Revolutions – Forms That Turn

It is somewhat surprising that old-style biennales and other such perennial über shows are occasionally still able to produce exhibitions that are worth visiting. This is certainly the case of the 2008 Sydney Biennale.

Maybe it is exactly because Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Bulgarian-Italian-US Artistic Director, is so well aware of the obsolete curatorial philosophy of such events that she managed to avoid the usual pitfalls. Not that her approach is especially subversive, on the contrary, the inclusion of many historical works could be perceived—and undoubtedly was by some—as overly academic. Yet the mix of the old and the new is one of the many things that worked well in this show simply by dint of sheer curatorial intelligence and craftsmanship.

The theme revolved (as it were) around the idea of ‘revolution’, which was here broadly understood as a dynamic, propulsive principle of change and transformation. This was a show about art’s incessant turns, re-turns and over-turnings and its fundamental drive towards social, conceptual and formal subversion. It was, in a way, an exhibition about that old, half-forgotten but never totally vanished friend: the avant-garde.

While a title based on a pun is often a curator’s excuse not to commit to a specific selection criteria, the poetic and historical resonances of Christov-Bakargiev’s premise were manifest throughout the exhibition. Her decision to include many historical works that incorporate elements of physical movement, as well as samples of Kinetic Art (a movement which is too often treated as a curiosity to be relegated to the less visited rooms of galleries and museums of modern art) was very original and effective. Not only did these works literalise the title, they also set the exhibition in motion, they kick-started it, establishing a pace and tone that conveyed the idea of the dynamic, subversive impulse of modern art.

This time, in addition to the usual venues, such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Artspace and the Botanical Gardens, the Biennale was also able to access the newly open Cockatoo Island. This disused, heritage-listed complex is, in effect, an abandoned town complete with residential quarters, schools, workshops, ship-yard, shower blocks, cafeterias, offices, recreational facilities, tunnels and so on. It looks like the classic set of a post-holocaust flick (On The Beach, Stalker or Alphaville come to mind), its dilapidated allure providing the perfect playground for contemporary artists and curators willing to venture outside the modernist white cube.

It was a real pleasure to wonder through the musty rooms, flaky-walled corridors and dilapidated laneways searching for art (and sometimes missing it, despite the exhibition map). Often the environment was impeccably tailored to suit the works. A case in point was William Kentridge’s extraordinary installation, a multi-channelled projection in which hand-drawn human, animal and mechanical figures intermingle in an absurdist, jerky ballet across the walls of a darkened room. It is a kind of high-tech magic lantern show, whose constructivist, machine-like overtones were reinforced by the drab industrial aura of the room.

Mike Parr’s installation was also staged with flamboyant theatricality: several older and newer works (mostly performances on video) were scattered among the various rooms of a building that is graced with all the charms of a KGB-run Siberian jail at the height of Stalin’s terror. Visitors walked cautiously through passageways covered in filth and suspicious looking liquids (is that just water…?) and resonating with a cacophony of screams and jarring noises percolating from the video installations that lurked behind doorways one negotiated with trepidation. Blood, urine, severed limbs, beheaded fowls, tormented flesh, vomit, pain, and learned conceptual epigrams welcomed the onlookers as they stepped in.

Far more soothing but equally striking was Susan Philipsz’s The Internationale. In this sound installation the paradigmatic anthem of the world’s workers and revolutionaries is sung by a lone female voice; the soft, dreamy tones resonating in the vast, cathedral-like emptiness of the shipyard’s interior. It is a beautiful, simple piece that reminds us that even though the spectre of communism has ceased to haunt the world, the melancholic yearning for the romance of that lost utopian dream still lingers on (possibly to be revived by the recent events on stock market…).

Not far from Philipsz’s work, Jannis Kounellis’s huge installation of hanging sails seemed rather predictable. This is very uncharacteristic of the artist, who is a master at creating powerful, arresting works that are always meaningfully and poetically related to the environments in which they are displayed. But disappointing works such as this were relatively rare.

In the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the impulse to revolt and revolve showed its subversive, humorous side in Nedko Solakov’s A Life (Black & White). This is a famous work (it was shown in 2001 at the Venice Biennale) in which the exhibition space is endlessly over-painted black and white by two house-painters seemingly hell-bent on undermining each other’s work. It is a ludicrously Sisyphean task, which seemed to mischievously poke fun at the tradition of ‘serious’ painting filling the adjacent rooms that display historical works from the collection (as usual at the Art Gallery of New South Wales the Biennale had to co-habituate with the collection, an arrangement which is invariably messy).

There were plenty of other striking works one could mention. Christov-Bakargiev mixed and matched all-time favourites (Duchamp’s ready-mades, Manzoni’s tinned shit, Beuys’s blackboards, Calder’s mobiles) with new and recent works, sometimes by younger artists. But the layout and juxtapositions rarely seemed forced or arbitrary as there was a perceivable poetic and conceptual thread driving the flow of the display (which is much more than can be said about last year’s Documenta, a show that in some other respects resembles this one but that failed to deliver on its laudable premises because of its arbitrary layout).

It was also a relief to visit a biennale that is not jam-packed with the usual artists who, especially in Australia, pass for ‘the international art scene’, namely the obligatory New York’s big cheeses and the insufferable YBA. There was a good spread of diverse national and artistic backgrounds on show here (Eastern Europe and South America, for example, are well represented), although there seemed to be fewer participants from Asia than one would have expected. And there were also, as usual, far too many Australians whose inclusion did not seem fully justified by the context. I guess overseas curators working in this country have to come to terms with the Realpolitik of local sensibilities and expectations. Yet Christov-Bakargiev was perceptive enough to pick some less predictable, but extremely interesting younger local practitioners such as Raquel Ormella and Stuart Ringholt.

Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition celebrated a type of art that refuses to be confined within the boundaries of formalist play or individualistic self-expression, and that instead is eager to open up to the energy, the conflicts and unpredictable dynamism that propel historical change and everyday life. There was little formalist abstraction (or post-abstraction) here and hardly any painting. None, in fact, apart from a few historical works and Rodney Graham’s pieces, which are in reality conceptual works in disguise. The curator did as well as could be expected, given the constraints of a traditional biennale format. What was missing here is what is almost always hard to find in large international perennial events: a genuine relationship between the works and the social, historical and geographical context in which they are exhibited.

Admittedly, a handful of artists were given the opportunity to overcome these structural limitations. Michael Rakowitz, for example, created a sculpture, aptly placed at the entrance of the Art Gallery, which was developed in collaboration with Indigenous Australians living in ‘The Block’ in Redfern. It is a recreation of Tatlin’s famous monument to the Third International in which the modernist utopia of social redemption is ironically interwoven with references to the dystopian living realities of urban social exclusion. One would have wanted more of such kind of works, but alas, this is not what a traditional biennale is all about.

Marco Marcon is a writer and Director of International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia (IASKA), Western Australia.