spiritually by its current mining boom, a situation which could use a few critics as poetic as Yun-Fei Ji.
The connections between works in the biennale are both subtle and overt. In an era in which cartography is both widespread and increasingly sapped of wonder by digitization and GPS, Nipan Oranniwesna, Jorge Macchi and Bouchra Khalili each provoke new ways of reading maps. Oranniwesna’s work, an enormous collage of city maps written in baby powder, does reek of spectacle (as well as perfume), but the imaginary city thus produced is interesting for the way it emphasizes eternal rivers and waterways over buildings. It is work of great obsessiveness and voluntary ephemerality, thanks to its fragile medium. There is an obvious relationship with Macchi’s ‘collage cities’ in the same room, which are formed out of maps from which the city blocks have been carefully removed. Three or four such layers produce cities whose complexity makes Blade Runner look like Canberra. As in Oranniwesna’s work, recognizing the features of a particular city is less important than imagining a contemporary ‘open city’ in which places connect to one another in new ways, either along a river or across a Piranesian lattice of overlapping streets. What would happen if every point were connected to every other? Less deliriously, Khalili’s Mapping Journey #5 documents the “clandestine existences” of migrants living at the margins of Europe. On a roomful of screens we see only the hands of the travelers as they recount their journeys and draw their otherwise secret trajectories onto a map. It is a simple idea whose consequences, like the drawings of Yun-Fei Ji, transcend the work’s initial inspiration to tell a more universal story. The migrant must simultaneously cope with the daily struggle of an uncertain life and with the tyranny of having one’s existence defined by geography.
In art, certain ideas, good or bad, are irresistible. The first painting made it necessary for someone, someday, to hang a white canvas on a gallery wall. Anyone who has ever brushed against a burned tree in the Australian bush can relate to the work of John Wolseley, who takes landscape drawing to its literal extreme. In the Mallee forest in northwest Victoria, Wolseley rubs sheets of paper against burnt trunks and branches which he then releases for a period of weeks or months so that the landscape can draw itself onto the paper. The “harvested” fragments which adorn various corners of the AGNSW are voluble and mute at the same time, a bit like the simultaneously delicate and hardboiled Australian bush itself, a place which has during the period of white settlement been seen as both a threat and a place of spiritual refuge. One feels like asking a particularly damaged remnant “what on earth happened to you?” but in what language would the response be spoken? Some gaps are unbridgeable. Wolseley’s “ventifacts” grow out of a desire to create art though process rather than the artist’s hand, a tendency which has produced such disparate works as John Cage’s indeterminate compositions, Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings and architecture based on parametric processes. However helpless Wolseley is in relation to the wind and weather, the ventifacts gain power in combination with his own drawings, which gradually resolve the unreadable marks of the landscape into a more traditional composition.
Wolseley’s work shares a gallery with Postcommodity’s equally irresistible but more bluntly political Do You Remember When? which consists of a big fat hole cut in the concrete floor of the basement gallery, revealing the surprisingly ruddy earth beneath. The resulting slab is displayed like a prize fish or a piece of minimalist sculpture. The work has the genuine shock of a final twist in a film noir (from an architectural point of view, I was surprised by how little structure there is to the Art Gallery’s floor) but the project’s enigmatic quality is let down by an unnecessary soundtrack of Aboriginal music. Though it is not the only work in the biennale undermined by an overly didactic artist’s statement, it is worth ploughing through volumes of AAA-class jargon to stumble across the following observation by Chinese painter Liang Quan, which could describe any number of works in this biennale or, one hopes, beyond: “As a matter of fact, the world does not have to be meaningful. However, it is definitely delicate and real.” What would a country with these words as its motto be like?
