Review: 17th Biennale of Sydney

by Alex Wisser

David Elliot, in the pre­am­ble to the 17th Bien­nale of Syd­ney, declares his intentions:

Stereo­typ­i­cal rank­ings of power and periph­ery, devel­oped and unde­vel­oped, rich and poor, first peo­ple and colonis­ers, ‘fine’ art and ‘folk’ art are here turned on their heads in an exhi­bi­tion in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’.

While I ques­tion the pro­pri­ety of turn­ing such a polit­i­cally ambi­tious agenda to so sus­pect an end as “an exhi­bi­tion in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’”, I am con­vinced of the sin­cer­ity with which this ambi­tion is pur­sued.  Elliott has man­aged to cre­ate a show that exam­ines its own con­text, stag­ing the redis­tri­b­u­tion of per­spec­tive as an inher­ent poten­tial of a glob­al­iz­ing art world.  It describes moder­nity not only as a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­ena, but also as the local­ized and par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of the col­li­sion of non west­ern soci­eties with the destruc­tive forces of colo­nial­ism, indus­tri­al­ism, and now glob­al­ism.  More impor­tantly, it shows those cul­tures respond, assum­ing their own moder­nity.  The result is a pro­lif­er­a­tion of per­spec­tives that offer an enriched dia­logue and an expanded capac­ity to under­stand our con­nected world.   This strat­egy is sus­tained by a recur­ring address to sub­jects and expe­ri­ence of moder­nity that shift across geo­graph­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, cul­tural and the­o­ret­i­cal maps, chal­leng­ing the notion of a cen­tral­ized uni­ver­sal purview often with bril­liant obser­va­tion on the insta­bil­ity and unsus­tain­abil­ity of any uni­fied sub­ject posi­tion (even their own) as a con­di­tion of advanc­ing modernity.

Kut­lug Ataman’s mock doc­u­men­tary, Jour­ney to the Moon for instance, tells the story of a remote Ana­to­lian vil­lage stag­ing a moon mis­sion ten years before the Amer­i­cans tried, basi­cally win­ning the space race.  The power of the work derives from the level of plau­si­bil­ity Ata­man achieves, ren­der­ing evi­dent the per­sua­sive forces at play in mod­ern doc­u­men­tary mak­ing and draw­ing a par­al­lel between the “sto­ry­telling” of the peas­ants and com­men­tary of var­i­ous experts, sug­gest­ing that they are not all that dif­fer­ent in kind.  In telling a story that inverts “rank­ings of power and periph­ery, devel­oped and unde­vel­oped” Ata­man under­mines and ren­ders rel­a­tive, the sci­en­tific and aca­d­e­mic author­ity those rela­tion­ships are founded on.  He does so with the mock­ing humour of the peas­ant for the mas­ter, appeal­ing to the latter’s prej­u­dice in order to insin­u­ate a few truths about who’s supe­rior to whom in the blind spots thus cul­ti­vated (all the while mock­ing himself).

Cao Fei uses video game cgi to cre­ate a tawdry fan­ta­sia of 3d land­scapes peo­pled by awk­ward effi­gies of Marx, Mao, Lehman (of Lehman Broth­ers fame), and Lao Tsu engag­ing in ide­o­log­i­cal exchanges that sound like B-movie trans­la­tions from the Chi­nese.   This world, called People’s Limbo, has about it the tacky, abstract and clut­tered opu­lence of the cheap utopias of 2 dol­lar shop Cap­i­tal­ism.  The over­pow­er­ing qual­ity of this world is the sense of reck­less hurry with which it has been built and the super­fi­cial­ity of it’s at times strik­ing beauty col­lapses against the aware­ness that absolutely no care has gone into its mak­ing.  The philo­soph­i­cal argu­ments jump and stut­ter like the poorly ren­dered move­ment of its avatars, strangely insub­stan­tial state­ments in a con­ver­sa­tion that seems con­trived by cut­ting up and stitch­ing together so many mono­logues. The effect is truly one of limbo: of weight­less, time­less, and space­less expe­ri­ence, with­out sub­stance or fric­tion or sense of direc­tion and the clash­ing of these major ide­olo­gies con­vince us only of their futil­ity, draw­ing the sus­pi­cion that the uni­fied sub­ject posi­tions they rep­re­sent are no longer possible

