All Our Relations

18th Biennale of Sydney
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Museum of Contemporary Art, Pier 2/3, Cockatoo Island
27 June - 16 September 2012

‘All Our Relations’the 18th Biennale of Sydney, was the brainchild of collaborators Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster. They brought together the work of more than one hundred artists from over forty-four countries to serve their curatorial concept of collectivity and connection. Their Biennale ‘focuses on inclusionary practices of generative thinking, such as collaboration, conversation and compassion, in the face of coercion and destruction’.1 It was avowedly opposed to catastrophe theory, fragmentation and isolation of the individual and, while some exhibits reflected destructive forces and social disruption, they did so to illuminate fraught situations, conveyed through often deeply affective storytelling. Acknowledging the current compulsion for connectivity and relation, this Biennale was above all democratic. It was about exchange, mutuality and accessibility.

Within this seemingly gentle, idealistic and non-bombastic framework, a multiplicity of practices was evident both from the mainstream and the so-called periphery. Knowing that over the course of the twentieth century, projects happening in the margins have come to shape the mainstream (feminism, for instance) and that countries hardly registering in linear accounts of art history have come into common alignment with those which have a firm place within it, de Zegher and McMaster chose artists from as wide a spectrum as, for instance, Syria and Ghana, Canada and Thailand, the United States and The Netherlands, China and Spain, Uruguay and Britain, Australia, Sweden and South Korea. Mostly the work is recent and by living artists.

Several trajectories unfolded in this Biennale of ‘interconnectivity’, one being the realm of science, to which Philip Beesley’s spectacular Hylozoic Series: Sibyl (2012) belongs. Situated in one of the industrial spaces on Cockatoo Island, this wondrously spectral light-filled structure was fitted with sensors that reacted to movement by fanning delicate spine forms and activating sound as visitors walked around and underneath it. Understandably, this complex digitally fabricated work, with its microprocessors, relied upon a team of specialists from architecture, engineering, synthetic biology and music, to pull it off. The magic of the hanging pods, chains of glass vessels, neural system webs and feathered filter clusters moving close to the body drew many visitors who lingered in its orbit.

Similarly, Ed Pien’s (with Tanya Tagaq) white tissue-like paper and clear acetate corridors enclosed the visitor in a spiral that engendered a sense of lightness and wonder at the glistening unfurling matrix of ocean with marine life and rain-borne air. Source (2012) was delicate and sensually immersive. It was aesthetically linked with Monika Grzymala’s exquisite paper river in the Island’s Turbine Hall. A skilled papermaker herself, the German-based artist collaborated with Indigenous women artists from The Euraba Artists and Papermakers collective near Goondiwindi. They made the thousands of oval-shaped paper sheets from discarded cotton fibre. These were hung by fishing line from the ceiling. The undulating, flowing shape of The River (2012) was a response to land and to Aboriginal spirituality; a gesture of remembering (the communities’ traditional lands had been taken over for cotton farming).

Also at Cockatoo Island, Maria Fernanda Cardoso and Ross Harley took on the phallus as their subject, looking at it from an evolutionary biology perspective, and using the fascinating example of insects, more particularly the Tasmanian Harvestman. Through their greatly enlarged sculptural copies of the tiniest genital organs, it was possible to appreciate the considerable difference between the phallic shapes of these species in their museum-like vitrines and wonder at our own tendency to generalise a reading of the phallic. This Museum of Copulatory Organs (2012) found a relation with Cristina Iglesias’s studies of water, in two chest high containers which filled and emptied cyclically, as though emulating the womb/earth; although the work felt uncomfortably ‘out of time’ with its obvious imagery of the void and cast metal vegetation.

Materiality, meaning the handmade and tactile, was a strong element of this exhibition. The engagement of many hands that was evident in The River was also in Erin Manning’s Stitching Time – A Collective Fashioning (2012), based on the humble sewing circle. Collective participation, in a relational aesthetics sense, occurred with this project, as individuals shared experiences while they stitched textile fragments (some working across pieces), draped them on cords or piled them up as bright aggregates. Less liable to serendipity, Lee Mingwei created The Mending Project with participants in mind. Walls at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) were mapped with spools of coloured thread, and filaments from each coalesced at a workstation where garments, brought in by visitors, were stitched and mended. Embedded in the everyday, this project assumed a much larger perspective when the threads came to look like maps of migratory movements of people.

