Art Essays

18th Biennale of Sydney

Published July 14, 2012
Sachiko Abe: Cut Papers # 13, 2012

One of the most striking images in the 18th Biennale of Sydney is that of Japanese artist Sachiko Abe, dressed in bridal white, sitting in a small brick building in Cockatoo Island, cutting paper. Visitors are asked to remain silent, so the only sound is the noise made by Abe’s scissors as she trims sheets of paper into 0.5 millimetre strips. These thin ribbons pile up around her as she works, like an ever-growing barrier against the world.
We learn that Abe began cutting paper in 1995 as a means of expressing her “discomfort” with a life in which everyone is categorised by what social or economic role they play. Cutting paper is a conspicuously useless activity that she did not even recognise as art for the first nine years.
Perhaps “art” is the only good word to describe what Abe does. The other options would be psychological terms. We could argue that the paper cutting is an obsessive-compulsive activity, but it could also be seen as a form of therapy – a way of dealing with the anxieties generated by everyday existence. Abe says that when she is feeling particularly anxious the paper strips become only 0.3 of a millimeter.
As this performance will go on for the duration of the Biennale it resembles one of those endurance tests we associate with artists such as Marina Abramovic. Yet for Abe it is not an ordeal but a form of meditation. She reputedly discovered this process while in a mental institution, and found it has a calming effect.
I’m dwelling on this work not only because it is arguably the most extraordinary thing in the exhibition, but because it is a piece made entirely by the artist’s own hand. This may not sound remarkable, but for years the tendency for high-profile (and high priced) international art has been for the artist to play the role of designer and factory manager, while the manual labour is done by teams of assistants, sometimes by skilled craftsmen and technicians. Andy Warhol started the ball rolling with his studio called ‘The Factory’, and the trend is now so far advanced that Damien Hirst is reputedly one of Britain’s biggest employers in the arts.
The problem is that those who never get their hands dirty are missing out on the most exciting part of the creative process. Almost every artist knows the feeling of starting out to make a particular thing, only to find that the work changes form as if it had a will of its own. Revelations occur in the making, not the pre-planning.
There are plenty of works among the 220 items in this Biennale that have a whiff of the factory about them, but the show puts an unusual emphasis on the artist’s hand. This creates a sense of intimacy that is refreshing and rather unexpected. Even large-scale works such as Liu Zhuoquan’s installation of painted bottles at the Museum of Contemporary Art, called Where are you? (2012), is a miracle of patience and perseverance. We realise that all the serpent forms on the inside of the bottles have been painted by Liu and a few helpers, using special brushes with a bent tip. The same holds true for Kamin Lertchaiprasert, who has made 366 papier mache figures from Thai bank notes, as individual objects of contemplation; and for El Anatsui’s wall hangings, made from hundreds of bottle tops and similar objects. Not only are these pieces made by hand, they make us think of the thousands of anonymous consumers who have touched and discarded these caps.
At the Art Gallery of NSW one finds works such as Yuken Teruya’s paper shopping bags, from which the silhouettes of tiny trees have been cut. But the virtuoso piece of handwork is Yunfei Ji’s ink and watercolour scrolls that deal with the displacement of people caused by the building of the Three Gorges Dam and the raising of the Yangtze River. Ji’s work looks deceptively traditional, as if he is echoing the style of many generations of brush and ink painters, but his pictures present a critical commentary on the human cost of this vast project, enlivened by flights of surreal fantasy.

Screen shot 2012-08-13 at 10.19.04 PM
Yun-Fei Ji:The Three Gorge Dam Migration, 2009 The Move of The Village Wen, 2012 Water, 2012

As is so often case with contemporary Chinese art, the political impact of the work is partially disguised by as mass of detail in which viewers may happily lose themselves. Ji’s scrolls are full of stories that evolve as the piece is created. Despite their storybook appearance, these pictures are the very opposite of illustrations. Think of them as a spontaneous fusion of art and literature, or as improvisations on a given theme.
In general, the Chinese contribution to this Biennale is extremely impressive, even though some of the work is already familiar from the White Rabbit Gallery. One of the show-stoppers at the AGNSW is Gao Rong’s The static eternity, a detail-perfect reconstruction of the kind of drab interiors found in all Chinese cities. Many viewers will walk past without realising that the entire installation is a work of embroidery, a heroic feat of handicraft.
The only work at the AGNSW that may be even more technically stupendous is Nipan Oranniwesna’s City of Ghost, a massive cityscape made out of baby powder sculpted by a series of stencils. It is an elaborate way of making the same point that Shelley did in Ozymandias – that all human achievements, no matter how grand or imposing, are necessarily ephemeral.
A piece that repays some reflection is Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project at the AGNSW. On eight screens we trace the journeys made by migrants from Africa to Europe. Each piece has a story, telling us about the difficulties of travel, the problems with visas and work permits, the poorly paid jobs that itinerants are obliged to accept. On the wall opposite are a set of blue squares with white dots and lines, resembling the constellations.
The irony is that these journeys may seem to be written in the stars, but they end with squalid hotel rooms and detention centres, with cultural dislocation and homesickness.
Everywhere the experiences of impoverished migrants and refugees are pretty much the same. Those getting on boats in Indonesia are allowing dreams of a better future to overpower their perceptions of the hardships ahead.
As Khalili’s piece makes clear, we cling to our dreams with ever-greater tenacity as the daily quality of life narrows.
With a show as large as the Biennale one can only hope to discuss a handful of works in any depth. This brief survey does not exhaust the field, which has a higher percentage of strong, engaging items than I’d expected. If there is less spectacle, and fewer politically motivated pieces, that’s probably a bonus. Although one could find a political angle in almost every work, the message is delivered in an oblique fashion, not as an ideological bludgeon.
The best parts of this Biennale are to be found at the AGNSW and the MCA. Pier 2/3 despite its scale, is a footnote to the main action, while Cockatoo Island itself remains more interesting than the art it temporarily houses. After spending the best part of a day wandering all over this textbook example of the Industrial Sublime, I came away feeling a little disappointed.
Nevertheless, one must visit Cockatoo Island to get the full Biennale experience. There are at least two guaranteed crowd pleasers, in Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic series, and the Museum of Copulatory Organs (MCO) by Maria Fernanda Cardoso and Ross Harley.
Hylozoics, if you’re wondering, is “the belief that all matter in the universe has a life of its own.” This has led Beesley to construct a high-tech jungle of lights, tensile fabric, sensors and microprocessors. As one walks into this science fiction environment light bulbs pulse and tendrils wave in all directions. The only problem with this amazing apparatus is that it feels like it belongs in a science museum, or maybe Luna Park.
Cardoso and Harley’s work has a similarly scientific ambience, but this time the ideal setting would be a museum of natural history. The MCO allows viewers to examine large-scale models of the genitalia of many different creatures. If you’ve ever wondered what a spider’s penis looks like, enlightenment is at hand.
While the aesthetic value of these works may be questionable, there’s no denying their entertainment value. Unlike stage performers no-one expects artists to also be entertainers. We appreciate those who make an effort, but ultimately the razzle-dazzle is neither so moving nor profound as the simple act of cutting paper.

18th Biennale of Sydney: All Our Relations, Art Gallery of NSW, Museum of Contemporary Art,
Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3,  June 27 – September 16, 2012

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 14, 2012