Video art was def­i­nitely the strong suit of this Bien­nale, span­ning a vast chasm of expe­ri­ence between the unreal vir­tu­al­i­ties of con­sumer cul­ture and the stark actu­al­i­ties of extreme poverty. The AEF+S col­lec­tive offers a panoramic vision of the glit­ter­ing seduc­tions of fash­ion mag­a­zine glam­our by approx­i­mat­ing in video the ani­ma­tion of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy poses, allow­ing the frozen ges­ture to com­plete itself between beau­ti­ful, exotic crea­tures who’s gaze never meet, and who’s bod­ies never touch.  These fig­ures are caught in an end­less rep­e­ti­tion of seduc­tive ges­tures that never con­su­mate, pro­duc­ing a generic desire with­out spe­cific sub­ject or object or end, sug­gest­ing that this is the pro­duc­tive force at work in con­tem­po­rary adver­tis­ing.  On the other end of the spec­trum, Yan Fudong draws a stark par­al­lel between the lives of  vil­lagers in the remote vil­lage of Que and a pack of wild dogs liv­ing nearby who are forced to eat each other in order to sur­vive.  The grim, unre­lent­ing sever­ity of exis­tence is brought into sharp relief when the video focuses on two young dogs, on the verge of adult­hood, play­ing care­lessly with each other while chew­ing on dog skulls… obliv­i­ous to the future this act implies for them.

While much of the stronger work had darker themes, there were moments of gen­eros­ity that stood out against the darker con­text.  In ‘Vision Quest’, Mar­cus Coates served as a shaman and ‘seer’ for the com­mu­nity of a trou­bled Lon­don sub­urb, offer­ing both his sub­jects and audi­ence the glim­mer of hope and insight through the tech­nol­ogy of ani­mism and the gift of vision, remark­ing on the value and power of art.  Chris­t­ian Thomp­son grap­ples with the legacy of his mixed her­itage by teach­ing one of his Bid­jaraances­tral songs to a Dutch baroque singer.  Taken from its tra­di­tional con­text as a sacred song express­ing a man’s rela­tion­ship to his land and grafted onto another cul­ture, the song takes on new life and mean­ing.   It struck me  as a ges­ture of great gen­eros­ity tem­pered with an aware­ness of loss: that this object cre­ated through the mar­riage of two cul­tures belongs to nei­ther, and that it’s beauty derives in part from the tragic his­tory of dis­pos­ses­sion of which it is an artifact.

I found this dual­ity repeated in a num­ber of works, espe­cially those deal­ing with the rela­tion­ship between man and nature.  Shen Shaomin’s Bonzai’s are par­a­dig­matic, at first appear­ing to be uni­di­rec­tional state­ments about the vio­lent impo­si­tion of indus­tri­al­ized human will onto the nat­ural world, they even­tu­ally “flip” like Chi­nese boxes into cel­e­bra­tions of the force and resilience of nature — the plants’ inten­si­fied mus­cu­la­ture twist­ing and striv­ing against the tor­tu­ous imple­ments of their con­straint, relent­lessly throw­ing new life beyond the per­mit of their bondage.  Janet Laurence’s “WAITING — A Med­i­c­i­nal Gar­den for Ail­ing Plants” makes aes­thetic com­ment on the indis­tin­guish­able bound­ary between nature and sci­ence through her stun­ning green­house instal­la­tion, com­bin­ing sci­en­tific objects, instru­ments, forms and ‘processes’ with botan­i­cal mate­ri­als in clas­si­cally for­mal­ized arrange­ments that speak to the shared fragility of man and nature, and the del­i­cate affini­ties of form that com­mu­ni­cate between them.

