Floating Worlds: Zones of Contact

Wed, 19/06/2013 - 10:13 -- damien
The 15th Biennale of Sydney

The long march across sixteen venues of Zones of Contact was slowed by an elegiac sensibility. Spectral silhouettes flickered in darkened rooms. Slow, cinematic sweeps across ruins, desolate landscapes, wall washes and witnesses signposted a lucid journey through a fallen world. By the time we reached ultima thule, the satellite show at Campbelltown’s Art Centre, we empathised with Dimitry Gutov’s hapless artist-intellectual who endlessly struggles to his feet in a pool of icy Tundra sludge, puts on his glasses and takes a lurching step forward (Thaw, 2006). A resonant bass-baritone sings to Shostakovich over Gutov’s short video loop, while the inter-title reads: ‘Even though that hooligan Fedulov beat me up I didn’t complain to the Organs of our outstanding Militia. I decided to confine myself to the beating I had already received’. Buffoonery is a reflexive strategy open to artists and audiences alike. We have decided to complain to the Organs of outstanding International Art on behalf of Gutov’s bruised conscript.

Almost incidentally (and certainly unwittingly), Gutov’s sonorous address to the failed Socialist Utopia prompted mildly hysterical laughter at our own expense. It seemed to re-enact the historical adventure of post-war critical theory and artistic praxis—as a poignant farce. If this falling man at the Museum of Contemporary Art was miming the story of post-war cultural politics, then this certainly included our successive aspirations for the Sydney Biennale. As he rose from the black mud of Mother Russia, again and again, we had to admit that this show was the materialist yet non-mechanical, historically reflexive Biennale we had all longed for, damn it. It was crammed to the rafters with non-canonical and non-metropolitan artworks and ‘best practice’ cultural theory.


Artworkers on the move

Artistic director Charles Merewether has created a well illustrated treatise on the nature of contact and conflict. He dips into his curatorial and art historical rucksack in a gesture reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s fabled storyteller who reaches back into his lifetime, ‘a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others’.1 Merewether recounts ‘(t)he 2006 Biennale of Sydney was composed on the road, that is, of not only being on the road, but about the road and its sense of mobility that affects us as liberating and estranging’.2 This road is well-travelled, and many of the eighty-five artists from over forty countries are seasoned raconteurs. Many grew up in times of violent conflict and forced exile, specifically in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans, and remain in transit. They speak of encounters between cultures, ‘usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and intractable conflict’. All draw from and describe a central character, a ‘dissonant and fractured subject’ who inhabits our more volatile zones of contact.

Yet artists and audiences to the left and right of art-world politics were grumbling. Mainstream critics lamented the lack of sensate pleasures and pains that can be prompted by an ensemble of beautifully installed artworks. A sincere questioner asked Merewether at Blacktown Art Gallery, ‘Is aesthetics dead? Art seems no longer beautiful; it is just black’.3 ‘But’, responded our weather-beaten curator, ‘there are many works about beauty’. Maybe Merewether sidestepped the question too quickly, for while beauty seeps through the work, it is of the darker, knowing sort. Biennale artist Ruark Lewis has termed this provisional aesthetic ‘the poetics of post-9/11’.4

Amidst the rumble, substantive questions re-surfaced around art and activism. Issues of curatorial responsibility, selection, placement and inter-regional dialogue dominated two of the three Biennale Symposia. Incoming director of the next Sydney Biennale, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev put a case for curatorial proximity versus art historical distance.5 Curators should exploit their working relation with artists and, in many cases, their role as brokers in realising projects. One would think, however, that the two disciplines are mutually enriching. Merewether might have developed his cultural politics and plied his trade as an academic art historian, but he has subsequently put art history to use in a variety of prestigious international museums. He has enjoyed both the luxury of considered art historical reflection and the curator’s close encounter.

Merewether knows that international surveys now carry their own historical baggage, and traces of shifting curatorial epochs can be detected in the Sydney event. When the inaugural Biennale opened at the new Sydney Opera House in 1973, audiences were treated to a modest exhibition. Growing curatorial professionalism in the newly termed ‘art industry’ was hastened by the institutional challenge of postmodern art history. Nonetheless, our curators were largely quarantined from the theoretical grit and the social movements that underpinned it. Not for long: the thematic approach of the 1980s could neither encompass nor account for an inter-disciplinary art world. Christov-Bakargiev calls the post-Cold War 1990s ‘the age of curatorial protagonism’.6 Spectacular international exhibitions networked across continents, carrying within them a postcolonial analysis of their own global reach. Documenta 11 (Okwui Enwezor, 2002) stands as a reference-point for this reflexive model of global, neo-liberal spectacle. It illuminated ‘the terrible nearness of distant places’, proximities that were both imaginary (effected through spectacular mediation) and actual (through the presence of migrants in metropolitan centres).

