Biennale of Sydney 2006

These days it is getting harder to tell the difference between Art Fairs and Biennales. Contemporary Art is now Big Business and must demonstrate a capacity to service designated niche markets. Thanks to Neo-Liberalism no government or council is going to support an art enterprise that does not offer some kind of financial pay-off. This usually translates into raising the profile of the host city as an international brand and guaranteeing a boost in tourist numbers. It is also an indirect kind of commercial transaction. The punter gets into the galleries for free and is not expected to buy the art in the show. However, there are showroom style settings of the latest ‘product’, and every artist’s label advertises the name of his or her dealer. The usual catalogues and associated paraphernalia are also for sale. In Sydney, after visiting the galleries (which form part of the tourist experience), you can shop at the Rocks, catch ferries, or visit any number of popular locations around the city.

In the global experience economy one does not necessarily visit an art gallery to buy a product, but one does enter into an ‘experience’. It is this intangible aspect of human existence that is so valuable today, and curatorially-driven art is up there competing with Dreamworld to offer the maximum in spectacle and entertainment value. In many ways these are the dominant ‘zones of contact’ in today’s global culture. The crowd gets to be entertained and the artist gets a foot in the door of the biennale gravy train. The problem is that a lot of the art fails the test of critical scrutiny because it is shallow and empty. The test in this Sydney biennale was to find artists who used the situation to offer perspectives that broke through to zones of contact that treated people and their experiences as something other than a business outcome or as an instrument to further career goals. Over the years the Biennale of Sydney has become bigger, and this year’s sprawling affair was no exception. As befitting an Art Fair there was stock in abundance—eighty-five artists contributed works for sixteen venues across the city and suburbs. It would have taken a week to cover all the work with any kind of decent haste, but in my limited amount of time I went to Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Pier 2/3, Artspace and the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP).

Biennale director Charles Merewether posited ‘zones of contact’ as a creative framework rather than an overriding curatorial theme or agenda for the show. He wanted to provide insights into other cultures and experiences, and this was certainly achieved in spades. Though it seemed that much of the work was concerned mostly with the exotic, the erotic or the artist as celebrity. Much of the art came from locations such as China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. China is a particularly fascinating case in this regard because it is one of the few despotic and anti-democratic regimes in the world that Western governments seem to fall all over themselves to please for some reason. In recent years greater access to the country has made the Sino-exotic a little more familiar.

At the AGNSW there was evidence of the Sino-exotic in Liu Xiaodong’s work. His installation included two large five-panelled paintings called Hot Bed, a couple of mattresses on the floor, and a video titled ‘Dong’. The paintings showed portraits of young men and women. The women (bar girls from Bangkok) were depicted in various poses that gave a sense of voyeurism. The men, who were building workers, were also posed. The documentary video showcased the exotic, the erotic and artist as celebrity. It began at the magnificent hills and low-flying clouds of China’s ‘Three Gorges’ on the Yangtze River, and, like an understated lifestyle compère, Liu Xiaodong guided us through this wonderful, exotic location. Various scenes followed, including a touching moment when the artist presented gifts to a couple of small children in a rural household. At the town of Fengjie, near ‘Three Gorges’, Liu Xiaodong took us to the heart of the political subtext of the piece. Here, eleven workers were demolishing old homes to make way for a hydro-electric power station. These workmen were part of the forced migration from riverside communities, and Liu Xiaodong ordered them around so they would strike the right poses for his Hot Bed painting. Later on, the young women were shown in the act of posing for the paintings and otherwise amusing themselves in between ‘takes’. Again, there was a heavily voyeuristic air as the camera hovered around trying to catch intimate glimpses of the girls. In all of this the artist was the director who not only controlled the flow of the action but also wandered in and out of shots like a guest star. Ultimately, the installation was a heavy-handed attempt to fetishise exotic/erotic zones of contact.

Qin Yufen’s installation Untitled (2006) was better in that it tried to reflect critically upon the role of the artist in today’s world. The viewer had to enter the installation via corridors made of yellow curtains dipped in traditional herbs. In the middle of the room was a post-minimalist scaffold covered in barbed wire, and dispersed around it were drills and other work materials à la Jason Rhoades. The sculpture appeared to symbolise the tensions facing artists today. On the one hand, the curtains referred to art’s healing powers and its spiritual aspects. On the other hand, the scaffold and work equipment suggested that art is also a form of labour, and more importantly, is enmeshed in larger processes that artists help construct and by which they are exploited. A couple of artist statements in the exhibition clarified the artist’s intent. One was a bad cliché about art as a mistress, but the second was germane to the biennale circuit: ‘Power and commerce dictate the path of culture. In the past, just as now’. Qin Yufen was short on ideas for resisting this state of affairs, but at least provided some insight into the issue.

