Review: 17th Biennale of Sydney
by Alex Wisser
David Elliot, in the preamble to the 17th Biennale of Sydney, declares his intentions:
“Stereotypical rankings of power and periphery, developed and undeveloped, rich and poor, first people and colonisers, ‘fine’ art and ‘folk’ art are here turned on their heads in an exhibition in which the only discrimination is whether the art is any ‘good’.”
While I question the propriety of turning such a politically ambitious agenda to so suspect an end as “an exhibition in which the only discrimination is whether the art is any ‘good’”, I am convinced of the sincerity with which this ambition is pursued. Elliott has managed to create a show that examines its own context, staging the redistribution of perspective as an inherent potential of a globalizing art world. It describes modernity not only as a universal phenomena, but also as the localized and particular experience of the collision of non western societies with the destructive forces of colonialism, industrialism, and now globalism. More importantly, it shows those cultures respond, assuming their own modernity. The result is a proliferation of perspectives that offer an enriched dialogue and an expanded capacity to understand our connected world. This strategy is sustained by a recurring address to subjects and experience of modernity that shift across geographical, ideological, cultural and theoretical maps, challenging the notion of a centralized universal purview often with brilliant observation on the instability and unsustainability of any unified subject position (even their own) as a condition of advancing modernity.
Kutlug Ataman’s mock documentary, Journey to the Moon for instance, tells the story of a remote Anatolian village staging a moon mission ten years before the Americans tried, basically winning the space race. The power of the work derives from the level of plausibility Ataman achieves, rendering evident the persuasive forces at play in modern documentary making and drawing a parallel between the “storytelling” of the peasants and commentary of various experts, suggesting that they are not all that different in kind. In telling a story that inverts “rankings of power and periphery, developed and undeveloped” Ataman undermines and renders relative, the scientific and academic authority those relationships are founded on. He does so with the mocking humour of the peasant for the master, appealing to the latter’s prejudice in order to insinuate a few truths about who’s superior to whom in the blind spots thus cultivated (all the while mocking himself).
Cao Fei uses video game cgi to create a tawdry fantasia of 3d landscapes peopled by awkward effigies of Marx, Mao, Lehman (of Lehman Brothers fame), and Lao Tsu engaging in ideological exchanges that sound like B-movie translations from the Chinese. This world, called People’s Limbo, has about it the tacky, abstract and cluttered opulence of the cheap utopias of 2 dollar shop Capitalism. The overpowering quality of this world is the sense of reckless hurry with which it has been built and the superficiality of it’s at times striking beauty collapses against the awareness that absolutely no care has gone into its making. The philosophical arguments jump and stutter like the poorly rendered movement of its avatars, strangely insubstantial statements in a conversation that seems contrived by cutting up and stitching together so many monologues. The effect is truly one of limbo: of weightless, timeless, and spaceless experience, without substance or friction or sense of direction and the clashing of these major ideologies convince us only of their futility, drawing the suspicion that the unified subject positions they represent are no longer possible
Video art was definitely the strong suit of this Biennale, spanning a vast chasm of experience between the unreal virtualities of consumer culture and the stark actualities of extreme poverty. The AEF+S collective offers a panoramic vision of the glittering seductions of fashion magazine glamour by approximating in video the animation of fashion photography poses, allowing the frozen gesture to complete itself between beautiful, exotic creatures who’s gaze never meet, and who’s bodies never touch. These figures are caught in an endless repetition of seductive gestures that never consumate, producing a generic desire without specific subject or object or end, suggesting that this is the productive force at work in contemporary advertising. On the other end of the spectrum, Yan Fudong draws a stark parallel between the lives of villagers in the remote village of Que and a pack of wild dogs living nearby who are forced to eat each other in order to survive. The grim, unrelenting severity of existence is brought into sharp relief when the video focuses on two young dogs, on the verge of adulthood, playing carelessly with each other while chewing on dog skulls… oblivious to the future this act implies for them.
While much of the stronger work had darker themes, there were moments of generosity that stood out against the darker context. In ‘Vision Quest’, Marcus Coates served as a shaman and ‘seer’ for the community of a troubled London suburb, offering both his subjects and audience the glimmer of hope and insight through the technology of animism and the gift of vision, remarking on the value and power of art. Christian Thompson grapples with the legacy of his mixed heritage by teaching one of his Bidjaraancestral songs to a Dutch baroque singer. Taken from its traditional context as a sacred song expressing a man’s relationship to his land and grafted onto another culture, the song takes on new life and meaning. It struck me as a gesture of great generosity tempered with an awareness of loss: that this object created through the marriage of two cultures belongs to neither, and that it’s beauty derives in part from the tragic history of dispossession of which it is an artifact.