A class of curatorial Marco Polo’s can now average a biennale every three weeks. Annually they bring us around twenty biennales and a smaller number of triennials across seven continents. The Biennale form has become too massive for one curator-impressario to manage. Intellectual rigour is contracted out to erudite cultural theorists in textbook catalogues and dazzling talkfests. Artists are paid to exercise aesthetic and political freedoms in and against the transnational cultural industry. Many artists, themselves involuntarily displaced, gather in large art centres like Berlin, Paris or New York, where ideas and art are honed through a small group of clearing houses and their publications.7 As a result, the industry now scrutinises the curatorial strategies underwriting international surveys as much as individual artworks. Meanwhile local audiences are asked to simply enjoy the spectacle, providing enough bums on seats to keep the juggernaut financially viable. For this Sydney Biennale, the British cultural theorist Peter Osborne nominates the international exhibition as the premier unit of artistic significance. ‘It is up to curators’, he concludes, ‘with their power of assembly, to ensure that such spaces…remain spaces of uncertainty, of not knowing in advance’.8

More often than not, we actually do know what to expect in advance. Asian art historian John Clark has done a crude number-crunch on the reprise of set projects by the same Chinese artists around the Biennale circuit, and the results look good for the international freighting companies.9 Unsurprisingly, curators, artworks and themes are mutually certifying. At the very least, we observe international curators selecting artists whose style of work is readable within and against these global assemblies. Artists try to stay a step ahead of collusion, often building humorous, self-effacing or analytic devices into artworks as a critical counter-weight.

Merewether cites the international economist and sociologist Saskia Sassen to clear a critical space for reading the Biennale as a global host for regional counter-discourses. Sassen has argued how economic globalisation has created the technical infrastructure for cross-border flows of art, information and entertainment. She maintains that these flows, constitute a ‘transnational “imaginary”’ that might bite the hand of the infrastructure that feeds it, creating counter-geographies and alternative global networks.10 Yet the fabrication of global artworks themselves suggests that such simple-sounding, parasitical relations are actually quite complicated. In some instances, we detect Sassen’s cross-border flows in the very ‘infrastructure’ of specific projects, over and above vernacular cultural references. For instance, Anthony Gormley’s glamorous media spectacle Asian Field (2003) is exclusively assigned the pier’s upper deck. This human carpet of tiny terracotta figurines stretching to infinity is paired with a band of monochrome portrait photographs of some of the work’s 350 makers from Xiangshan village, Guangzhou. This declared dependence upon outsourced casual labour, along with the project’s multiple yet site-specific installation, sharpens our perceptions of the work’s globalism, over and above its banal and stereotypical suggestion of collective consciousness, the tide of humanity and an ancient, agricultural China.

A more traditional artist-worker contract generates Liu Xiaodong’s pair of academically painted, vast salon ‘machines’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Each depicts a group of workers resting on a mattress (Hot Bed, 2005-06). A group of men is backgrounded by the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, where the new ‘farmer-turned worker’ labour-force participate in their own oblivion—the waters shown rising behind them will soon cover agricultural lands. The group portrait records their ambivalent, historical presence: as the collective subjects of academic history painting, and simultaneously as the hapless objects of historical forces. The artist paints in sympathy with his sitters, whom he and his artistic forebears have paid and directed through centuries of posing. In different ways, Gormley and Liu ask local workers to perform themselves as both subjects and objects of today’s flexible labour markets, including those lubricating the ‘cross-border flows of art, information and entertainment’.


Moving through, linking works

Exhibition prefaces set the scene for surrounding works. At Pier 2/3, Adrian Paci’s grand chandelier, powered by ten generators, creates an expressionist mood connecting sound, soul, eye and place around adjacent works. Turn on/turn off: Noise of Light (2006) runs a noisy sequence of illumination and flickering brownout. This can only be Albania, Beirut, Grozny or any other hopeless human place where people ‘refuse to give up…in the faint hope of a better day’.11 Here dreams of prosperous conviviality lie within stories of inequality and destruction. The chandelier is well located within the pier, itself an industrial-age curio surrounded by mega-bling harbour apartments. Over the years, many artists have used the chandelier as an over-coded, art historical form. Paci’s version is successful, if not as confronting as the tampon chandelier that greeted audiences last year entering Venice’s Arsenale exhibition—Joana Vasconcelos’s grand Map of Tasmania ringed by a veritable vagina dentata of Guerrilla Girls billboards proclaiming rude facts of omission. That full-frontal curatorial gesture, by the first female curators in the Biennale’s hundred-year history, quickly came under fire from post-ideological critics.12

