Every morning in Sydney we wake to news of cancellations and closures because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. By the time this column appears there may be few major (or minor) venues that remain open, but – following that perennial advice about keeping a cool head in a crisis – I’m going to proceed as if everything was normal.
The timing could hardly be worse for the Biennale of Sydney, which has just opened in six venues across the city. It’s taken 47 years and 22 iterations, but the Biennale has finally embraced the idea of an indigenous exhibition. The 2020 show, selected by artist, Brook Andrew, is subtitled Nirin – a word that means “edge” in the Wiradjuri language. If we’re to believe the cover and first pages of the catalogue, which are entirely devoted to definitions, it means a whole lot more as well.
Words are important for this Biennale. The choice of a Wiradjuri word as a title asserts the importance of language for the preservation and transmission of cultural knowledge. This is no great insight. It was just as obvious to those colonial regimes that tried to extirpate local traditions by insisting subject peoples be banned from using their own languages. Think of the re-education camp in Moore River where the girls are sent in the film, Rabbit Proof Fence(2002).
There’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the title, as the contemporary art scene loves to talk about itself as “cutting edge”. What this usually means is either a lot of political posturing about globally significant “issues”, or a radical lack of content, as if it were especially heroic to paint monochromes.
For the 98 artists or artist collectives from 47 countries, that are participating in this event, issues of politics and cultural identity have an urgency that springs from everyday lived experience, and the consciousness of belonging to groups that have been oppressed and marginalised. This creates a dual impression: a sense of solidarity between artists from many disparate regions, who are discovering how much they have in common; and an anger that simmers away in one piece after another.
Nirin seeks to gather up all that energy displaced to the margins and bring it to the centre for a concerted show of force. Yet the atmosphere is primarily one of celebration rather than insurrection.
Personally, I thought we should have staged an indigenous Biennale about ten years ago, but it seems we needed Brook Andrew – a well-credentialled contemporary artist of Wiradjuri orgins – to make it happen. When one looks back over the supremely vacuous titles attached to so many Sydney Biennales (You Imagine What You Desire, etc.) it’s clear there’s rarely been a coherent idea to be found.
Andrew made it clear he was going to avoid the usual art fashion show in his first overseas excursion as Biennale director – to Haiti. Hardly a hotspot for the über galleries and wealthy collectors, the island has provided no fewer than five artists for this exhibition: painters Lafortune Felix and Préfète Duffaut, along with sculptors André Eugène, Karim Bleus and Gina Athena Ulysse, although the latter lives in the United States.
To make a point about inclusion and exclusion he has included the work of the first four artists into the display at the Art Gallery of NSW – not in the basement, but threaded through the rooms devoted to old masters and the art of the 19thcentury. They are joined in these galleries and in the foyer by artists from many different parts of the world that had no presence whatsoever in western art museums until recently.
The idea is to infiltrate the somnolent ranks of paintings and sculptures that have become almost invisible in their familiarity, with an utterly different type of work. Where the works from the permanent collection are smooth and elaborately finished, the interlopers have a startling rawness. The stand-out, in its sheer scale and presence, is Josep Grau-Garriga’s installation, The Altarpiece of the Hanged People (1972-76), which features 24 woven pelts draped on scaffolding. The work pays tribute to martyrs who have died for their beliefs.
Joël Andrianamearisoa’s work, which may also be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, consists largely of dark curtains that carve up spaces and act like veils. At the AGNSW he has placed one of these veils over William Lister Lister’s The golden splendour of the bush (c.1906), an arrangement that shows excellent taste.
Andrianamearisoa’s gesture of concealment seems rather less aggressive than the vividly coloured paintings of Emily Karaka from New Zealand, or the rough, semi-abstract surfaces in Mostaff Muchawaya’s pictures. Karaka has an activist’s agenda, but Muchawaya is a pure expressionist.
In the neo-classical vestibule of the building Karla Dickens, follows up her strong showing at the Adelaide Biennial with another installment of her Dickensian Circus, featuring surreal female effigies in bird cages that set up a visual rhyme with the arched recesses in this space, even as they strike a deliberately discordant note.
That discord is just as profound in the whitest of all the AGNSW’s galleries, hung with paintings from the Royal Academy and the Paris Salons. There one finds Arthur Jafa’s The White Album (2018), a film about “whiteness” that explores racial attitudes in a variety of ways, through interviews and media footage, with results that can be funny or extremely disturbing.
The artist, Kunmanara Mumu Mike Williams died late last year before he could fulfil his commitments to the Biennale. His contributions, which have been completed by his widow and a friend, are a series of large protest banners featuring the artist’s words are written in Pitjantatjara. They can be translated into English via a phone app, yet even undecoded one can recognise the power of words writ large in this way. A Chinese friend said it reminded her of the large character banners that were a feature of the Cultural Revolution, only in this case the banners are calling for restitution not violent struggle.
For a different view of indigenous life, another standout work at the AGNSW is Watami Manikay (Song of the Winds), a video installation by the Mulka Project, which is based at the Buka Art Centre in Yirrkala. The piece consists of an immersive, elemental, audio-visual presentation that wraps itself around the gallery walls. In the centre stands a larrakitj pole that glows like a beacon in the light of a different projection. No other community in Australia is undertaking such ambitious collaborative multimedia work. It propells our understanding of ‘Aboriginal art’ into another dimension.
I’ve focussed on the AGNSW here, but will take another look at the Biennale next week, discussing key works in the other venues. The bottom line is: if you’re willing to leave home at all, this is a show worth the risk.
Biennale of Sydney 2020
Art Gallery of NSW, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cockatoo Island, Artspace, Campbelltown Arts Centre, National Art School Gallery, 14 March – 8 June, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 March, 2020