Sydney Morning Herald Column

2024 Biennale of Sydney: Ten Thousand Suns

Published March 16, 2024
Dylan Mooney, 'Malcolm Cole - larger than Life'

Ten Thousand Suns may be the most joyous theme we’ve ever had for a Sydney Biennale. Whether we think of the Pharoah Akhenaten trashing the entire pantheon of Egyptian deities in favour of the Sun God, Aton, or the last words of J.M.W. Turner, who allegedly muttered “the sun is God”, it’s axiomatic that the sun signifies life-giving light and energy. The sun is a higher power that holds itself aloof from human vanities, personal and political squabbles.

There’s a celebratory atmosphere about much of the work in this Biennale, particularly at the new venue of White Bay Power Station. On the other hand, as with all contemporary art surveys, one is perpetually reminded of the sobering words of Ecclesiastes 1:9: “there is no new thing under the sun.”

Orquídeas Barrileteras, Guatemala comes to White Bay

To their credit, the curators, Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero, have not gone in search of newness per se. Costinas hails from Romania, and Guerrero from Columbia, although they are both thoroughly internationalised, holding down day jobs in Berlin and Ghent, respectively. There’s a touch of Laurel and Hardy about the combo, a big guy and a little guy, but there’s no doubting their alertness to every major twinkle in the contemporary firmament.

Despite all the rhetoric of joy and love, if one looks for underlying themes in this Biennale there are many dark patches. History and identity are the broad, overrarching categories, with a substantial focus on LGBQT and Indigenous issues. Yet there’s also room for the climate crisis, sins of the atomic era, and the endless horrors of “colonialism”. As usual, the irony of university educated, cosmopolitan people agonising over the traumas of colonialism never seems to occur to anyone.

Kaylene Whiskey, ‘Kaylene TV’, Are we having fun yet?

Some of the politically charged work is curious and surprising, but there are many occasions when a point is hammered home in a heavy-handed manner. I know the art cognoscenti of the present day believe everything Queer and/or Indigenous is, by definition, wonderful, but even the zealots must reach a point when they’ve had too much of a good thing.

Being anything but a zealot, I reached that point rather more quickly, if not immediately. At White Bay one can’t help but be impressed by the physical spaces of this abandoned power station – by the cathedral-sized central area; the massive pipes, chimneys and turbines; the decommissioned control rooms. It’s a textbook example of the industrial sublime, illuminated by Sydney sunshine.

Excited by this novel venue, bouyed up by the curators’ relentless enthusiasm, I felt this might be one of the better Biennales. The large ground-floor gallery has a carnivalesque atmosphere. Three colourful, 5-metre-wide kites created by the Guatemalan women’s group, Orquídeas Barrileteras, are suspended over this space, as striking examples of community-generated art. On the floor, there is an enormous box made to resemble a TV set. This is a scaled-up piece by Aboriginal artist, Kaylene Whiskey, featuring her trademark array of pop culture heroines, now at life-size. One can even walk into the TV set for the ubiquitous TikTok snapshot which seems to be the main reason many people attend art exhibitions nowadays. I hope the queue is not too long for all you aspiring models.

VNS Matrix, ‘A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century’, (1991)

On an overhead balcony, we see Dylan Mooney’s mural-sized portrait of Malcolm Cole, dressed as Captain Cook for the 1988 Gay Mardi Gras. Cole (1949-95) is one of the ‘heroes’ being celebrated in this Biennale. Born in Ayr, in Far North Queensland, he became a foundation member of the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, that made an historic first international tour to Nigeria in 1977.

Cole was an activist who died of HIV/AIDS, and was photographed many times by William Yang, whose chronicles of Sydney’s gay community and the ravages of the epidemic, are our most vivid records of that period. Yang was happy to open his archive to the curators, who wanted to make a special feature of this vibrant, tragic era in Sydney’s social history.

Another time capsule at White Bay features the cyber-feminist art collective, VNS Matrix, who made their big splash in the early 1990s. Today, with the inexorable advance of digital technology, the VNS collages, photos and manifestos have a crude, retro feeling, but this only adds to their appeal. I never thought a burst of militant, feminist cyberpunk would induce twinges of nostalgia, but so be it.