Sometimes artworks themselves force us to think about the politics of placement, carrying the memory of earlier Biennale installations. Located at the end of the pier over the harbour waters, Djambawa Marawili’s suite of bark paintings surround a ring of memorial poles that claim native title to the sea and its sacred places. Here, too, stood the iconic Aboriginal Memorial of two hundred burial posts created for the 1988 ‘Bicentennial Biennale’ by Indigenous curator Djon Mundine and Ramingining artists.13 In linking the waters of Sydney and Yirkalla, Marawili’s installation, like its historical echo, was one of the few works engaged with the exhibition location and an elsewhere.14 The work also keyed strong conceptual links with Julie Gough’s, Ruark Lewis’s and Imants Tillers’ re-reading of the Australian historical landscape.

Artists from the ‘post-89’ zones of former Soviet Europe also shared a common experience of intersecting administrative and socio-economic ‘zones’, yet cannot be reduced to cultural identity. Merewether avoids the bizarre wash-up of late twentieth century avant-gardes, solidified through special ‘identity’ placement as, for example, Latino hybrids, non-conformist Soviets, pop Chinese. Yet in avoiding a priori communities of interest, how can we understand artistic commonalities without stereotyped cultural markers, a trusty native informant or war correspondent in tow?15 Here Merewether the art historian takes over to remind us that cultural identity is historically contingent. He brings together work suggesting discontinuous or uneven cultural development across regions we tend to mentally homogenise. Anri Sala’s melancholy video of a broken-down horse sporadically lit by oncoming cars suggests disjunctions between Albania’s agricultural traditions and piecemeal economic development. Gutov’s installation rests on the authority of Russian high culture within the Western art historical and political imaginary.


“Speak Pidgin, You Fool!”

The idea of the contact zone originated from anthropology and linguistics, to describe cramped colonial spaces that force improvised hybrid speech patterns: creoles, pidgin, Aboriginal English. Global art is a similarly improvised style arising within the condensed frame of the international art survey. It involves an awareness of its context and visitors. Merewether would admit that not everybody speaks Biennale Pidgin, yet maintains his faith in the experimental value of transcribed vernacular issues, images and media (Chinese silk, Top End bark painting, Indian beads) into a recognisable international form. This belief is underscored by a preponderance of documentary or archival references and video installations meshing narrative and documentary film, art and decoration into real time.

The Canberra based art theorist Chaitanya Sambrani cites an Indonesian example of local incomprehension in the face of global style. The 2005 C.P. Biennale in Jakarta was cancelled due to complaints about Agus Suwage’s photomural of two celebrities, coyly naked, in a garden of plenty. The work was cool, pop and ironic, but blasphemous to a powerful minority. Sambrani asks: who can legitimately produce ‘contemporary art’, and for whom? He and other Biennale participants argue for a renewed focus on works’ relation to culture and history ‘that pertains to each unique engagement with the “modern world” without subsuming it in a generalised welter of “international contemporary art”’.16

The Biennale’s modus operandi is in fact this oscillation between the general and the specific, global and vernacular cultures, North and South economies. To Merewether’s credit, he has selected artists who raise this point in forceful, material ways. Videos abound with classical traditions: a blind busker recites Pushkin’s poems on a Russian train, clay lamps flicker over Kashmiri poets reciting handwritten verses, Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s poems can be felt in Braille alongside those by Lao leader Kaysone Phomvihane, if only the gallery attendant would let you touch the artwork. Olga Chernysheva’s and Amar Kanwar’s videos and Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’s textual tracings, Floating Words (2005-06), use global styles to honour local traditions and acknowledge the regional implications of transnational issues. Yirkalla senior artist Djambawa Marawili puts it more strongly, when he explains to audiences at Pier 2/3 that his paintings have higher purpose than international gallery artefacts: namely, their status as native title documents in a current battle with the Northern Territory tourist and fishing industries.17

In these instances, we need to shut out the collective noise of the Biennale compound, and mentally relocate specific projects offshore. Tom Nicholson’s After action for another library, (1999-2001/2003/2006) visually catalogues books donated to the people of Timor by Australians, after the public book-burnings by the retreating Indonesian forces. A glance over the yellowing cover-pages of these ‘old friends’ (Camus, Mao, Gorky, Steinbeck) prompts an irrational urge to reach for another match. Who really wants our ‘now threadbare but made from quality cloth’ colonial culture? Apparently someone does: the East Timorese Student Solidarity Council selected these books for the University library. Sydney critic Jacqueline Millner praises the work’s generative structure, for it models an opening to unlimited discussion.18 Our own, ambivalent relationship to this seminar of conscience is only one of the many possible engagements the work brokers.

