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.
Circular Quay is Sydney’s great public space, but it is no Piazza San Marco. The presence of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge at opposite ends of the magnet is powerful enough to allow the eye to glide around the curve past the decent, mediocre and bad architecture in between. In such an enchanted context even the Cahill Expressway, an elevated freeway which runs along the southern foreshore, is somehow not as egregious as Boston’s Central Artery was before it was chopped down. Instead of ancient stones, there is water, the one inlet out of the harbor’s dozens chosen for European settlement, now teeming with ferries and tourist boats promising varying doses of adrenaline. However unrepresentative of the unruly metropolis which spreads from here in all directions, Circular Quay hints at the dream of its city, the city’s best version of itself, the city Sydney could one day be.
Nearly to the point of self-parody, Sculpture by the Sea is the quintessential Sydney art exhibition. Every spring for fifteen years, the cliff top walk between Bondi and Bronte beaches has become an appropriately sculptural place to view sculpture. The weathered sandstone of the cliffs, sometimes smooth and rounded, sometimes broken and angular or pitted with lacy indentations, is already a kind of found sculpture, its grace clashing with the boxiness of so much Sydney architecture. Along the two kilometer walk, itself one of the city’s unmissable experiences, are a variety of natural “galleries” — works can be perched amidst the mineral minimalism of the cliffs with ocean as backdrop, tucked into lush grottoes on the inland side or clustered in the parks and beaches, either on the sand, on trampled lawns or along concrete paths. Everywhere, limpid sunshine pours down, mercilessly chiseling the surfaces of the works.
What does a landlocked museum do when thirty-five million dollars worth of contemporary art, much of it larger than a bread box, falls into its lap? Such was the happy conundrum of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has just unveiled the John Kaldor Family Collection to the public. If I call the Gallery’s architectural solution the institutional equivalent of refurbing the basement of a Boston three decker to house returning in-laws, then I mean that as high praise of the Gallery’s willingness to make the most of what they have. The AGNSW’s situation, surrounded by inviolable parkland and very much heritage listed, has required an economical use of space in its subsequent expansions, which trade big architectural gestures for a seamless flow between old and new. The Kaldor Collection is now housed in former storage space on the third basement level, now renovated by architect Andrew Andersons, designer of the Bicentennial wing in which it sits, to open up 3300 square meters of new gallery space, essentially an additional floor. Though the Kaldor Collection leaves the Gallery’s appearance unchanged, the sudden materialization of arguably the greatest collection of contemporary art in Australia will certainly change the institution for good.
Contemporary art has been around long enough now to be no longer necessarily contemporary with the present day and likewise Avant-Garde seems sometimes more a style than an attitude or movement. Contemporary dance, as free and expressive as it generally is, sometimes feels held back by its stock of conventional movements and gestures. These movements are becoming less and less abstract even if they can be expressive and exhilarating and every good choreographer has their own touch with them. Of course classical ballet has its own stock of traditional steps, but these are meant to blend together smoothly; in a way the ultimate aim of the choreographer and dancer is to meld these individual steps together into the transitionary movements to become a single fluid movement and an expression of a whole more than the sum of its steps. The audience forgets to see or analyze the steps as separate.
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.
Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 1 – May 11, 2009
Pretty funny guy, for a German. The curators who put together the current large retrospective of Martin Kippenberger, knowing that his name will be new to almost every …