Darrell Sibosado ‘Galalen at Gumiri’, (2023)

If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of Queer, Indigenous, PC stuff, I can’t disabuse you of that idea. Welcome to the echo chamber of contemporary art, in which all that is allegedly marginalised in the everyday world is allowed an outsized prominence. This conceptual inflation also has a material correlative, notably a wall-sized light piece by Darrell Sibosado, from the Kimberley, whom I remember as an engraver of traditional ‘riji’ designs on pearl shells. Into a nearby phone booth, and Darrell has emerged as a creator of gigantic, space-age geometries that might light up the foyer of a futuristic office block.

When I reflect on the White Bay display there are many pieces that seem joyous but slight, owing their impact to sheer scale. Kaylene Whiskey’s cartoon figures, for instance, have become one of the longest-running comedy acts in Australian art. Each time I encounter them in a major show it’s a little harder to raise the requisite, gushing delight that seems to be the expected reaction.

Doreen Chapman, three ATMS at the AGNSW

Possibly the best gag in the Biennale is a series of ATM machines painted by Doreen Chapman, of the Pilbara. There’s one or more at the entrance of every venue, a whimsical homage to the modern cash economy by an artist who has rarely ventured far from the Western Desert. Hopefully these ATMs won’t turn up in every major exhibition from now on, but it’s a possibility.

I suspect I’ll be less taken with White Bay on a second viewing, but it remains the must-see component of the Biennale. Upon visiting the Chau Chak Wing Museum at Sydney University and the Museum of Contemporary Art, we discover another of the curators’ heroes, namely Juan Davila, the Chilean émigré who has lived in Australia since 1974, cultivating a reputation as a fearless avant-gardist willing to trash every social and artistic orthodoxy.

Ever since his magnum opus, Stupid as Painter was confiscated by the vice squad in 1982, Davila has been an icon of artistic offensiveness. He now tries to downplay that work at every opportunity, having developed a style that combines deliberately vulgar, ugly imagery with a technique that looks like vast areas of paint were applied in the most slapdash fashion to squeeze a large canvas out of a small idea.

There’s an essay to be written about vulgarity in Australian art as both a positive and negative force. In the former category, one might put artists such as Richard and Pat Larter, Davida Allen or Glenn Morgan. In the negative, Juan Davila and Norman Lindsay, who try too hard to shock and offend with quasi-pornographic kitsch. Am I being too unkind? Is this renowned slayer of sacred cows to be treated as a sacred cow himself?

Juan Davila, ‘Enriqueta-Sieglinde Flees’ (2011).

Go see for yourself. There’s a whole room of Davila’s pictures at the Chau Chak Wing, but let’s just look at his largest work at the MCA, Enriqueta-Sieglinde Flees (2011). On a gigantic canvas coloured in with red-blue-purple smears, we see a naked, pregnant, Indigenous woman, arms and legs spread-eagled, crotch prominently displayed. She is flanked by two abstract ovoid shapes. It’s a disproportioned, sloppily brushed attempt to convey a sense of threat, as if the woman fears being raped or murdered. Please tell me why one should admire this painting? Sociopaths need not apply.

If White Bay is the best of the Biennale, the adulation of Davila is probably the worst bit. Overall, there’s a remarkable amount of work that could be described, euphemistically, as ‘quirky’. Some of it veers dangerously close to the sort of thing one might find in a tourist shop. There’s also a special category of historical items, from William Strutt’s Black Thursday (1851), displayed anomalously at the MCA, to 70s works by Bonita Ely, and even Rover Thomas’s Cyclone Tracy (1991) from the National Gallery of Austraia, both on show at the AGNSW.

It’s all part of a strand of historical revisionism that is allowed full rein in the wall labels and has already got the Biennale in trouble for some hasty digs at the Gallipoli campaign, which were subsequently removed from the website. This is a topic that needs to be saved for another day, along with more in-depth discussion of other Biennale venues. There’s a lot more to be said about this ambitious exhibition, but as it runs for a further three months, it might be best to return under the rays of another sun.


24th Biennale of Sydney: Ten Thousand Suns

White Bay Power Station, Art Gallery of NSW, Chau Chak Wing Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, UNSW Galleries, Artspace, Sydney Opera House

9 March – 10 June 2024


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March, 2024