United, or gathered, under the theme of Possible Composition, the works at the Museum of Contemporary Art offer composition as a tentative response to the problems of a finite planet. It is not so pat as this, but it is hard to miss the (literal) thread of mending which binds Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project, Yeesookyung’s Translated Vase-the Moon and the rippling landscape-like creatures or creature-like landscapes meticulously constructed by El Anatsui from discarded bottle caps and cans. The Mending Project is a bit of a drawcard among the handful of works which attempt to build community through interaction. Visitors who bring objects in need of mending converse with the artist as they are mended with thread from the numerous colorful spools which hang on the wall. Yeesookyung mends the rejected vases destroyed by master ceramicists in the making of Korean moon jars. Like Mingwei, Yeesookyung celebrates the mend by expressing it, in this case with 24 karat gold. His large sphere of mended ceramic faces twelve subtly distorted moon jars by a master of an older generation, Park Young-Sook. Perhaps because each artist has room to maneuver in a composition which enhances the contribution of each, it is one of the more successful, and beautiful, collaborations in the biennale.
In Collage City, the architectural theorist Colin Rowe identified an opposition between bricolage and engineering which seems now to manifest itself across various disciplines. It is hard to think of a single problem of the 21st century whose solution doesn’t involve mending the mistakes of the past. Though the tabula rasa remains alive and well in the Three Gorges Dams of our world, the thrusting will to build, expand and destroy of the 19th and 20th century has passed through a transitional period and into something which could yet develop into an enduring post-modernism. In other words in all our relations mending is building. The counterpart of The Mending Project on Cockatoo Island is perhaps Nadia Myre’s Scar Project, which has travelled the world since 2005, asking visitors to represent their scars by cutting and sewing a square of canvas. I was surprised by the intense concentration of the participants at the time I passed through (they were all women too; perhaps Sydney men heal their scars by running leaf blowers in the rain, pledging allegiance to Tony Abbott’s styrofoam populism and playing the ever-popular rush hour game of ‘terrify-the-cyclist’).
Because it forces the audience to represent their feelings through art, albeit using limited means, I found Myre’s notion of interaction much more effective than those works, such as Honore d’O’s installation at Pier 2/3, which by simply asking viewers to write something on a piece of paper are tarnished by the dopey ‘imho lmao’ superficiality of an internet forum. One sad consequence of constantly being asked to express oneself (or one’s opinion, as though that were the same thing) is that we and those around us lose the human mystery, and perhaps the dignity, distilled by Dickens near the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. Three passengers find themselves at close quarters in a mail-coach where
Not one of the three could have said, from anything he saw, what either of the other two was like; and each was hidden under almost as many wrappers from the eyes of the mind, as from the eyes of the body, of his two companions.
In cities especially, and Jane Jacobs recognized this need in physical space, the gap between the body and the mind, or the public self and the private, makes community possible. The denser things get, the more we each need our own room with a view. Think of all those New Yorkers ‘cocooning’ in their apartments with the Sunday Times…
Good art preserves that distance even as it formalizes it, creating a certain tension between viewer and artwork. The viewer comes close to being a voyeur in Sachiko Abe’s Cut Papers #13, in which the artist sits calmly, cutting fine strips of white paper within a kind of ethereal tee-pee (or Thoreau cabin) formed from similar strips. In this instance I bought completely the artist’s stated intention to express her own stream of consciousness through the paper strips, a bit like a spiritual ticker tape:
The act of cutting is a constant exercise through which I organise and structure my random thoughts. The rhythm of the scissors, the fineness and the length of the paper strip correspond to the process of my thinking, and its effect to the body. While essentially personal, Cut Papers is a necessary practice for me to formulate my relationship to the external world. The act defines and redefines the boundary between the self and the other, and helps to recover a meaningful relationship with one another.
However different her medium and style, like Thoreau Abe sees her work as a critique of the way “individuals are categorised for what they are and how they function in maintaining economic machinery.” This makes it delicious to imagine the following conversation in an Eastern Suburbs boite de nuit: “I’m a management consultant. What do you do?” “Me? I cut paper.”
