Sydney Morning Herald Column

17th Biennale of Sydney

Published May 22, 2010
Yolngu artists from North East Arnhem Land: Miniyawany Yunupingu, Djirrirra Wunungmurra, Wukun Wanambi, Dhurrumuwuy Marika, Buwathay Munyarryun, "Larrakitj," earth pigments on naturally hollowed log

We are the Folk Song Army,
Every one of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares.
(Tom Lehrer)
This may or may not be Sydney’s biggest ever Biennale, but it breaks all records for the length of the title. The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age is the extended moniker for another huge, sprawling, shapeless, art extravaganza that extends over seven venues: the Museum of Contemporary Art; Cockatoo Island; Pier 2/3; Artspace; the Sydney Opera House; the Royal Botanic Gardens, and finally, the Art Gallery of NSW, which has offered only the use of its entrance court. In this column I’ll examine the themes of the Biennale, and concentrate on individual works next weekend.
The phrase, The Beauty of Distance, conjures up instant associations with Geoffrey Blainey’s iconic study of Australian history, The Tyranny of Distance (1966). So it its a little surprising that this concept never appears in any of the essays and fragments included in the catalogue. With the Biennale’s emphasis on indigenous artforms and exchanges between cultures, one might see a place for Blainey – who wrote a groundbreaking study of Aboriginal history but has since been demonised for his later views on land rights and Asian immigration.
As an intellectual starting point I’m afraid this might have been considered far too simple or logical. This year’s artistic director, David Elliott – a journeyman curator who has run museums in Oxford, Stockholm, Tokyo, and (briefly) Istanbul – has a more complicated agenda. At least it sounds complicated. The title, he explains, “draws attention to the critical and aesthetic spaces that allow art to exist, as well as how they give art its particular power. It refers to the implicit distance in the production of art between different experiences of life (input) and what the artist finally creates (process/output), within which different ideas of quality or ‘goodness’ are negotiated.”
The idea that ‘critical distance’ enables us to appreciate art is hardly revolutionary. One of the reasons there is so much bad art is that most artists lack critical distance in relation to their own work. Elliott proceeds to a favourite theme: the end of the Age of Enlightenment. We generally identify the Age of Enlightenment as the eighteenth century, when philosophers put forward the claims of Reason over superstition, religion or convention. It was a revolutionary epoch, when the divine right of kings came under attack and the practice of slavery was declared an abomination.
Most historians believe the Enlightenment ended with the Napoleonic wars, but we are all children of that era which had such a resounding impact on our social, political, cultural and scientific institutions. Balancing out these positives is a view that the Enlightenment was a time when European values were treated as universal, being exported to all parts of the world via trade, war and colonisation.
Elliott’s somewhat hackneyed argument is that we are finally over the Enlightenment. In today’s world, power is more evenly distributed, cultural diversity is more widely respected, monolithic ideas of national or racial identity are being undermined by networks of migration and communication.
This leads to the proposition that “within the newly recast, non-hierarchical world of this exhibition, there is an acknowledgement of the capacity for wonder – a form of enlightenment rather than knowledge, based on the realisation that reason is no more than an illusion when faced with the immense, uncontrollable beauty of life.”
It could be argued, on the contrary, that more open attitudes are also products of Enlightenment thinking. Discard the supremacy of reason and the door is opened to all sorts of mumbo jumbo – cults, magic, religious fanaticism, political extremism, and so on. It suggests that the role of a Biennale viewer is to be dutifully dazzled, and not to ask too many questions.
By now you may be thinking this sounds like a very roundabout way of justifying an art exhibition. Alas, this bizarre ritual is re-enacted with every Biennale and never gets any more convincing.
When a curator brings together work by 166 artists or groups of artists, from 36 countries, and tries to squeeze the entire package under one umbrella of ideas, there is a lot that gets left out in the rain. If one wanted to be cynical it would be easy to dismiss the Biennale theme as a conveniently vague pretext that enables one to include anything whatsoever. This means that Swedish abstract painting is just as relevant as a field of Aboriginal burial poles, which are roughly equivalent to a video of someone being tortured, a gigantic silver model of a neuron, a collection of hillbilly folk songs, a labyrinth of green plastic colanders, or a series of cars suspended from the roof of a factory.
The sheer diversity of this collection makes a mockery of the conceptual framework outlined by the director. He might just as easily have said: “These are works that I like, made by some friends of mine.” Instead, we are subjected to the usual preposterous claims that this art will leave us gasping for breath and spiritually transfigured. If it doesn’t, the problem lies with us, not the show.
It may very well have that effect on some viewers, but I suspect the vast majority will left confused and footsore, alternately bored and entertained by the offerings on display. This Biennale is as much a circus as ever, with some impressive works and a huge amount of filler. It is a better, more consistent show than the previous Biennnale, although it still contains many exhausting hours of video, and leans heavily on the extraordinary ambience of Cockatoo Island.
It was foreshadowed that one of the big features of this show would be the work of Harry Smith, the popular music buff and avant-garde filmmaker who put together the legendary Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) that influenced Bob Dylan and his peers. Some may consider folk music rather uncool, but this wasn’t the opinion of composers such as Bela Bartók, who scoured the villages of eastern Europe in search of inspirational melodies. The folk music connection threatened to add a unique dimension to this Biennale, but in actuality it is only a small component.
At Cockatoo Island, Australia’s own walking encyclopaedia of folk music, Warren Fahey, has been given a space in which he has contributed an audio-visual piece with filmmaker, Mic Gruchy, that draws on the history of the island, which has been a prison, an orphanage and a shipworks. Meanwhile, one may see and hear a bit of Harry Smith’s work on a tiny monitor at the George Street entrance of the MCA, and as a wall projection at Artspace, which is hosting performance evenings three nights a week for the duration of the Biennale. Smith’s films have inescapable echoes of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, which they preceded. They are also the basis for Jonathan Barnbrook’s eye-catching graphics that are such a feature of this year’s show.

Jonathan Barnbrook, A Cock or Two: A Prison, A Gallery, site-specific typographic phrases, dimensions variable

It seems that Smith’s real value to the Biennale is as a talisman for Elliott’s project of uniting different cultural traditions on a level playing field. He plays an obscure supporting role to a multitude of contemporary artists chosen for reasons known only to the director.
Although Elliott has travelled all over the world, selecting artists from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, in Sydney he seems to have hardly travelled further than Roslyn Oxley’s gallery in Paddington. No fewer than eight artists are from the Oxley stable, while Fiona Foley has only recently left. Does this suggest that Ros has all the good artists? Her peers might beg to differ. It’s hard to explain how works such as Dale Frank’s huge poured abstractions relate to any of the Biennale themes, even if the catalogue does draw a very tenuous connection with the story of a drowned convict.

The local numbers are significantly boosted at the MCA by the inclusion of 110 painted poles by 41 artists of the Yolngu community in Arnhem Land. This spectacular installation is sourced from the Kerry Stokes Collection, and is easily the most potent indigenous exhibit in a show that makes a great fuss over such matters. Much of the other art that relates to indigenous cultures is of the self-conscious, ironic, politically-aware variety. I’m afraid this was only to be expected. For a show that pays homage to “the immense uncontrolled beauty of life”, there is an awful lot of un-beautiful political piety to circumnavigate. Next week, armed with compass and walking shoes, I’ll try and chart a course among the aesthetic peaks and valleys.
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 22, 2010