City of Art: The 17th Biennale of Sydney

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12 May-1 August at Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney Opera House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Art Gallery of NSW, Artspace

The 17th Biennale of Sydney succeeds spectacularly as an act of urbanism. At a time when the practice of creative urbanism in this city finds itself uncomfortably confined between the immobile sandstone cliffs of stodgy bureaucracy and the wiles of crony developers, the real deal is most welcome, even if it is only temporary. Aside from the quality of the art, which is surprisingly high, it is clear that the Biennale organizers and curator David Elliott have succeeded in a genuine act of Urban Doing, that jolly competitor to the familiar discipline of urban planning.

The exhibition has a salty maritime feel. Four hundred and forty works by one hundred and sixty six artists are distributed along  or within a few hundred metres of the familiar shores of Sydney Harbour.  While conventional gallery spaces at the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art house the more delicate work, a couple of very special waterfront spaces have, like precious but chipped old crockery, been lovingly brought into service as containers for art. A free ferry (the Biennale doesn’t cost a cent) runs from Circular Quay to Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbour and a place for which the word palimpsest would have to be invented if it didn’t already exist. The island seems to consist of nothing but traces, first of its time as a notorious prison, then a reformatory for “wayward” girls, a major shipyard and, since 2007, a unique urban park. The subtlety with which the history of the island has been interpreted, and the sensitive way in which commerce has been introduced (in the form of overnight camping, restored holiday houses, the occasional rock concert and an obligatory café) is another example of the high standard set by the Harbour Trust, a federal government agency which manages a handful of former industrial and military sites on Sydney Harbour. The contrast between their imaginative approach to adaptive reuse, and the dreary way in which state government controlled lands like Barangaroo are reliably thrown to the tender mercies of rapacious developers is a salutary lesson that the best urban spaces usually result from the light touch of appreciative hands.

Seagull, Cockatoo Island

As a gallery, Cockatoo Island must be the antithesis of the white box, and a lot of the excitement of this Biennale comes from the way that little ferry unleashes unsupervised Biennale-goers into this wonderland of trip hazards and potentially offensive artworks. Those works are unavoidably seen within and through each other and the island’s extraordinary spaces. If a walk around Cockatoo Island were to be adapted into a film, it would be told in superimpositions rather than montage. To say that some of the art on Cockatoo Island would be far less interesting in a traditional gallery misses the point. Once an art work comes to shore on the island, it becomes site-specific whether intended or not. To take one clear cut example, Yvonne Todd’s portraits, which could be placeholders under the cellophane of store bought picture frames but for their deep eeriness, take on a powerful sense of narrative when hung on the peeling walls of an abandoned cottage on the upper part of Cockatoo Island. It is as though something terrible and mysterious has happened five minutes ago. Other small-scale installations such as Rosslynd Piggott’s exquisitely crafted oddments and Aleks Danko’s three quarters serious meditation on the importance of a Ukrainian cushion to his family history also benefit from the island’s evocative domestic spaces.

Goat Sluice (2006), by Yvonne Todd

Shelter (2010), by Rosslynd Piggott

The cavernous halls of the former shipyard on the lower part of the island house most of the showier, large scale installations. The former turbine hall stands up to the Biennale’s drawcard, Cai Guo-Qiang’s enormous Inopportune: Stage One, with nine cars frozen in mid air explosion, pierced by starbursts of flashing LEDs. It is pure spectacle, and very hard not to admire, especially as its silent glow infects the adjoining spaces, passively enlivening a forgettable installation or two.

Inopportune: Stage One (2004), by Cai Guo-Qiang

Throughout the Biennale, familiar tendencies in contemporary art, such as extreme scale, political urgency and ironic humor, are enriched by displays of beauty, originality, craft and even self-deprecation. Exquisite craft tends to sweeten any hint of cynicism, as in the case of Rachel Kneebone’s decidedly naughty porcelains or Kent Monkman’s twisted pseudo-historical Canadian landscape paintings, both on display at the MCA. Lest one think that contemporary art has gone respectable, there is Jake and Dinos Chapman’s corrugated cardboard bacchanal ‘Shitrospective’ to remind us of the gleeful freedom of the slapdash. More spectacular in this craptastic vein is Paul McCarthy’s Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift 2 at Pier 2/3, the last undeveloped timber finger wharf on Sydney Harbour. This enormous, marshmallow-like ship of expanding foam speaks its political despair all the more eloquently because it is so stubbornly ugly in material and form. As one walks around the work, the babyish and violent crew (they have just fired their cannon) never quite emerge as human forms. They, perhaps like some people we know, remain simultaneously obese and invisible, powerful and impassive, willful and completely unimaginative.

Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift 2 (2010), by Paul McCarthy

There are many terabytes of video art on display at the Biennale. At Pier 2/3 I experienced the perils of my traditional reaction to this medium, a gag reflex of the feet, that march of hastily retreating shuffles which, repeated, threatens to wear a parabola into the gallery floor. After being led into a pitch dark enclosure by a helpful volunteer with a flashlight, and having seen that I was expected to sit down and watch politely, I turned around, stepped into the void and collided with an invisible wall. Serves me right, for there is some great stuff on display, work which demonstrates that  video art is not just a farm league for conventional narrative or documentary film. By existing outside familiar constraints, video artists are in a unique position to mine the rich vein of ideas not only along familiar borders such as the contested line between fiction and documentary, but also between these loaded forms and the stimulating and indispensable uselessness of art. And surely the fact that you can walk out the door at any time is an endearing admission of art’s vulnerability to impatience.

If planning a day on Cockatoo Island, set aside 49 minutes to see Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves in its entirety. This nine channel video installation (which was shot on 35mm film) is the most entrancing cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time. It is a story of peril at sea, based on the 2004 drowning of twenty Chinese migrant workers in Morecambe Bay. The installation spirals off into a pure emotion of place, both the places depicted — Lancashire, the Yangtze River, Shanghai — and the space delineated by the nine screens. Ten Thousand Waves is made of gleaming skyscrapers, highways, trams, strange rooms, longing gazes, historical footage, painterly landscapes and even features the wonderful Maggie Cheung. Julien bravely carves out new territory for film grammar. Multiple channels allow closeups, flashbacks, subjective and establishing shots to be simultaneous, or subtly sequenced between the screens. Ten Thousand Waves raises the possibility that architectural space — the charged air between the nine free-hanging screens — and film narrative can perhaps be cajoled into happy conversation.

Ten Thousand Waves (2010), by Isaac Julien

One increasingly evident strength of video installation over narrative film is that even the simplest example is grounded in public space, whether the traditional darkened gallery or the haunted chambers of Cockatoo Island. The viewer’s memory of an installation is inextricably connected to the actual kinesthetic experience of the day and place in which it was seen. It is heartening to imagine that these motion pictures might be impervious to the new three ring circus of home entertainment, the BluRay, the leather couch and the 3D plasma screen. As more and more films come to theaters predictable and prefabricated, denying the possibility of unexpected effects, it is no wonder audiences want to fight back by exercising their right to press the pause button and grab a drink. There is a sense of mystery in video art which seems increasingly absent from theatrical films, whether mainstream, indie or art house, and which at its best harks back to the nearly dangerous thrill of the Lumiere’s L’Arrivée d’un train en gare (1895).  The spectacle of the most spectacular video art at the biennale — Ten Thousand Waves, AES+F’s nine channel consumerist orgy, The Feast of Trimalchio — feels like a redemption of spectacle on behalf of the urbane, a state of grace close to the polar opposite of Avatar’s joyless and manipulative badgering.

My favorite of the more modest video installations is Kutlug Ataman’s two channel “documentary” Journey to the Moon, about a rumored attempt in the late 1950s by four villagers in Eastern Turkey to fly to the moon using the local minaret as a rocket. Like Ten Thousand Waves, Journey to the Moon tells a story while telling about telling stories. On the left hand screen, the story of the legendary journey is told in a colloquial narration over black and white stills, while on the right a series of Turkish intellectuals pontificate on the theoretical and historical ramifications of the story. This division, between color and black and white, still and moving images, storytelling and analysis, encodes Turkey’s perpetual tension between the intelligentsia and the villager into the language of the film. It also critically deconstructs the talking head interview format which is so often taken for granted, from Barbara Walters to Spinal Tap, as the universal sign of cinematic truth telling. Journey to the Moon is also very funny.

Sydney is absolutely drenched with festivals this winter. There is the Writer’s Festival, the Sydney Film Festival and the kitchen sink inclusive Vivid Festival of Lou Reed Industrial Music and Leopard Spots projected onto the Opera House. The Biennale seems to me simultaneously the most inviting and sophisticated in that it is provokes without prejudicing any particular response. There is no cringing or eagerness to please. Cockatoo Island is like Disneyland for flaneurs, a truly unforgettable experience of spaces that only time and shifting necessity, and no architect, could design. A churlish critic would observe that a child could mount an installation of styrofoam blocks on the island and it would generate profound and unexpected meanings. Forrest Gump might come closer to the truth by observing that seeing the art between and within these spaces is very much like unwrapping unknown chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get, you may bite into the occasional synthetic banana toffee, but overall what you do get is much more than the sum of its parts, not just looking or walking or seeing or thinking, but an honorable flaneurie. The Biennale has a delightfully freewheeling and inclusive spirit, but it is the high standard of the art work, carefully selected and displayed, that makes the big exhibition so enjoyable at all its venues, not just Cockatoo Island. The diversity of the art — from a forest of Yolngu memorial poles at the MCA to an incarcerated piano at Cockatoo Island — thankfully obliterates the possibility of drawing easy conclusions. It helps that there is very little art of the ‘my three year old could have drawn that’ school. The easy pose of ironic detachment which sometimes puts people off contemporary art is almost completely absent, or is at least leavened by a political and conceptual eagerness which eloquently expresses the Biennale’s seemingly unwieldy theme, “The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age.”

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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