The inventive wall-based assemblages of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui connected the local with the global. Where once the metallic detritus with logos would have been used for making toys and utensils, here in Anonymous Creature (2009) and Afor (2010) he, in effect, created a continent and a communal cloth of recycled liquor bottle tops and milk lids. These had been gathered from rubbish tips and flattened, with his compatriots helping to prepare the glittering pieces for hinging together in sensuous undulating folds. The wall assemblages spoke of a past where Europeans brought alcohol to Africa for barter, and how in time it was exchanged for slaves. Robust works on paper by Nicholas Hlobo, including Tyaphaka (2011), have emerged from South Africa’s Xhosa culture and through their fluid organic forms (tea stains and dripped watercolour with machine stitching), they also evoked a type of landmass, albeit one which is eroticized and troubled by disease.

Flexible honeycomb paper made up the ornamental Ocean of Flowers by Li Hongbo. On first acquaintance, the floor expanse of rainbow coloured shapes was simply festive. Yet when they were collapsed at random by visitors, the artist’s intention became clear; each proved to be the shape of a weapon of war. The same interactive premise and optimistic range of hues (this time in line with ‘peace’), contributed to Tiffany Singh’s wind chimes at Pier 2/3. Suspended by shiny ribbons from the high ceiling, they became an avenue one could walk through while activating sound. Despite intentions to take Knock on the Sky Listen to the Sound (2011) to a more profound level of understanding, it basically served as a playful interlude.

The early 1970s paintings by David Aspden would seem out of kilter in a show such as this, yet they are ‘colour-scapes’, jigsaw-mapped as with Zahir (1971), or more informal as with Nebula (1972). They have a kinship with Tim Johnson’s paintings in the Biennale, particularly Rainbow Serpent, Water and Possum Dreaming (1986, collaborators Astrid Mednis and Michael Nelson Jagamara). Both Johnson’s works on show here were made in collaboration with Tibetan and Aboriginal artists. To match them I would have thought a few other artists, especially those pursuing platforms of collectivity and connection in their work, should have been present. Participatory artists like Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica from the 1960s, Fluxus artists like Alison Knowles, as well as projects with a social bias from the 1990s in Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Thailand) are apposite. There are of course other examples. It was a lost opportunity to revive and show alternative histories of art, outside of the elite, that are instructive for the present focus on relations. Maybe an essay in the catalogue could have taken this up?

The related mythologies of the Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent and Chinese Dragon inspired Liu Zhuoquan with his Two-Headed Snake (2011). Just as Beesley’s Sibyl (as well as Peter Robinson’s huge polystyrene blocks with chains, Gravitas Lite) acted as a focus for visitors at Cockatoo Island, this room-size event enthralled those at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Here, hundreds of discarded glass vessels were skillfully painted inside with black snakes, their scales evident through the bottles. A key to taking this work further than sheer wizardry of technique was provided by a small painting by Liu’s Tibetan colleague Gade hanging nearby. Its procession of Buddha figures with commodity items pointed to the fading of religious belief. Elsewhere, Gade’s small photograph Iced Buddha (2006) was specifically intended to refer to the melting Himalayan glaciers and impending human catastrophe. Such modest and subtle statements were among the most potent in the Biennale.

Take, for instance, the Blue Planet (2003) of Jorge Macchi, in which the world map has been emptied of land leaving a planet of oceans, foretelling the ultimate effects of climate change. And Yuken Teruya’s paper bags transformed into trees with crisp titles, such as Notice – Forest: Chanel (2006), and his most recent Constellation (2012) where black paper bags were pierced through to create a galaxy. Then there were the engrossing figure drawings on cigarette papers by Ricardo Lanzarini from Uruguay which, in their dark character, are like those from a Beckett play, trapped together in mazes of social predicament. Also at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the delicate photosynthetic chlorophyll prints on leaves of Vietnamese Binh Danh, each depicted archival images of lost figures from the Vietnam-American War, as though they are embedded in the natural environment. The scroll painting The Three Gorges Dam Migration (2009), in traditional Chinese style by Yun-Fei Ji, commented on the displacement of millions of Chinese rural dwellers through a parallel ghost-like, as much as factual, manner. These all were testaments to precarious lives and situations, some very recent, conveyed, story-like, by exquisite means.

