Sydney Morning Herald Column

17th Biennale of Sydney

Published May 29, 2010
Wang Qingsong, Competition, 2004, c-type print, 170 x 300 cm. Courtesy the artist

But that joke isn’t funny any more,
It’s too close to home
And it’s too near the bone.
(The Smiths)
“When he makes a joke,” said Sigmund Freud, “a problem lies concealed.” He was quoting Goethe, who was referring to the aphorist, Lichtenberg, but the sentence has universal relevance. Laughter is a release from tension, a way of dispelling deep-seated anxieties. There are times when laughter is the only possible response to a hopeless predicament.
Although the propaganda for the 17th Biennale of Sydney makes a great fuss about “wonder”, it would be more accurate to talk about the humour in the show. There’s nothing funny ha-ha about the Biennale’s ponderous subtitle: The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, but the exhibition is steeped in puns, satire, black comedy and cynicism. There are some good jokes and plenty of bad ones, but every second installation seems to be angling for a laugh, or at least a wry smile.
Does this represent a trend, or merely the personal tastes of the artistic director, David Elliott? A bit of both perhaps, reflecting the mood of an age when there are no convincing alternatives to capitalism. The communist experiment could hardly have been more disastrous while toady’s political alternatives are centred on specific issues such as the environment or the family. Yet this world, with its voracious corporations, inequalities and recessions, is a mess.
For the contemporary artist the situation is even more confusing. Long gone are the days when an avant-garde painter or sculptor automatically adopted a radical left-wing stance. From 1944 up until his death, Picasso, the most famous artist in the world, was a member of the Communist Party. Nowadays, contemporary art is hand-in-glove with big business. The most successful artists, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, are global brands, sought after by museums, corporate and private collectors. The wealthy compete to buy the most outrageous and provocative items, while international exhibitions such as the Biennale are propped up by hefty injections of corporate sponsorship.
Yet somehow the fiction persists that art is inherently opposed to our market-driven society. When the bourgeoisie are not only happy to be insulted, but will pay large sums for the most offensive pieces, the artist becomes a court jester who can make fun of politicians and plutocrats and still be rewarded at the end of the day. This may seem a big improvement on the ‘starving-in-a-garret’ lifestyle, but it’s hard to escape the irony that an artist can win acceptance, fame and fortune by playing the role of a professional outsider.
This is why contemporary art is so saturated with irony and black humour: it is a predictable response to its inability to affect social change. In the 1960s, when David Elliott was learning about politics, there was a concerted belief that audiences would respond to forms of ‘consciousness raising’. Nowadays one would have to be a supreme optimist or an idiot to believe art is going to remedy the evils of capitalism, especially when it is vitally dependent on the spoils of the system.
While there are impressive works in the Biennale that do not resemble jokes – notably the Yolngu poles and Ömie barkcloths at the MCA; and the large installations by Hiroshi Sugimoto and Isaac Julien on Cockatoo Island – these pieces are in the minority.

One of the best and darkest feats of sustained black humour is a video by Romanian artist, Ciprian Muresan, called Dog Luv (2009). In this small-screen presentation, buried in a forgotten corner of Cockatoo Island, we watch a group of puppet dogs discuss the problem of how to understand humans. They resemble a small, revolutionary cell, with the leader laying down the law and the followers barking and yelping in agreement. Humans, they agree, are cruel, fickle and barbarous, but the dogs seem equally ready to devote themselves to a great ideological cause. This piece, which could only have been made by an artist from Eastern Europe, was a sleeper at last year’s Venice Biennale, and seems even more sinister when shown in laidback Australia.
There is no compelling reason why works such as this need to be tucked away in old buildings on Cockatoo Island. They could just as easily be watched on the TV set at home. The same applies to Katarzyna Kozyra’s Summertale (2008), a short film about a group of dwarves who find three full-sized visitors intruding on their orderly world. At first they treat these newcomers with exquisite hospitality, but become murderous when they find all is not as it seems. Compared to the stripped-down pathos of Muresan’s film, Kozyra’s piece seems camp and heavy-handed, but must still be viewed as an extended joke.