Damián Ortega’s Inverted Power (2006) also engaged with forms of power. In this thought provoking post-minimalist piece, rubber ropes were tied around half bricks that descended from the ceiling. Creating tension is Ortega’s forté and his conflicting perspectives presented the viewer with an enigma. Was it about demonstrators on the street (Paris?) who riot and hurl such missiles at police; and do these marginalised protestors resort to such objects in an attempt to assume a type of power that could be described as inverted? Or, as the rubber acts like a boomerang, do these acts of violence ultimately undermine such resistance (illusory power as an inversion) by offering excuses for greater state repressions? One was caught between making literal and metaphorical interpretations of the artwork. Ortega was obviously asking questions about particular forms of violence, but these could just as easily be applied to a formalist reading of the sculpture. For he also offered a fascinating and ‘violent’ play of materials—between flexibility and stasis, hard and soft, weight and lightness, which are all classic post-minimalist manoeuvres.

On the whole, the painting in the biennale was pretty jejune, unless you were a Ghada Amer fan. She did not disappoint with an offering of crafty feminist images with pornographic undertones. The rest of the work at the AGNSW was fairly straightforward. Daido Moriyama, the well-known photographer of sleaze, explored the ‘zones of contact’ in Shinjuku’s underbelly. The room was adorned with photographs of sex-shops, one-eyed alley cats, mangy dogs, cross-eyed children, druggies, fishheads, etcetera. Another Japanese artist, Tabaimo showed an animated film Hanabie Ra (2003) that had petals and flowers peeling off someone’s back. These resembled tattooes and confused notions of the natural and the artificial. Ai Weiwei’s World Map (2006) was made entirely from fabric and brought to mind some of Beuys’ felt sculptures, whereas Kei Takemura seemed to be preoccupied with domestic zones of contact.

While wandering through the AGNSW it became evident to me that the moniker ‘Zones of Contact’ was an act of genius: it was so broad as to be almost meaningless. Merewether added that it is not really a curatorial thematic but rather a generalised concept, thus providing a moving target for potential detractors. This retreat, however, also had the effect of playing into the hands of an art fair dynamic, and the critical tenor of the exhibits was generally pretty anaemic where the notion of critique was just a ‘brand’. As I departed for the MCA I hoped these initial impressions would be overturned.

At the MCA nothing on the ground floor really grabbed my attention, but on the upper level a really outstanding work was Akram Zaatari’s In This House (2005). This was a riveting study of war, struggle and humanity. The video told the story of a journalist called Ali Hashisho who wrote a series of diaries during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. As a young radical and resistance fighter Hashisho was part of a group that occupied a house on the front-line. Things of value are generally stripped from such sites, but in the six years he spent there Hashisho tried to protect as much as possible, even the olive tree in the backyard. This was a moving act of ‘giving’ amidst the destruction of war. When he pulled out in 1990-91 he wrote a note to the owners of the house. In it he informed them of his political views and his respect for their property. A mortar shell case served as a time capsule which he then buried in the yard. Fifteen years later Akram Zaatari chased up the story and the note. Part of the video was set around digging the hole to find the capsule as well as the political subtexts surrounding the event. The owner was initially reluctant to let Zaatari dig, and then the State intervened for a number of reasons, including the danger that there might be other explosives buried there. The police and even a couple of state agents (who do not want to be recognised) become involved in the dig and through collaboration between otherwise disparate people the note was eventually unearthed. This work was a subtle and complex elaboration of time and desire. It dealt with human actions that seek to influence the present and the past by leaving memorials for others to find. There is also the human need to belong in a period of displacement, and the human drama of discovery and hope. Other work with Middle Eastern sensibilities included Ghazel’s Wanted posters, which raised the issue of illegal migration and its criminalisation, and Hassan Khan’s work which dealt with power and respect for humanity. The New Delhi artist Amar Kanwar’s ‘To Remember’ (2003) recorded a visit to a museum dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi. It provided an enriching message about memory and the ways in which people commemorate those who are gone. The museum contained films, newspaper accounts, and a grave memorial. All of these works did considerable credit to Merewether’s judgement and conveyed points of view that were more about instruction than entertainment.

The most spectacular product on the mezzanine at Pier 2/3 was by Antony Gormley. His work is a populist spectacle that relies on enormous scale for effect. In Asian Field (2003) he enlisted some 350 helpers from Guandong province in China to make 180,000 small clay figures. These figures were set up in one half of a massive pier space. This was a truly spectacular expanse of clay figures that amazed by its sheer scale and flowed like a terracotta sea. Part of the ‘wow’ factor was also the meticulous care taken with the set up. The figurines (each pressed by the helpers, so each was unique) covered the floor amongst old industrial machinery. This drew attention to different forms of labour and production. In Gormley’s case, the Chinese did the manufacturing—again. In the other half of the space the portrait photographs and names of the helpers were exhibited along the walls. This was the ‘collaborative’ angle: the Chinese people did the work and the artist directed their endeavours and formulated the final product—artist gets art and people get to contribute to a group project and be creative. The display of pictures also paralleled the clay figures as representations of the human form (clay, sculpture, photos). Gormley plays an interesting role as art director to create an awe-inspiring and enthralling achievement that an army of people helped bring about, but I could not help wondering how much the helpers were paid for their contribution?