Biennale discomfort is a small price to pay. We immerse ourselves in a foreign logic of volatile contact between people, state apparatus, languages and beliefs. Then we step out and into the next booth. Should we be paying more? It’s true that our most pressing troubles are not as crushingly awful as those of Palestine, Lebanon or Kashmir, and we are Biennale audiences, not Médecins sans Frontières. We looked around for Amnesty International letters or petitions to sign against our new Terror Laws at each exhibition exit, but not a collection bucket in sight. The show as a whole requires surprisingly little from us over and above the classic critical response. Despite the intelligence of the artworks, this might be an unwitting, blanketing effect of Biennale Pidgin.

The discrepancy between the intense focus of individual artworks and a cumulative, ‘post-9/11 poetics’ of global grief was unsettling and ultimately disempowering. The chain of isolated venues and video booths accentuated the general feeling of so many floating worlds. Just as the local is validated in the place name of the Biennale, local artist networks, specialist audiences and immigrant communities are important though under-used resources for anchoring complex arguments.19 Grassroots means writing large ‘fringing’ events like the Arabic Film Festival and placing discussion-starter works, like Gormley’s endeavour, in Campbelltown rather than the CBD. Prosaic matters like the sites, audiences and the art experience need as much open and democratic review as curatorial concepts. Curators have a short contract while the Biennale machine grinds on.20


Global Left loses to Green Lines, Green Zones, Red Lines, Blue Lines, Security Walls

Perhaps the devil may also be in the details of political action and resistance—witness the profound effects that a simple revision of one word in the Terror Laws (from ‘the’ to ‘a’ terrorist act, a Kafkaesque slippage which allows the use of any circumstantial evidence) on our first convicted local terrorist, Australian architect Faheem Lodhi. Like set-piece cable television, artworks in the Biennale cannot hope to convey the destructive social and personal effects of such carefully calibrated, bureaucratic legalism. The banal but ruthless legislative engineering that drives our ‘war on terror’ defies artistic illumination. As we step up to read Hamra Abbas’s illuminated and counter-posed Islamic and Christian holy tracts at Pier 2/3, we necessarily scuff a delicate paper floor mosaic underfoot. She enacts the futility of individual pleas for tolerance against overwhelming national will and wars with predetermined outcomes (Please Do Not Step, 2004).21 Political artworks are by nature gestural and symbolic, even when scaled up to the level of community actions. Utopia Station, the poster project seen at the 2003 Venice Biennale and World Social Forums, epitomises the successful orchestration of collective art against related pseudo-religious crusades.

In these unrepresentable zones, where too many contradictions make contact impossible, art enacts a humanist response. Navjot Altaf’s haunting response to communal violence in Gujarat, the video installation Lacuna in Testimony—Version 1 (2003) locates the voices of the unheard and powerless as the limit point in our historical understanding of genocide. We watch a cascading motion of waves breaking on-shore, then stand hypnotized and helpless as the waters turn from blue to blood red before our eyes. Her video mimes the slow (and near impossible) operations of justice being done. As a sixteen year old, Akram Zaatari photographed his city of Saida being bombed over six days during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (In this House, 2005). His reconstructed photograph shows a formative moment in anyone’s political consciousness. A video opposite enacts a twist on a universal theme in art and literature—the soldier’s return from war. Twenty years after the occupation, a resistance fighter digs up a time capsule buried in the garden of a sequestered family house. His hidden letter explains to the house’s displaced owners that he had preserved their home awaiting their possible return. The restored owners were profoundly disinterested in this oddly memorable, individual action.

