Art Essays

18th Biennale of Sydney

Published July 7, 2012
Liu Zhuoquan: Where are you? (2012) MCA installation

“Between belief in Nature and belief in politics, one has to choose,” writes French sociologist, Bruno Latour, in the stand-out essay in this year’s Biennale catalogue. We have a perfect demonstration of this principle in the hysterical debate about a carbon price. While Nature is forever, politics is an exercise in short-term, strategic thinking that rarely looks beyond the next election.
In Australia we have reached the point where being pro-Nature apparently means one is opposed to economic growth or jobs. But portraying ecology as the enemy of the economy is tacitly admitting that most forms of industry are inherently destructive and wasteful. The word ‘ecology’ refers to a network of relationships that exist between organisms and their natural environment. When we disrupt those relationships we damage the environment itself.
We cannot continue destroying the environment without suffering the consequences, but political thinking is always willing to postpone the moment when we take action. The counter to this is a growing body of opinion that feels the age of destruction is over, and it’s time we made amends for our depredations.
This is one of the underlying themes of the 18th Biennale of Sydney, subtitled  “all our relations”. Although this title may conjure up thoughts of those relatives you see only on special occasions such as weddings or funerals, the curatorial logic is slightly more profound. This column will look at the ideas behind this exhibition. I’ll leave the discussion of specific works to another occasion.
The bulk of the show is to be found in three venues: the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cockatoo Island, with supplementary displays at Pier 2/3 and Carriageworks. For the first time the Biennale has two artistic directors, Catherine de Zegher, from Belgium, and Gerald McMaster from Canada. They have carried the collaborative theme through into the show itself, making creative groupings of artists from different parts of the world, with an emphasis on works that invite some form of audience participation or dialogue.
The thinking behind this is to counter the compulsive ‘criticality’ that has become such a tiresome feature of these big international art surveys. You know the routine: a self-proclaimed radical artist is subverting capitalism, and making us conscious of space or some banality of everyday life we had presumably never noticed. (I remember one piece that made us conscious that people put different things in their fridges.) It’s never quite clear how this heightened awareness is achieved, so we have to take the curator’s word for it. Neither is it readily explicable why the foundations of our unjust society have not yet crumbled to dust under this repeated onslaught.
The current Biennale rejects “separation, negativity and disruption as strategies of change.” Instead, it posits “a renewed attention to how things connect, how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit.” By the end of the catalogue introduction the exhibition is being touted as a Gesamtkunstwerk – the ‘total work of art’ we associate with Wagnerian opera.
Tracing this arc, which begins by rejecting negativity and ends with a view of the Biennale as an all-encompassing, life-changing experience, is like watching the progress of a megalomaniac fantasy. Despite all the rhetoric about rejecting the subversive ambitions of an earlier generation of artists, the same model remains in place: art as a vehicle for political change, for consciousness-raising. The ends are the same, only the means are different.
We probably have to accept that for events such as the Biennale, these political posturings are a fact of life. There must necessarily be a streak of idealism in any curator who sets out to produce a show that features some 220 artworks by more than 100 artists. Everyone would like to believe they are engaged in an activity that is significant in the broadest sense. It is not sufficient to simply make a collection of the most beautiful or striking artworks. One must also be saving the planet and teaching people to live together in peace and harmony.
The invariable outcome is a theme capacious enough to include almost anything – something like all our relations.
The next step is to construct an imposing intellectual framework to overcome any suspicion the choice of works might be based on such primitive criteria as familiarity or personal taste. Yet we should not be surprised that artistic directors choose to work with the artists they know well.
I’m pleased to have looked at the art before I yawned my way through the catalogue essays. With the exception of Latour’s ‘Compositionist Manifesto’, they make for turgid reading. There is so much laborious theorising – particularly in a round-table discussion of the term ‘relation’ – that it exerts a deadening influence on one’s impressions of the show. Perhaps the best strategy is to ignore the verbiage and enjoy the art, because there is much in this Biennale, especially at the MCA and the AGNSW that is lyrical, engaging, and conducive to a sense of wonder rarely found in these big surveys.
One might say that the 18th Biennale of Sydney is a success in spite of the curators’ best efforts to undo their own good work. It’s not immediately clear how the theories behind this event could ever lead to the MCA’s display of delicate abstract canvases by Liang Quan, or the more full-bodied works of the late David Aspden. Other highlights in the same venue include the remarkable, ever-changing light projection drawings by Nyapanyapa Yunipingu; the woven wall hangings of El Anatsui from Ghana, and the massive installation of painted bottles by Liu Zhuoquan.
In an artist statement, Liang Quan suggests “the world does not have to be meaningful”, and this might be taken as the antidote for the frantic search for meaning we find in the catalogue.

Screen shot 2012-08-14 at 8.31.38 AM
Liang Quan, Untitled

By way of contrast this is the first sentence of a statement by Canadian artist, Erin Manning: “My work proposes the creation of a relational milieu that activates an architecting of mobility reshaping experiential space-time.” It may be common enough in the IT world, but there’s something about using the word “architect” as a verb that makes my eyes glaze over. This sentence refers to Manning’s large installation on Cockatoo Island, Folds to Infinity, which consists of hundreds of sewn pieces of fabric draped over a kind of webbing. Visitors are invited to take pieces down and experiment with impromptu fashion design.
As a general rule, those artworks that demonstrate a strong theoretical parti pris, are the least interesting components of the Biennale. The video component, which is frequently more interesting to describe than to endure, is outstandingly dull. It might even be argued that the works inviting audience participation are pitched at a different, more superficial level to those pieces that are to be appreciated solely through the eye and the mind. For while it may be amusing to play with bits of fabric, or flick the wind chimes in Tiffany Singh’s installations, or have a piece of clothing mended by Lee Mingwei, these things don’t require the same sort of imaginative engagement as many static works.

One truly noteworthy aspect of this exhibition is that it is probably the least Eurocentric Biennale we have ever had. The MCA and the AGNSW displays are dominated by the works of Thai and Chinese artists, with barely a European or American artist in sight. Even the ones that are included are not exactly household names.
There is a lot of paper in this year’s Biennale, and a large number of works that involve sewing or weaving. The logo is a tangle of coloured ribbons, which acts as a metaphor for the different strands of art that are pulled together in this event. Given the prevalence of this motif, it must have seemed irresistible to include a video by Gabriella and Sylvana Mangano that shows the twins twirling ribbons of black paper in a majestic Australian landscape.
The sewing and stitching, threads and ribbons, are presumably meant to portray the show as a mass of different threads that combine to make one great tapestry. Another persistent emphasis is story-telling, an activity that unites a performer with his or her audience in a way that helps build a sense of community. This may be true for individual works, but the Biennale itself remains an anthology of mixed messages.

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 07, 2012