This dynamic can be read as a thin sub­text that runs beneath the sur­face of this show, and the best works within it speak at once to the destruc­tive col­li­sion between tra­di­tional cul­tures and moder­nity and at the same time to the new cul­tural poten­tials that emerge.  This can be done super­fi­cially, as a tokenis­tic appro­pri­a­tion of tra­di­tional means and forms to express mod­ern con­cerns.  Hisashi Tenmyouya’s tra­di­tional paint­ing of a Japan­ese god of war with machine guns instead of swords made me shrug my shoul­ders and won­der how this image would feed into received West­ern prej­u­dices of Ori­en­tal moder­nity.  Sit­ting right next to it though, is Makoto Aida’s “The Calig­ra­phy School”, which addresses the very nature of such exchanges, play­fully pre­sent­ing a bill­board with what looks like tra­di­tional Japan­ese cal­lig­ra­phy.  It is not.  It is an abstract fac­sim­ile of Japan­ese cal­lig­ra­phy — some­thing you wouldn’t know if you didn’t read the lan­guage (or the wall text).  While pre­sent­ing us with our expec­ta­tions of Japan­ese cul­ture, Aida inserts beneath it the sim­ple truth of such under­stand­ing — that it is based nec­es­sar­ily on igno­rance and that the dis­tances which it attempts to bridge are very real and just as perilous.

Abstrac­tion often plays a key role in such works.  Liu Jianhua’s Con­tainer Series presents abstract ceramic ves­sels filled with deep red glaze.  The objects are bereft of his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural mark­ers, nev­er­the­less, a viewer is com­pelled to con­sider them as Chi­nese ceram­ics, with all the post­colo­nial bag­gage that implies.  In addi­tion, it is dif­fi­cult to view the objects with­out read­ing the deep red glaze as some­how rep­re­sent­ing blood, and tak­ing on polit­i­cal dimen­sions.  Jianhua’s work seems to be test­ing the bound­aries of abstrac­tion by empha­siz­ing and impli­cat­ing the local­ized, his­tor­i­cal, and polit­i­cal con­text in which they are viewed.  If the con­tent is abstract, the con­text is not and the ten­dency toward the uni­ver­sal is always located.

Across the show, Elliot was con­sis­tent in his choice of artists, and man­aged to main­tain a high level of qual­ity while sourc­ing work from a broad range of cul­tural, polit­i­cal, and geo­graph­i­cal back­grounds.  The works of big name artists were restrained by the mod­esty of their scale­and the strat­egy of their place­ment, as the cura­tor seems to have actively refused the temp­ta­tion to play them as cen­tre pieces and draw cards, instead invit­ing them to con­tribute to the con­ver­sa­tions estab­lished by other, lesser known artists.

In pur­su­ing his polit­i­cal ends, though, Elliot has paid a price in terms of his address to the gen­eral pub­lic.  The Tur­bine Hall at Cock­a­too Island was a sham­bles.  The major spec­ta­cle work by Cai Guo-Qiang, had all the visual impact of a used car lot in the late after­noon. Then there was a jump­ing cas­tle that we weren’t allowed to jump on, the roofs of a shanty town we were not free to walk on, an incom­pre­hen­si­bly botched piano lynch­ing, a series of ugly abstract expres­sion­ist paint­ings hung under the cura­to­r­ial strat­egy of “make it fit”, and a wooden tele­scope that made no sense in the actu­al­ized con­text of the show (despite the fact that the title might per­mit it).  This sham­bles not only failed to please its intended audi­ence, it dimin­ished the value of the exhi­bi­tion as a whole.  It seemed crass to place within a show addressed to such impor­tant issues, this mélange of badly pre­sented con­ces­sions to “pop­u­lar taste” — espe­cially since it failed to sat­isfy that taste.

This fail­ing returns us to the cura­to­r­ial state­ment quoted at the top of this essay, com­pelling the ques­tion that if Elliott has suc­ceeded to some degree in the polit­i­cal ambi­tion of this show, was it for no bet­ter end than to cre­ate an exhi­bi­tion “in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’.”  Such an inten­tion implies that beneath all of the dif­fer­ences of per­spec­tive, there exists a homo­ge­neous, uni­ver­sal cul­ture in which we can eas­ily agree on what is “any ‘good’”.  Such a con­clu­sion is excluded by the premise – the diver­sity of per­spec­tives which Elliot pro­motes by decon­struct­ing estab­lished rela­tion­ships between them, implies that the field is not homo­ge­neous and that dis­agree­ment is nec­es­sary to it (and not nec­es­sar­ily as a bad thing).