OLD AND NEW ROMANTICS

THE 17TH BIENNALE OF SYDNEY: THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: SONGS OF SURVIVAL IN A PRECARIOUS AGE

The 16th Biennale of Sydney in 2008, ‘Revolutions—Forms that Turn’, was always going to be an extremely hard act to follow. That exhibition will remain a high point in the thirty-seven year history of the event. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the 17th Biennale of Sydney. This year’s biennale does not have the intellectual rigour, visual acuity, or breadth of vision of the previous one curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. David Elliott’s biennale by comparison, is unremarkable. There are, of course, some very interesting works, as one might expect given the immense scale of the event. According to the Biennale press release, this year there are one hundred and sixty-seven artists in the exhibition and supposedly there are more Australian artists than ever before.

While Christov-Bakargiev’s biennale was incredibly carefully choreographed, with a theme that was well-focused and articulated, Elliott’s selections seem comparatively much more random and unsystematic, and the whole exhibition has a rather slapdash or thrown together quality. In terms of individual venues, the works gathered together at the Museum of Contemporary Art seem particularly disparate, while the works in the Turbine Hall at Cockatoo Island are much more thoughtfully assembled and installed. No doubt some people will like the loose, grab bag approach, regarding it as less doctrinaire, less scholarly, and more open to a range of contemporary practices. To me, however, the exhibition as a whole comes across as simply the result of rather wooly thinking.

This is manifested first of all by the cumbersome title: ‘The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’. The two parts of the title are hard to reconcile into a coherent idea or theme. Both parts are, in fact, quotations from others. The first part of the title, most Australians will instantly recognise as the reversal of the usual understanding of Australia’s peripheral position. It reworks the title of the well-known book by Australian historian, Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History. Instead of a negative attribute, which reminds us of our remote location, far from the traditional cultural centres of Europe and North America, distance is now supposed to be positive—to have a particular appeal, to be beautiful, or to have its own particular beauty.

Still confused? This is how David Elliott explains the meaning of this phrase on the official Biennale of Sydney website. In reply to his own question: ‘But why should distance be good or beautiful?’ he answers:

Distance allows us to be ourselves despite the many capacities we share. We are all the same, yet different and it is our differences that make us—according to the circumstances—beautiful, terrifying, attractive, boring, sexy, unsettling, fascinating, challenging, funny, stimulating, horrific or even many of these at once.

What began as a specific question about geography, marginalisation, or isolation is generalised to the point of meaninglessness. Distance is now a necessary condition of all subjectivity—‘everyone’, as David Elliott said at the Biennale press conference, ‘is far away from something’. This platitude is not a particularly helpful tool for selecting those artists that the curator regards as producing cutting edge contemporary art. And indeed it is not at all clear how this part of the exhibition theme has helped to select the works on display. Perhaps all it means, in the end, is that there are works of art from all over the world, or at least from thirty-six countries. A map of the world on the inside cover of the catalogue seems to confirm this banal approach. It displays the links between these distant countries and Australia, with lines radiating outwards from Sydney in the manner of airline route maps.

If distance is now ‘everywhere’ and the property of ‘everyone’, perhaps beauty will deliver more stringent parameters for the inclusion and exclusion of artists and artworks. Contrary to the promise of the title, there is not very much art that could be described as conventionally beautiful in this exhibition. There are, however, a few highly aestheticised crowd pleasers. For example, in the Turbine Hall at Cockatoo Island, there are the spectacular ceiling mounted cars of Cai Guo-Qiang enigmatically titled Inopportune: Stage One (2004). The cars with their flashing lights resemble a cross between fireworks, sparklers, chandeliers, and extravagant Christmas lights. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is yet another Bill Viola video that involves nude people and water, titled Incarnation (2008). It is quite beautiful in a cold, mannered fashion. According to the free biennale guide, the video represents some kind of ‘metamorphosis’. The man and the woman, who appear to be producing their own water source, like human showers or fountains, are shown both arriving and departing from a darkened empty space so that their bodies could just as easily stand for birth as for death. Or, perhaps, their bodies signify some other more mysterious liminal life experience that requires the addition of water.

At Cockatoo Island, there are two other biennale ‘block-busters’. On the top of the island, in the upper precinct, there is the multi-screened work by British artist Isaac Julien, Ten Thousand Waves (2010). This slow atmospheric video installation is beautifully filmed and installed, but the sequences are very loosely assembled. The premise of the work is a kind of mourning; it addresses the tragic death by drowning of twenty-three Chinese nationals while they were collecting cockles at Morecombe Bay in north west England. This solid enough foundation, represented by what appears to be search and rescue footage and emergency call records, leads to a highly fanciful return of their departed souls to China. It is at once the China of today and of the 1920s, with floating goddesses and another very beautiful woman who may or may not be one of the grieving mothers. With a running time of close to one hour, it is a rather flabby production that would have profited from more careful editing. The looseness of the narrative, and the many sequences with Chinese voice-over without subtitles, makes this work more like orientalist spectacle than the story of substance that the impetus for the narrative might suggest.