I found this duality repeated in a number of works, especially those dealing with the relationship between man and nature. Shen Shaomin’s Bonzai’s are paradigmatic, at first appearing to be unidirectional statements about the violent imposition of industrialized human will onto the natural world, they eventually “flip” like Chinese boxes into celebrations of the force and resilience of nature — the plants’ intensified musculature twisting and striving against the tortuous implements of their constraint, relentlessly throwing new life beyond the permit of their bondage. Janet Laurence’s “WAITING — A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants” makes aesthetic comment on the indistinguishable boundary between nature and science through her stunning greenhouse installation, combining scientific objects, instruments, forms and ‘processes’ with botanical materials in classically formalized arrangements that speak to the shared fragility of man and nature, and the delicate affinities of form that communicate between them.
This dynamic can be read as a thin subtext that runs beneath the surface of this show, and the best works within it speak at once to the destructive collision between traditional cultures and modernity and at the same time to the new cultural potentials that emerge. This can be done superficially, as a tokenistic appropriation of traditional means and forms to express modern concerns. Hisashi Tenmyouya’s traditional painting of a Japanese god of war with machine guns instead of swords made me shrug my shoulders and wonder how this image would feed into received Western prejudices of Oriental modernity. Sitting right next to it though, is Makoto Aida’s “The Caligraphy School”, which addresses the very nature of such exchanges, playfully presenting a billboard with what looks like traditional Japanese calligraphy. It is not. It is an abstract facsimile of Japanese calligraphy — something you wouldn’t know if you didn’t read the language (or the wall text). While presenting us with our expectations of Japanese culture, Aida inserts beneath it the simple truth of such understanding — that it is based necessarily on ignorance and that the distances which it attempts to bridge are very real and just as perilous.
Abstraction often plays a key role in such works. Liu Jianhua’s Container Series presents abstract ceramic vessels filled with deep red glaze. The objects are bereft of historical or cultural markers, nevertheless, a viewer is compelled to consider them as Chinese ceramics, with all the postcolonial baggage that implies. In addition, it is difficult to view the objects without reading the deep red glaze as somehow representing blood, and taking on political dimensions. Jianhua’s work seems to be testing the boundaries of abstraction by emphasizing and implicating the localized, historical, and political context in which they are viewed. If the content is abstract, the context is not and the tendency toward the universal is always located.
Across the show, Elliot was consistent in his choice of artists, and managed to maintain a high level of quality while sourcing work from a broad range of cultural, political, and geographical backgrounds. The works of big name artists were restrained by the modesty of their scaleand the strategy of their placement, as the curator seems to have actively refused the temptation to play them as centre pieces and draw cards, instead inviting them to contribute to the conversations established by other, lesser known artists.
In pursuing his political ends, though, Elliot has paid a price in terms of his address to the general public. The Turbine Hall at Cockatoo Island was a shambles. The major spectacle work by Cai Guo-Qiang, had all the visual impact of a used car lot in the late afternoon. Then there was a jumping castle that we weren’t allowed to jump on, the roofs of a shanty town we were not free to walk on, an incomprehensibly botched piano lynching, a series of ugly abstract expressionist paintings hung under the curatorial strategy of “make it fit”, and a wooden telescope that made no sense in the actualized context of the show (despite the fact that the title might permit it). This shambles not only failed to please its intended audience, it diminished the value of the exhibition as a whole. It seemed crass to place within a show addressed to such important issues, this mélange of badly presented concessions to “popular taste” — especially since it failed to satisfy that taste.
This failing returns us to the curatorial statement quoted at the top of this essay, compelling the question that if Elliott has succeeded to some degree in the political ambition of this show, was it for no better end than to create an exhibition “in which the only discrimination is whether the art is any ‘good’.” Such an intention implies that beneath all of the differences of perspective, there exists a homogeneous, universal culture in which we can easily agree on what is “any ‘good’”. Such a conclusion is excluded by the premise – the diversity of perspectives which Elliot promotes by deconstructing established relationships between them, implies that the field is not homogeneous and that disagreement is necessary to it (and not necessarily as a bad thing).