With asylum seekers at the forefront of our news, Bouchra Khalili’s films for The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) were particularly apposite. Khalili asked eight migrants to draw their journeys on maps and recorded their stories. In each film, a single hand holding a felt tip pen traced the circuitous route each took from one part of the Mediterranean to another. The work was first shown at the 10th Sharjah Biennial in 2011, where viewers sat and got close to the small screens projecting the films. However the larger projections in Sydney allowed for a collective and immersive experience. Equally sobering, in terms of human survival, is The Living Are Few But The Dead Are Many (2012), the project Thai artist Arin Rungjang collaborated on with potters and orphaned children in Rwanda, following the genocide that occurred in that country. Through creating pots, which were displayed on shelves in the exhibition, the children were encouraged to evaluate their lives afresh and maybe take the project their own way. The symbolism of the simple clay vessel links, of course, to the earth in a universal sense, but on a micro level it stresses individual engagement with the handmade and with self-determination. While the example of Rirkrit Tiravanija is usually given in instances of exchange, pleasingly this Biennale has not brought out ‘the usual suspects’ in its choice of artists.

The precariousness of our environment and consequences for humankind is implicit in many of the works. Acting as an urgent wake-up call is the film in which Guido van der Werve has a solitary figure walking in front of a colossal icebreaker (shades of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989), while the photographs by Subhankar Banerjee catch glimpses of the caribou migration in the Arctic Circle, where herds of pregnant females make their annual trek over oil rich terrain and, hence, are potentially endangered. Pinaree Sanpitak, with her ceiling installation of glass breast-shapes scattered within origami paper forms, brought a sense of foreboding which was heightened by the accompanying sound track, as though the glass might well shatter on those below.

Once there would have been few, if any, Thai women artists in a Sydney Biennale, yet this exhibition takes gender seriously. Continuities between past and present come through in Phaptawan Suwannakudt’s series of hangings, Not for Sure (2012). The iconography of an Australian suburban house, an elephant, and palimpsests of Thai writing speak of an immigrant experience in this country. Instead of one grand narrative, mural painting, as she was used to making under her father’s mentorship, here was a more intimate statement of her cultural ‘in-between-ness’ living in Australia.

While this is only a partial review, with just some of the one hundred artists mentioned, and none of the Biennale’s performances or talks, there are two works, by Yeesookyung and Park Young-Sook respectively, that repay special attention. The first is a ceramic globe, Translated Vase, where Park’s failed and broken moon jars have been recycled into a large composite sphere by Yeesookyung, the pieces fused together with gold. It stood in a room at the MCA, at one with the twelve white vases of Park nearby, each a slightly different humanoid shape symbolising a month of the year; classically poised, they collectively were one of the most beautiful and thoughtful collaborations in the show. 

Monika Grzymala and Euraba Artists and Papermakers, The River, 2012. Cotton rag paper, branches, grass and vine. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists in collaboration with Boolarng Nangamai. 

Yeesookyung, Translated Vase-The moon, 2008. Park Young-Sook's ceramic shards, epoxy, polyresin, stainless steel, 24k gold leaf, 145 x 145 x 155cm. Courtesy the artist and GALLERY HYUNDAI, Seoul, and (background) Park Young-Sook, Moon Jar, 2012. Porcelain, 12 jars, approximately 60 x 58cm each. Courtesy the artist and GALLERY HYUNDAI, Seoul. 

Ed Pien with Tanya Tagaq, Source, 2012. Paper, mylar, rope, sound and video, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. 

Guido van der Werve, Nummer Acht: Everything is going to be alright, 2007. Video, 10:10mins, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photograph Ben Geraerts. 

notes: 

1. Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, ‘All Our Relations’, All our relations: 18th Biennale of Sydney, ex. cat., p.49.