The biennale’s emphasis on collaboration, interaction and all forms of relation does not exclude some strange and intriguing visions. I found Judith Wright’s sculptural installation at the MCA, A Journey, one of the more moving works in the whole biennale. A pack of strange travelers screwed together out of bric-a-brac wander slowly through the darkness, led by a baby-faced mannequin in an ancient wheelchair who, rather than looking forward, looks back over his shoulder with a sweet but not entirely reassuring expression. They could be the weary travelers who narrate George Seferis’ Mythistorema:
So very much having passed before our eyes
that even our eyes saw nothing, but beyond
and behind was memory like the white sheet one night in an enclosure
where we saw strange visions, even stranger than you,
pass by and vanish into the motionless foliage of a pepper tree;
Wright’s voyagers are made both vulnerable and strong by a strangeness formed out of recognizable parts, like a dream (do real people ever have dreams as abstract as, say, the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Vertigo or is David Lynch the true documentarian of the oneiric?). Unlike those contemporary sculptures which are either too slick or too slapdash in their construction, A Journey has the crude but sturdy quality of certain works of art brut, of an unpremeditated object assembled carefully in some hidden garage lit by human inspiration. Whatever the artist’s intention, the combination of precision and enigma in the work invites the viewer to dream their own interpretations into it, perhaps the “relation” with the longest and most complex history in art.
Some of the best works in the biennale invoke such monsters. The wanderers of A Journey could live in the same universe as the stalwart little miners of Jon Pylypchuk’s spend the rest of your life mining this death and it will only bring you despair who work a small gallery (in the sense of a cave rather than a museum) off the Dog-Leg Tunnel on Cockatoo Island. Like Wright’s work, the sculpture was inspired by a personal trauma which the artist manages to translate into an indelible image drawn from the imagination. The deadpan humor of the piece does not suppress the unexpected sympathy one feels for this little group of miners made out of eskys (that’s Australian for cooler) with slashes for mouths and ultraviolet bulbs for eyes. Some pick away at the walls while others sit around on an endless lunch break munching wooden sandwiches.
South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s Inkwili is a similarly resonant site-specific beast. A sea monster made of inner tubes sewn together with ribbon, perhaps 20 meters long, has washed up in the slipway of one of Cockatoo Island’s abandoned workshop buildings, trailing flotsam.* It is not quite a whale or a submarine (“inkwili” means submarine or water insects), not clearly alive or dead. As in Wright or Pylypchuk’s work, Inkwili seems to inspire our compassion, but the truly thrilling aspect of the sculpture is the way that Hlobo has managed to mine the watery mythology implied in Sydney Harbour. I may be chasing the bees in my own bonnet, but among the disappointments of the past decade in Sydney, perhaps the most perverse has been the city’s tendency, most obviously in the ongoing fiasco of Barangaroo (Cockatoo Island’s antithesis?), to treat its defining asset as a generic backdrop for hotel rooms and cubicles, a ‘drawcard,’ rather than the one place in the city where “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Hlobo’s sea monster manages to evoke the stories lurking in Sydney Harbour in the way that King Kong gleefully embodies the nightmares implied by skyscrapers. One of the great things about the biennale is that it gets so many people out on the water. Among the many new perspectives inspired by the biennale, that simple reverse angle of seeing the city from the water is perhaps the most powerful (yes this year’s free ferry is not as charming as the 2010 version, but it holds more people and has a certain daggy 1980s charm, no?).
It must surely say something about our times that so much of its art is so obsessive. Under their welcoming skins, our digital appendages demand a kind of unswerving perfection of click, touch and swipe that irons out the soft doubts whispered by Inkwili or Pylypchuk’s miners. In today’s art the first symptom of obsessiveness is repetition. A repetitiveness which is cold and a little frightening in Liu Zhuoquan’s Where are you?, which consists of several hundred glass bottles each painstakingly painted on the inside with snakeskin patterns, is beguiling in Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s series of 365 buddhas made from shredded Thai bank notes. Though ostensibly based on the artist’s friends, the figures, which share some of the deadpan humor of Pylypchuk’s miners, could as easily be a diary of one person’s year in three dimensions.
