Sydney Morning Herald Column

19th Biennale of Sydney

Published March 29, 2014
Mircea Cantor, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, 2012 (video still), HD video, 4 mins. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris; Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv; and Magazzino, Rome. Sound: Semantron of Putna Monastery.

Biennales thrive on controversy but there is a feeling of unease about this year’s headlines. No-one envisaged artists boycotting the Biennale because the founding sponsor has government contracts to manage detention centres. It was no cause for celebration when Transfield’s Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, one the few dedicated patrons of the arts in corporate Australia, felt obliged to resign as Chair of the Biennale Board.

Protesters outside Transfield’s Melbourne office. Picture: Twitter
Protesters outside Transfield’s Melbourne office.

If there is one positive in this affair it is the renewed international attention focused on the treatment of refugees – a blot on the reputation of this country that has heaped shame on the current government and its predecessor. Nevertheless, it won’t disturb Tony Abbott in the slightest. A Prime Minister who can insult the Chinese, alienate the Indonesians and praise the Sri Lankan President for spreading “freedom and prosperity” is obviously not concerned about what the rest of the world thinks.
The negatives will fall exclusively on the Biennale. Even if we ignore Senator Brandis’s bullying threats to change the basis of Australia Council funding, the episode sends a horrendous message to potential sponsors. In an age when the arts are more and more dependent on a fickle private sector the Biennale is putting itself out of the game.
To be consistent the protesters should have pre-empted the Senator and repudiated the Australia Council as the direct representative of the federal government. With a little imagination one might find political reasons to decline money from all sources.
The cloud hanging over this year’s show made it more important than ever for the 19th Biennale of Sydney to be a high quality, crowd-pleasing spectacle. The theme: You Imagine What You Desire was not promising. It’s a standing joke that big international art fests have themes vague and ambiguous enough to admit anything, but this year’s subtitle is especially opaque. As with previous Biennales I’ll spend this week looking at the ideas behind the show and discuss individual works in another column.
The director of the 2014 show is Juliana Engberg, a self-styled Über-curator from Melbourne. The appointment was notable for what it reveals about the old Sydney-Melbourne debate. Sydney is happy to appoint a Melbourne curator but it’s doubtful this gesture would be reciprocated south of the Murray.
One of the curiosities of Engberg’s C.V. is her directorship of the inaugural Melbourne International Biennial of 1999, titled Signs of Life. Ironically, there has never been a second. In the aftermath she was criticised in the media for reputedly blowing the budget and taking an overseas trip instead of being on hand to spruik the show. Nowadays this has been forgotten and one only reads what a wondrous event it was. But if the Biennial was so good why didn’t they do a second one? If it was a question of funding, what does this say about Melbourne’s support for the arts?
The curator’s opening address at Cockatoo Island gave a pretty clear indication of her style. If it were a T20 match, Engberg would have walked out to the strains of Ego is Not a Dirty Word. It was all me, me, me, I, I, I. Rather than stress the collaborative nature of this huge logistical enterprise she made it sound as if everything was an emanation of her personal vision. To pull this off one has to be really good or supremely self-confident.
According to the Exhibition Overview on the Biennale website: “You Imagine What You Desire is an evocation celebrating the artistic imagination as a spirited describing and exploration of the world through metaphor and poesis. It makes enquiries into contemporary aesthetic experience, and relates this to historical precedents and future opportunities to imagine possible worlds. It seeks to understand the need artists have today to create immersive and expanded environments, and locates this activity as part of an art historical trajectory, and as a pursuit into the issues of human consciousness, and their psychological, cognitive and corporeal imperatives.”
This is a textbook example of how to say nothing by speaking in generalisations and banalities. There are binary oppositions between the past and the future, art and life, mind and body. All that seeking, pursuing, evoking, describing, enquiring, gives the impression of relentless activity but leads to no concrete propositions. What are “the issues of human consciousness” anyway?
The catalogue provides no further enlightenment because none of the introductory essays addresses the selection of works. This includes Engberg’s own brief curatorial statement which cheerfully drops the names of Socrates, Aristophanes, Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Freud, Lacan, Zizek and Badiou, in order to suggest that “artists are active philosophers, inasmuch as they continue to propose problems through which they work in hopeful, surplus ways, expecting their desire to perpetuate yet another problem, to rebuild desire – ad infinitum.”
Is that perfectly clear? I promise not to quote any more of this cerebral fairy floss, so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. One might as well announce – with suitable fanfare – that artists make art.
I’ve tried to approach this Biennale with as much objectivity as I can muster, but it is some sort of achievement to choose work by 90 artists from 31 countries, spread across five venues, with hardly anything of lasting interest. It’s a much weaker selection than 2012 or 2010. Apart from a few unremarkable canvases by Anna Tuori at Carriageworks, and bit of wall doodling from Christine Streuli in Cockatoo Island, there is not a painting in sight. Today that’s nothing unusual but it would be more acceptable if the majority of videos, photos and installations were less superficial or soporific.
Christine Streuli, 'gradually_real', 2014
Christine Streuli, gradually_real, 2014. Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island.  Photograph: Ben Symons.

In each of the five venues I struggled to find one or two works that seemed fresh or intelligent. Michael Cook’s photo sequence at the Art Gallery of NSW was a stand-out, but pieces by Yhonnie Scarce, Angelica Mesiti and Yingmei Duan were also worth considering. The latter is a most peculiar piece of theatre, as it involves the waif-like artist camping out at the AGNSW for the entire Biennale, living in makeshift cave entered by a tiny door. Venture inside and the artist will sing a song and present you with a bit of paper containing an oracular message or a snippet of useful information.

At Cockatoo Island one may enjoy a stop-motion animation of a house being demolished and overrun by little demons, by Swiss duo, Augustin Rebetez and Noé Cauderay; and an elaborate film by Yael Bartana, based on religious cult in Brazil aiming to build their own version of the Third Temple of Jerusalem. An apocalyptic tale with cinematic production values, it makes the Scientologists look pretty humdrum.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art the highlight was Pipilotti Rist’s immersive video installation, Mercy Garden Retour Skin, although I’ve seen more engaging works by this artist. Carriageworks is worth visiting for the sake of its cavernous new exhibition space, which was formerly George Miller’s film studio. However, I’m struggling to think of a work I’d recommend. At Artspace, Ugo Rondinone’s small bronze birds are diverting, but not exactly profound.
You’ll have to forgive this unargued list as I’m only trying to register the pieces that made any impression. As said, I’ll provide the details in a future column. The hardest task is to find anything that unites the art in these venues. The director claims that Cockatoo Island made her think of “the trope of the island” while Carriageworks suggested a “cinema” theme. The MCA was “air/water” and the AGNSW, “earth/fire”. Artspace was “a flight of fancy”.
None of this would matter if the contributions were good, but very few gems emerge from the quagmire of mediocrity. The heavy emphasis on Scandinavia doesn’t make much of a case for this region being a neglected powerhouse of contemporary art. It requires no special insight to realise that countries such as China and South Korea are producing a far superior brand of work. Go to the Biennale then visit the White Rabbit Gallery and you’ll see what I mean.
Better still, fly south and check out Nick Mitzevich’s Adelaide Biennial subtitled Dark Heart. With only 30 Australian artists brought together in one uncluttered show, it makes a mockery of the sprawling, obscure nature of Engberg’s ‘vision’. In a year when the Biennale most needed a hit it has come up with an indulgence.
19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire
Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks, Artspace,
until 9 June.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 29 March, 2014