There is a more oblique kind of comedy to be found in Cao Fei’s animation, People’s Limbo (2009), also incongruously exhibited on a small monitor in a darkened chamber at Cockatoo Island. This takes the form of an episodic exchange between Lehman Brothers, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Lao Tsu, set in a futuristic metropolis not dissimilar from contemporary Shanghai. The dialogue is a peculiar mixture of satire and philosophy, which leaves viewers – as the title suggests – in limbo.
More successful, and without doubt one of the stand-out pieces on the Island, is Shen Shaomin’s Summit (2010), which brings together silicone replicas of the bodies of the great Communist leaders: Mao, Lenin, Ho Chi-Min and Kim Il-Sung, lying in state in transparent cases. In the corner, an aged Fidel Castro breathes noisily on his invalid’s bed. It is the Communist ideal that lies dead and dying in this room, its immortal heroes preserved like specimens in a museum. This piece ties in neatly with Shaomin’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art – a series of bonsai trees, complete with the vices and wires that induce ‘artistic’ deformations. It is a convincing metaphor for the way citizens are twisted and shaped by the ideology of a state.
This might be compared with Liu Jianhua’s ceramic installation in the Art Gallery of NSW, featuring a group of beautiful celadon vessels apparently filled to the brim with blood. This is, however, an illusion, as the reddish areas are baked and glazed surfaces. The reference is to the age-old legacy of Chinese culture which conceals a history of stupendous bloodshed and carnage. Nearby, Wang Qingsong’s large photos show walls covered in peeling posters that take on a strange aesthetic dimension, as if the detritus of the market place were being transformed into a large abstract canvas.
By now you may have realised that all this black humour appears to emanate from countries that have only recently abandoned Communism. China remains nominally communist, although Mao would have winced at the idea of a communist state with a stockmarket. Today’s Central Committee members are more like the board of directors of China Inc., empowered to make quick decisions that benefit investors, regardless of the protests of once-revered peasants and workers.
The major American contribution to this comic orgy, is Paul McCarthy’s Ship of Fools (2010) at Pier 2/3. This large, hideous sculpture made from congealed packing foam with a dash of tomato sauce, looks like a miniature in the cavernous setting of the Pier. Over the years McCarthy has made numerous videos and installations that strive to be as disgusting as possible, in tribute to a society of hype and consumer excess. By his own standards, Ship of Fools is a humdrum contribution to this project – an invocation of the medieval practice of putting lunatics on a boat and setting it adrift. Nowadays, needless to say, the lunatics are in control.

The relative dullness of McCarthy’s work should be set against the all-consuming spectacle of The Feast of Trimalchio (2009) by the Russian ensemble, AES + F, housed in a nondescript building on Cockatoo Island. With the collapse of communism no country suffered more than the former Soviet Union, where the wealth of the state ended in the hands of a few all-powerful oligarchs. While the vast majority of Russians plunged into dire poverty, a tiny minority became billionaires. This idea of a billionaire’s paradise is the basis for a huge, nine channel projection based on an episode from Petronius’s famous tale of Roman excess, the Satyricon.
While Paul McCarthy’s work is cobbled together any old way, it is important for AES + F that everything is immaculate. A group of beautiful, multi-racial people are attended to by equally beautiful, multi-racial servants on an island resort. Food, sex, sport, and every other pastime is provided, in an environment of manicured perfection. The music comes from Beethoven and Mozart, with the images being digitally orchestrated into a something resembling a ballet. The piece is not just ‘about’ pleasure, it is a genuine pleasure to watch. With this vast, elaborate, spell-binding piece of satire, the Russians steal the show.
The 17th Biennale of Sydney, May  12-August 1, 2010
Museum of Contemporary Art, Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3, Artspace, Sydney Opera House, Botanical Gardens, Art Gallery of NSW
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 29, 2010