Obsessiveness, when scaled up, quickly becomes spectacle. Cockatoo Island, particularly in its cavernous old industrial buildings, dares artists, occasionally at their peril, to go big and loud. This year the challenge is taken up most notably by the New Zealand sculptor Peter Robinson, who fills a hall scattered with old machinery with massive chains (I assume laser) cut out of blocks of styrofoam. Robinson relates his work to minimalism, but there is a literal signification in the chains which prevented me from responding to the work beyond a kind of gape-jawed “wow, that’s amazing,” which of course it is. Aside from this work and a couple of others, there seems to be a deliberate resistance to spectacle in this biennale, most obviously in the fact that the enormous Turbine Hall houses a nearly immaterial sound and light installation by Reinier Rietveld and Craigie Horsfield, as much a contrast as one could have to 2010’s Inopportune: Stage One, by Cai Guo-Qiang, which involved eight cars cascading though the space, pierced by starbursts of light as though exploding.
Truly amazing nevertheless is Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Series, a version of which was Canada’s contribution to the Venice Biennale of Architecture two years ago. The work seems much more at home in a shadowy corner of Cockatoo Island, where takes on the air of a living being in its niche, some kind of friendly parasite or animal-vegetable. The work gains a charge from presenting itself as architecture, or at least as “a hybrid of sculpture, engineering, experimental chemistry and architecture.” Hylozoism is the idea that all matter has a life of its own, that, in the words of one of my former professors, “matter matters.” Beesley’s work, though in its present form beautiful and fascinating, feels like the primitive beginning of something new. Hylozoic Series belongs to a family of machines, like R2D2, WALL-E or your favorite bicycle (but not, I would argue, like a certain ubiquitous and much caressed personal electronic device) which elicit affection, or at least a certain pathos, to the point that the object might as well be alive. Possibly it is our own emotional response to objects which best support hylozoism. It is easy to believe, especially when surrounded by ‘use-less’ objects in an art exhibition, that objects can speak, at least in memory as a powerful nostalgia. As the immortal Barbara sang in “Drouot:”
Les choses ont leur secret, les choses ont leur légende
Mais les choses nous parlent si nous savons entendre.
Beesley’s work could either lead to interactive mobiles in corporate lobbies or to a completely new and responsive architectural rococo, or maybe both. Architecture, with some exceptions, is still let down by the vast expanses of every building which are repetitive or standardized, from retaining walls to washbasins. Flicking a light switch in an office building lets there be light, but never brings that light to life. Spatial delight, when it exists, is limited to those areas which are most visible. Only at rare moments in its history has architecture been as entirely wrought as sculpture is expected to be.
Also verging on architecture, and representing a tendency for painting to jump beyond a flat canvas is Adam Cvijanovic’s The River, in which a fictional floodplain meets the sky, does a loop de loop and curves down on the other side, as though in another dimension, as a desert landscape. The work is both a traditional landscape painting and a structure which converses with those Renaissance frescoes which become one with the architecture upon which they are painted. The painting’s subject becomes the looping form which it generates.
The video artists of this year’s biennale could stand to learn from Cvijanovic’s ability to force a two dimensional image into real space. It is understandable that a show called all our relations would de-emphasize screen-watching in favor of non-electronic meetings in space, but with the exception of Mapping Journey #5, the video works at this biennale lack the spatial and cinematic power of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, which managed to be almost novelistic in its richness, even as its narrative remained more felt than followed. The best videos are those works which require their gallery, which reach out into the space in which they are projected. At a biennale there always seem to be five or six bad little films in rooms with blackout curtains.
Mespat, by Alan Michelson must surely deserve some mixed media prize for managing to combine “digital video, turkey feathers, monofilament and steel cable” in a single artwork. It is as much a moving landscape painting, perhaps a disillusioned Hudson River School, as a work of video art. The image of a journey down the seriously polluted Newtown Creek which separates Brooklyn and Queens is blurred by the feathers, creating an image which begins to transcend the harshness and ephemerality of the digital image. Unlike those works which try to be little films, Mespat is a real work of video art in that one does not need to watch it from end to end to have experienced the work.