The most interesting work in this genre of biennale spectacle art is by the Russian collective, AES+F. Previously exhibited at the Venice Biennale, The Feast of Trimalchio (2009) is comprised of a 9-channel video projection shown in the round. The work is like one long advertisement for first class travel; it is nineteen minutes of luxuriousness, to be precise. In this instance, the luxury location is an island resort presented in a visual language that combines ultra lush high-definition images with just a tinge of the graphic style of Second Life cartoonish fantasy. Accompanied by suitably rousing symphonic surround-sound, it is a superbly choreographed sequence of images showing decadence and then destruction; with guests felled in their designer sporting gear, not only by random golf balls, but also various other more serious natural disasters. There is a humour and knowingness to this piece that saves it from simply repeating the clichéd morality tale about the fate of vanity or the just deserts due to the exploiting classes and races. The work is immensely engaging, making this one of the most popular works in the exhibition, and deservedly so.

Such works of astonishing beauty are set amongst others that parade the opposite or contrasting qualities. For example, there is a suggestion of the sublime in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s installation Lightening Fields (2008-09). This series of images was produced by recording high voltage electrical discharge and is installed on either side of a specially constructed metal staircase in the old powerhouse at Cockatoo Island. Viewing feels slightly dangerous, like entering the laboratory of a mad scientist, with the carefully spaced black and white images suggesting the revelation of unseen force fields. The delicate tracery of the black images seems at once alive and yet coldly crystalline.

The sublime, of course, can be combined with beauty, as Sugimoto’s photographs show. There are also some rather troubling combinations of beauty and its others in the exhibition. For example, there are a number of abject works, often with a distressing exploitative edge. Roger Ballen’s photographs of the homeless inhabitants of a boarding house are typical of this approach. While the free guide to the Biennale compares his work to that of Diane Arbus, his images remind me of Walter Benjamin’s searing critique of this genre of photographic imagery. Photography, Benjamin said, can turn even ‘abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment’.1

To this list of exploitative aesthetics one could add: Miguel Angel Rios’s Crudo (2008), a video of a man dancing while taunting starving dogs with meat; Amal Kenawy’s video on imprisonment, My Lord Eating His Tail (2010); Adel Abidin’s Ping Pong, a video of a ping pong game with a woman serving as the net; and Yang Fudong’s East of Que Village (2007), a six-channel film which makes literal the metaphor of a dog eat dog world.

On the other hand, there are highly successful abject works in the exhibition. Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mikala Dwyer and Louise Bourgeois all demonstrate a masterful yet delicate touch with the abject. There is no trace in their works of cloying sentimentality or the fashionably perfected. The Chapmans reprise some of their earlier works in cardboard to great comic effect in their Shitrospective (2009). In the case of Bourgeois’s strange stretchy shapes, ECHO (2007), and Dwyer’s magic circle of forms at the Turbine Hall, there is a gentle humour and great tact to the various ‘personnages’ they craft—to use the term Lucy Lippard borrowed from surrealism to describe the strange animate, yet abstract, quality of Eva Hesse’s sculptural works.2 I find Bourgeois’s ‘Cell’ works, represented at the Museum of Contemporary Art by Cell (Glass, spheres and hands), 1990-93, much less compelling. The Cell works seem too arch.

Bourgeois’s seven ECHO works are also on display at the Museum of Contemporary art. These bronze figures are cast from discarded clothing and painted white. They recall Bourgeois’s earlier latex works from the 1960s that managed to combine ugly materials with a strange poise and command of form. Dwyer has a similar sensibility, which manifests as an unusual capacity to combine a highly refined aesthetic with feeble or diminished means. She has two works on Cockatoo Island. The second part of An Apparition of a Subtraction (2010) is visible only from two sides; it is set in a grotto or cave. It uses sound, red light and fog to suggest mysterious toy town excavations, perhaps quarrying the sandstone to make the shapes assembled in the circle. The circular work in the Turbine Hall also has the sound of some kind of chiseling or construction as well as periodic puffs of fog. Taken together, the two parts recall the principle of Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its own Making (1961), but now reprised with slightly hokey tools and with wobbly, but endearing, forms as the result.

Continuing with the opposites of beauty, there are lots of works in the biennale that could be described as kitsch. To name just some of the artists whose works can be characterised in this fashion: Rachel Kneebone, Gonkar Gyatso, Rodney Glick, Claudio Dicochea, Choi Jeong Hwa, Lara Baladi, Brook Andrew, Kent Monkman, Raqib Shaw, Shen Shaomin, Yayoi Kusama, Yvonne Todd, Rohan Wealleans, Jemina Wyman, Makoto Aida, Reuben Paterson, and Fred Tomaselli. In addition, there is naïve art, what Elliott referred to at the press conference as ‘folk art’ (again understood as generalised to the point of meaninglessness), some high camp works, and others that deliberately embrace or emulate bad taste.