These modest, peace-keeping operations are possible in the safety of Sydney Harbour. Merewether navigates between the ‘another world is possible’ activist euphoria of the World Social Forums and the aesthetic production values of global style. Maybe he could sail closer to the wind. Elsewhere, curators working with more intransigent governments have little leeway. Christine Tohme, director of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, has pleaded for assistance for Lebanese contemporary artists ‘in the midst of this devastation of a nation’s accomplishments and dreams’.22 This year’s Manifesta, a floating biennale of the Global Left, hoped to straddle Nicosia, a bi-communal city divided into Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot sectors by a Green Line, and maintained by UN forces. In June, local authorities put pressure on Manifesta to not realize projects on the Turkish-Cypriot side of the city. The curators stood their ground and as a result they were sacked. Although their operations make gestures of peace-keeping, Biennales are not yet protected, sub-official offshoots of the United Nations.


1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Fontana, 1978, pp.108–9

2. Charles Merewether, ‘Taking Place: Acts of Survival for a Time to Come’, Introduction, Zones of Contact: The 2006 Biennale of Sydney, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2006, p.49.

3. Question to Charles Merewether, Biennale of Sydney curator’s talk, Blacktown Art Centre, 15 July 2006.

4. Ruark Lewis, Biennale of Sydney artist’s talk, MCA, 8 June 2006.

5. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, chief curator at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Biennale Symposia Series, ‘Biennales: Transculturalism and after globalisation’, AGNSW, 9 June 2006.

6. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, op. cit., 2006

7. Many curators come from these institutions and Biennales also function as sales showrooms. The Berlin based Universes in Universe: Worlds of Art has a good general guide to non-mainstream Biennales at web: http://universes-in-universe.de/english.htm

8. Peter Osborne, ‘The Power of Assembly—Art, World, Industry’, exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p.128.

9. John Clarke, Biennale Symposia Series, ‘Constructing the Biennale Event: Histories and Changes’, AGNSW, 9 June 2006.

10. Saskia Sassen, ‘Countergeography of Globalistation’, Absolute 1, Slovenian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2006, cited Charles Merewether, exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p.48.

11. Edi Muka, catalogue entry, op. cit., p.202.

12. Curators Rosa Martinez and Maria de Corral were hamming it up about being Venice’s first female curators. The billboards exposed continuing gender biases in the Biennale and in Venice’s galleries and museums, an extension of the New York group’s long-standing media-based action research. Despite the fact that many of their findings have not changed in the last 20 years, reviewers complained that the Guerrilla Girls themselves hadn’t ‘moved on’.

13. A connection made by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Chairman of the Biennale of Sydney introducing Djambawa Marawili’s performance opening the Pier 2/3 exhibition, 8 June 2006.

14. Jonathan Jones noted the lack of connections made with the parallel exhibition Eora, Mapping Aboriginal Sydney 1788-1850 which opened at the same time at the State Library of NSW. Biennale Symposia Series, ‘After the Event: Rewriting Art History’, MCA, 9 July 2006.

15. See discussion by Viktor Misiano, ‘Zones of Contact: From “confidential zones” to “operational zones”’, catalogue, op. cit., pp.205-210 and Branislav Dimitrijevic, ‘Toward Very Fine and Thoroughly Unsuccessful Understanding: Art in SEE’, pp.216-219.

16. Chaitanya Sambrani, ‘Degrees of Freedom, Degrees of Difference’, catalogue, op. cit., pp.129-132.

17. Djambawa Marawili, artist’s statement, Biennale Visitor’s Handbook, 2006, p. 21.

18. Jacqueline Millner in Natasha Bullock and Reuben Keehan (eds), Zones of Contact: 2006 Biennale of Sydney: A Critical Reader, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, 2006, p.33-34. See also Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du réel, Paris, 2002, p.15.

19. Also argued by Lisa Kelly in ‘Grasping the Thistle’, Artspace Critical Reader, op. cit., p.71.

20. Merewether argues the Biennale’s need for a solid financial basis. Interview with Alan Cruickshank, Broadsheet, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, v.3, n.2, 2006, pp72-75. We put the case for a more flexible and responsive Biennale structure and a public review in Holder and Moore, ‘Hearts and Minds’, in French, Geczy and Tsoutas (eds), Criticism+Engagement+Thought: 2004 Biennale of Sydney, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, 2004, pp.9-15.

21. Lodhi and Abbas trained at Lahore’s renowned National College of Arts. Lodhi did a second architectural degree at Sydney University. Lodhi pleads his innocence, maintaining that his intention was to establish a business importing electricity generators and chemicals to Pakistan.

22. E-flux circular, 24 July 2006. Electronic Flux Corporation, New York. Web: www.e-flux.com


Catriona Moore is a Senior Lecturer in Art History and Theory at The University of Sydney. Jo Holder is Director of Cross Art Projects, Sydney.