Another week, another avalanche of statistics about infections and fatalities. As I write, the Biennale of Sydney, which has made heroic efforts to remain open, has just announced it will be switching to a digital platform. This is a poor substitute for the first-hand experience of works of art but it’s better than a total cancellation.
Of all the Biennale venues Cockatoo Island was probably the safest, as it allowed visitors to stroll around out-of-doors, keeping their distance from the rest of humanity. It will be hard to digitally reproduce the experience of entering the Turbine Hall and encountering the installation by Ibrahim Mahama that lines this entire, gigantic space with jute bags. It may sound drab, but it’s an effective way of animating a room that has defeated some of the artists in previous Biennales. By covering the walls and part of the floor Mahama surrounds us with the dull, ragged remnants of human labour. The bags are charcoal sacks, originally used to hold cocoa, and this installation is their third repurposing. There’s an obvious reference to Arte Povera but the emphasis is more on the poverty of the world’s workers than the poverty of materials.
As this Biennale is largely devoted to the art of so-called First Nations artists there are many reminders of the disparities of wealth, resources and opportunity that distinguish the planet’s haves from the have-nots. There are works that reflect on global injustice, and on more localised cases. In Denilson Baniwa’s performance videos we see the artist walking around dressed in a jaguar skin and mask, playing the role of a shaman intent on healing a thoroughly fractured world. One wonders if all the videos in the Biennale will be made available on-line?
Another work in Campbelltown is a large painting by Anders Sunna, whose dedicated theme is the persecution of his people, the Sámi, by the Swedish government. In this picture, made during a residency in Australia, he has combined the Sámis’ story with a local drama of dispossession, showing an Aboriginal man taking Captain Cook over his knee and spanking him.
There’s a lot of irreverent humour in this exhibition, nothing more inconoclastic than Warwick Thornton’s video, Meth Kelly, in which the revered bushranger in the helmet is transformed into a meth addict holding up a 7-Eleven, while a heavy metal soundtrack blasts away in the background.
A more attractve option on Cockatoo Island was Mohamed Bourouissa’s Brutal Family Roots – an installation that could not be less brutal. Bourouissa has placed wattle trees – that he knew from childhood as mimosas – on a pale yellow carpet in a spacious, window-lined room. The electronic sound we hear is generated by the plants themselves, creating a strangely peaceful, meditative environment. There is a social metaphor to be taken from the work but it was an oasis amid the constant rumble of identity politics. I can’t imagine how this will translate into the digital environment.
It’s not possible to mention everything worth mentioning, but if I had to choose the most striking pieces from the hundreds on show, I keep coming back to Nonngirrna Marawili’s bark paintings at the MCA, which reveal an artist at the peak of her powers. Even though I’ve seen dozens of Marawili’s barks in museum exhibitions over the past year, she only seems to be getting better. The motifs of rock, sea and lighting are always the same, but she has become increasingly more confident and practised. I doubt that the artist is self-conscious about any evolution in the work because the best indigenous artists never get tangled up in tortuous reflection.
Impressive in another way are a series of large, raw canvases by Misheck Masamvu of Zimbabwe, at the MCA. What looks chaotic at first soon resolves into a complex set of layers and rhythms. Like De Kooning, Masamvu’s works are largely abstract, but never quite let go of the figure.
These paintings won’t be the same on-line and neither will Huma Bhabha’s totemic figures in a nearby room. Bhabha is an artist whose work gathers force when a number of large-scale pieces are clustered together. In the gallery it felt as of one were walking into a ceremonial space where sacrifices are made to unknown gods. Despite the deliberately archaic, tribal atmosphere projected by these works it’s more likely these disturbing presences are closely related to our contemporary manias and rituals.
There’s a hint of playfulness to Bhabha’s work that keeps the darkness at bay but this could not be said of Teresa Margolles’s installation at the National Art School Gallery, or Aziz Hazara’s videos at the MCA and Campbelltown. In Margolles’s Approximation to the Scenes of the Facts, water collected from sites in Sydney where violent acts have occurred, is dripped onto a long row of hot plates. The sizzling sound and vaguely unpleasant smell made this a very unsettling experience – although perhaps not so confronting as some of Margolles’s earlier works that dealt with the toll of violence in her own country, Mexico.
Aziz Hazara also looks at violence and its effects in videos that have a quietly poetic touch. On a circle of screens at the MCA little Afghanistani boys stand on a precipice, with looking a grey, teeming city in the background, and blow toy trumpets into the wind. It’s hair-raising as we watch the boys being buffeted by the wind, forced back against the ledge while trying to keep squealing through their trumpets.
The work is an oblique comment on suicide bombers, on the futility and agony of these desperate acts. Hazara’s video installation at Campbelltown shows us the aftermath of a bombing, scanning slowly over a burial ground in which photographs of young victims are displayed over their graves. It’s chilling, but perhaps even worse are those bare sticks that signify an unknown victim, robbed not only of life but of their past as well, indeed their very identity.
Standing in front of Hazara’s tragic video I couldn’t help thinking of those artists in the show who are so obsessed with their own gender issues they wish to be known by the plural pronoun. Whatever our race or gender we have only one life and one body apiece. In countries where simple survival is an issue, let alone today’s quarantined communities, it’s enough of an achievement to keep that single self intact.
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.
Now exclusively on-line: biennaleofsydney.art
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March, 2020