Though the grating redundancy “globalized world” does pop up on at least one wall label, this biennale’s internationalism is so seductive because it is formed out of local voices. I experienced the novel sensation of agreeing with New York Times columnist David Brooks after reading his recent paean to Bruce Springsteen’s “paracosms,” the detailed, deeply local worlds of which he sings. If Tip O’Neill was right that “all politics is local,” then surely art is more local still — it can be about the head of a pin if that pin is in an interesting enough place. The biennale’s “relations” are not the kind which smooth out the texture of local difference. With an almost-old fashioned, pre-Google Earth wonder we are swept away to many of the contemporary world’s fascinating, though sometimes deeply sad, places; from Newtown Creek to the Mallee country of Victoria to Dubai, several parts of China and the oil fields of the Caspian Sea, where we spend twelve strange minutes in the company of Bahar Behbahani and Almagul Menlibayeva’s Ride the Caspian. The fragmented images unfold on two screens, almost entirely as a kind of Kuleshov effect which links gazes to their apparent points of view. Two bored looking men sit awkwardly in the shorebreak of a beach furnished as a kind of watery living room, complete with an oriental rug. They seem to watch an enigmatic seductress who dances ritualistically among a field of pumping oil wells. What it all means is unclear, though the cross-cultural collaboration between a Kazakh and an Iranian artist accounts for some of the work’s playful exoticism, but it succeeds by being carefully made; just matching horizon lines between the shots allows a sense of dreamlike flow to build. It also helps that the cylindrical room in which it plays has been decked out with a sand floor and oil drums for seats. With its deadpan humor and feeling of new forms of decadence being born it is this biennale’s equivalent of 2010’s The Feast of Trimalchio by the Russian collective AES+F, in which the preening of more digital than real plutocrats was set to Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Ride the Caspian does not manage Trimalchio’s epic deadpan, but it has a certain indelible surrealism.
Buster Keaton seems reborn in the work of Robin Rhode, five of whose stop motion films are playing in an easy to miss space near the ferry terminal. Perhaps even more than the aforementioned works, Rhode’s little films, and they are little films, benefit from their presentation across two bare and nondescript rooms, as though they are somehow messages left behind by someone who had to flee. They are as much photography as cinema, each shot being a still image, mostly shot against a wall, usually involving a chair, documenting sometimes a pattern of movement, sometimes a wee tale. The playfulness of this work is a welcome alternative to the easy cynicism which is too often found in contemporary art, and which is nearly absent from this biennale. Our musically-inclined readers may be especially provoked (or seduced) by the film in which a concert pianist gone postal burns, cuts and throws stones at the painted image of a grand piano. The viewer is left to guess at the motivation for such an attack, but it certainly manages to take John Cage’s experiments with prepared piano to their illogical extreme.
In the two years since the last Biennale, two new and distinct venues (somehow one hates to use this word to describe museums…perhaps homes would be better…) for contemporary art have opened in Sydney, the Kaldor collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the renovated Museum of Contemporary Art. Whatever debate or reflection they have provoked about their respective collections, their architecture or whether contemporary art should be displayed with or apart from its ancestors, the biennale seems the natural home for the art of today. New galleries are always welcome, but what architect could invent Cockatoo Island? Of course not all of the art at the biennale is good, but there remain many beautiful, devastating, provocative, amusing, surprising and briefly diverting works which I haven’t managed to mention here (there was the sudden discovery of Tiffany Singh’s deliriously applauding bamboo chimes on the windy side of Cockatoo Island, Nicholas Hlobo’s creepy crawly paintings at the MCA, the very doomed boat painted by Mark Licari onto the side of a building on Cockatoo Island and…). all our relations won’t on its own save a city in which relation increasingly means the prickly propinquity of four million Mexican standoffs, but it creates a, um, hylozoic paracosm where anyone can discover something for themselves. If that sounds like nothing, or not much at all, just think how hard it sometimes is to believe in one’s own times.
*It seems a Southern Right Whale calf was born in Sydney Harbour during the biennale.