The most well known artist of the latter genre, Paul McCarthy, is represented by Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift 2 (2010), which looks unfinished and rather scrappy, even for McCarthy. It is a work assembled from various clay moulds of doll-like faces and liberal sprays of that hideous urethane foam substance—known in hardware circles as ‘space invader’. The work lacks the kick and wit of McCarthy’s better work.

Of the camp and kitsch works, Ming Wong’s Life and Death in Venice (2010), a remake of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, is one of the most engaging. In this video, the artist plays both Gustav von Aschenbach and his love object Tadzio. Visits to various exhibits in the Venice Biennale are included amongst the more familiar tableaux of Tadzio’s allure and von Aschenbach’s longing from Luchino Visconti’s filmic version of the novel.

The second part of the Biennale’s title: ‘Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’ is a quotation from one of the artists in the exhibition, Harry Smith. This quotation has led to two sub-themes: works with song and dance on the one hand, and works about the survival of indigenous peoples, folk traditions, cultures and languages on the other. Of these two themes, song and dance seems better served by the selection of works. My particular favourite in the song and dance category is the film Tower Songspiel (2010), by the Russian collective Chto Delat (translating as What is to be done?), which was shown at the close of the first day of the Biennale symposium. There is another video by the collective in the exhibition, Perestroika Songspiel (2008), that is the standout work at Artspace. This film uses an operatic form, complete with a chorus, to show the reactions of various archetypal figures, or ‘heroes’ as they are called (a feminist, a democrat, a revolutionary, a business man, a nationalist), to a key episode that occurred during Perestroika in the Soviet Union. Another work in the song and dance category, the film installation by Western Australian duo, Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont, Lament of the Argentine Military (2010), is oddly flat and lacks the high level of wit and romantic mockery that I have seen in some of their previous works.

There are two videos about disappearing languages, Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie (2007-08) and Joy Gregory’s Gomera (2010), both of which conclude with the same or similar lists of extinct languages and those that are under threat or disappearing. While this is an immensely interesting topic, these are not especially engaging or interesting works. Hiller’s work consists of a projected black screen with subtitles to translate her assemblage of archival sounds and twenty-four etchings of the sound pattern of various words and phrases in different languages. The dead-pan presentation style that served her so well in previous works, like the J-Street Project (2002-2005) or After the Freud Museum (1995), in this work is unable to convey the gravity of this issue or to evoke the feelings of tragedy and loss one might expect to be aroused. It is an instance of what I would call ‘aboutism’, where the issue is more interesting than the art.

The issue of cultural survival is, on the whole, not well served by David Elliott’s selection of works. Even a sympathetic audience deeply committed to cultural survival, indigenous rights and indigenous politics, still needs to be engaged, stimulated or provoked by the art that addresses these issues. Perhaps the problem is the restrictive way in which cultural survival is articulated. On the Biennale website, David Elliott presents his explanation for his selection of indigenous and diasporic artists, in this way:

 First Peoples and Fourth Worlds refers to the work of both first and diasporic peoples who have survived suppression and marginalisation. Disdained and persecuted by modernity, these peoples have maintained traditional frameworks for looking at culture and the world, which have nevertheless been strongly affected by this interaction. They are also finding new aesthetic languages that are not based on any sense of marginality to express themselves.

It is interesting to consider whose work actually fits this description and whose does not. Certainly, history and traditions are central concerns in strong works by indigenous artists in the exhibition, such as the large scale photographs of life casts by New Zealand artist Fiona Pardington and the complex oral histories assembled by the Canadian video artist, Dana Claxton. Their powerful works, however, do not suggest the maintenance of a ‘traditional framework’, an expression which invokes a rather static approach to experience and history.

If we consider the work of the British artist Steve McQueen, Elliott’s framework is even less fitting. McQueen’s film Gravesend (2007) while clearly concerned with labour conditions in an unnamed African country could hardly be described as maintaining a traditional African framework for looking at the world. The video, in fact, deliberately withholds both the name of the place in which it is filmed and the nature of the activity shown in cramped almost claustrophobic close-up. All we can discern is a very labour-intensive process of extracting some kind of mineral. McQueen’s recent film on hunger strikes in Northern Ireland during the years of the Troubles takes him even further away from the domain of identity politics that Elliott outlines as the province of diasporic artists.

To sum up, then, the theme ‘the beauty of distance: songs of survival in a precarious age’ splinters into an incoherent mass of disconnected topics: beauty (and rather a lot of kitsch), distance, song and dance, and the survival of languages, people and cultures. There are nonetheless some strong individual works in the exhibition, if not an overarching framework that offers food for thought. 

notes: 

1. Walter Benjamin, ‘The author as producer’, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, p.304.

2. Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse, Da Capo, New York, 1992, p.185.

The 17th Biennale of Sydney was exhibited from 12 May to 1 August 2010, across seven venues: Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Pier 2/3, Cockatoo Island, Artspace, Royal Botanic Gardens, and Sydney Opera House.

Dr Susan Best is a lecturer in the School of Art History and Art Education at the University of New South Wales.