Much of the part-travelogue, part-anthropological work at the Pier was pretty shallow, but the theme was treated with a great deal of thought by Australian Tom Nicholson in his positively intellectual After Action For Another Library (1999-2001/2003/2006). The exhibition room was filled with wall-to-wall photographs of book frontispieces. These were amongst the texts donated by Melbourne University and others to the Dili National Library, after the Indonesian army had damaged it. The list of books reads like ‘A Great Minds of Western Culture’. Without denying or deriding the generosity of such gifts one began to speculate about the cultural and ideological associations related to these books. Indeed, there was a paternalistic and colonialist air about an act of benevolence that assisted East Timor but also conserved and propagated western cultural ideas. The work was thus highly ambiguous but was definitely about situations in which culture becomes politics in the struggle over what and whose knowledge comes to dominate—just ask the new ABC board. Unlike the Neo-Cons amongst us, Nicholson refuses to allow meanings to be inured against critical examination.

The Australian Centre for Photography exhibited a very interesting range of videos by Russian artist Olga Chernysheva. Chernysheva proposes unique perspectives of life in Moscow. After growing up in the collectivist communist years and entering into the world of capitalism she focuses on the behaviour of individuals in crowds. Specifically, her work alights on the quirkiest aspects of human nature and subjectivity. In ‘Marmot’ (1999) she latches onto an old woman who temporarily leaves a communist march to fiddle around with a badge. The woman then starts fidgeting in her bag to retrieve nuts or seeds, and these are then secreted into the inside pocket of her overcoat. The point of interest is not what she has in her hands, but her idiosyncratic mannerisms and preoccupations, and the ways these are divorced from larger collective demands. This issue is tenderly examined in ‘March’ (2005) in which Russian boys in cadet uniforms are requested to stand to attention in a public square during an outdoor event. A parade is about to begin and young dancing girls with pom-poms are rehearsing for it. The boys are bored and could not care less about the prancing girls. Instead, one fiddles with his shirt cuffs, while another rubs his eyes to keep the ennui at bay. Ironically, at the end of the trial they are thanked for ‘serving Russia’. In the ingenious ‘7 Exercises’ (2004) Chernysheva links a series of human activities to piano exercises. In various ways, the guy who walks along a Moscow street using a crate as a crutch, a child who pushes a scooter around in Red Square, an old woman rummaging through garbage bags in a park, and a man who sweeps a street, are unwittingly part of a choreographic celebration of the quirky serendipities of human actions and external events. Chernysheva has a unique and whimsical view of human nature, which is tinged by an earthy realism. Another video, ‘Russian Museum’ (2003-05) seemed to commemorate the art and people of Mother Russia. Using a video camera the artist wanders through a Russian art museum filming viewers who inspect the pictures and are reflected in the glass that covers the works of art. This creates a strange effect that makes the people look as if they were actually in the paintings as ghostly apparitions.

Artspace did very well out of the Biennale as its selections were well informed and of quality. Youth cult was represented by an excellent installation by Ujino Muneteru called The Rotators (2004-06). He set up three DJ desks that had turntables with pencils instead of needles. When these came in contact with the vinyl a powerful metallic sound was generated. The turntables were also connected to electrical appliances like food blenders, lamps, hair dryers, and drills with pictures on them that spun around and looked like Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs. Somehow a Ford station wagon found its way into the space and acted as a improvisational scaffold for sound and gadgetry. The accumulated effect of all of the turntable systems and kinetic sculptural ensembles was an impressive three-dimensional soundscape.

Tacita Dean’s Boots (2003) was a film about seduction, futility and failed utopias. Old architect Robert Steane shuffled around an empty Art Deco classic called the Casa de Serralves in Porto, Portugal. He seemed like a ghost re-engaging with memories of a life once lived. Dean’s skill was manifested in the way she managed to show the meaning of the house through the memories of the old man. As the moribund Steane crawled along with the aid of two canes the whole scene began to resemble a dream, and it seemed he was wandering through his own unconscious. Dean used the documentary form so there was the prerequisite strain of realism, but there was also a surreal edge to the images; for instance, when the camera moved to an extreme close-up of the old man’s lower legs as he strained to climb up a few steps. The architect was treated with great compassion in a nostalgic, atmospheric and haunting extrapolation of scenes that evoked De Chirico’s paintings. Some shots lingered beautifully on empty rooms while another followed Steane’s gaze out of a window into sepia-toned images of a cloud-filled sky. This work had powerful emotional resonances and transcended the unimaginative approach seen in so much of the art in the other venues.

Ultimately, Charles Merewether’s ‘Zones of Contact’ was most useful as a term which described the sensibility of the Biennale phenomenon that now exceeds forty international art centres. In such a world exotic experiences are recorded and distributed by artists who act as anthropologists, celebrities, directors, or aesthetic entrepreneurs in a Neo-Liberal world. These zones of contact also pertain to post-avant-gardism and the spheres of complicity that today’s artists must negotiate. Under these conditions, artists need to adopt a sensibility that ceaselessly evaluates, assesses and maintains a critical balance between resistance and complicity. This Biennale revealed that some artists are navigating these treacherous waters with distinction, but most are in need of a life buoy.

notes: 

Mark Pennings lectures in art history and theory at Queensland University of Technology.