19th Biennale of Sydney

Wed, 06/08/2014 - 04:22 -- eyeline
You imagine what you desire

So we met as suspicious strangers, circling our artistic territories guardedly and not letting the other one come too close. Our stage has become the middle ground; our contested terrain where contingency and circumstance have made us trespass unprotected and in full view of the watching flanks of our own and each other’s respective disciplines.

Event For A Stage, Tacita Dean


The 40th anniversary of the Biennale of Sydney has, indeed, become a watershed, although not in the way that the event launch, at the Sydney Opera House on 30 October 2013, may have envisaged. This special briefing drew attention to the conjunction between the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Opera House, a month prior to the launch of the first Biennale of Sydney, also in 1973. While this international art exhibition was conceived by Franco Belgiorno-Nettis (then head of Transfield) to explore, ‘The promise of global dialogue through art’,1 the 19th Biennale event was pushed, by nine of the ninety-three invited artists, to accept the withdrawal of founding sponsor Transfield.2 This ultimately successful action kicked off a debate about arts funding in Australia that in its tenor and tone (on both sides of the issue), was at odds with the spirit of dialogue—global or local. The withdrawal of Transfield two weeks prior to the 21 March opening meant that the 19th Biennale of Sydney opened with seven of the nine protesting artists exhibiting.3 Questions remain about the significant Transfield contribution to the 2014 exhibition and it was left, rather like Dean’s contested terrain, in an uneasy space—with a ceasefire negotiated for the event. It seems clear that the debate is not over, amidst a period of fiscal restraint and funding cuts to the arts on a nationwide basis, and other sponsorship arrangements being targeted by artists nationally to highlight issues of social and environmental concern in Australia. The loss of the Belgiorno-Nettis family to the Biennale is particularly poignant given the paucity of committed art philanthropic partnerships in Australia and the difficulty in replacing this personal and corporate support of over four decades.

The poetic nature of the theme developed for this year’s event, and its collective spirit, seemed muted by the politics cast over it, a pity for artistic director/curator Juliana Engberg’s call to summon the collective imagination with the imperative, ‘You Imagine What You Desire’. Her words are borrowed from The Serpent in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1921), who said, ‘Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire; you will what you imagine; and at last you create what you will’.4 The three invocations were broadcast in a series of neon signs from Scottish artist Nathan Coley at three of the five venues, as a reminder of the middle ground between audience and artist that the artistic space may occupy. Of Engberg’s curatorial helix, she wrote, ‘… [it] combines, in entwining activity, our capacity to consider what is possible, yet not to be able to grasp, or even know it completely… Art is desire, active desiring!’5

Engberg’s ‘itineraries of encounter’ and the curatorial choices made for her exhibition were influenced by the flavour of each venue. Cockatoo Island, where the art often struggles to compete with the dominating natural and industrial heritage of the site, became the trope of the ‘island’ (in its sense as a destination or a fantasy); the Museum of Contemporary Art an ‘air/water venue’; the Art Gallery of New South Wales an ‘earth/fire space’; Carriageworks reflected its heritage (and facilities) as a film studio and a theatrical and performative area; and the smallest venue, Artspace, was designed to draw together art around the whimsy and freedom of flight.

The framework for artworks from the ninety-one artists, including nineteen Australians, was about seduction. Whether or not each venue carried the theme as convincingly as Engberg outlined is arguable. While the venues comprised, this year, manageable chunks of art experience, like any Biennale on this scale, the journey is an act of enduring concentration. The avalanche of available impressions, sensations and experiences had a necessarily varied impact, with the art responding to the theme to a greater or lesser extent and, given its often site specific nature, with varying success.

While there were individual highlights, it was in the performative and theatrical aspects of the program that the imaginative possibilities of the theme were most effectively conceived and delivered. The public programs were rolled out during the launch, the Middle Program, with a finale for the End. A Long Program of films screened throughout the exhibition season.

The Middle Program included a one-day forum on 3 May at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. ‘The Amorous Procedure’ introduced ideas from recent brain science relating to the physiological reception of art. Neuroplasticity was extended into the quantifiable ability of art and beauty to engage areas of the brain, to push at the boundaries of the individual’s emotions and psyche, and the lingering impact of ambiguity and the power of art when its resolution lies with the viewer. The prompt and promise of art, its basis in particular areas of the brain, was extended by neuroscience in this program and merged ‘hard’ science into theory in a refreshing and engaging manner.

The appeal that lies in ambiguity, and art’s ability to host the discursive space within the ambit of individual experience was harnessed in Tacita Dean’s first theatrical work, also shown as part of the Biennale’s Middle Program.6 Dean is a Berlin-based filmmaker and photographer, probably best known as one of the YBAs. Her forty-five minute Event for A Stage evoked and referred to the mutually agreed protective membrane between artist and audience. It traced lucidly the gaps between the artist’s intention, the role of the actor and the reservations of both parties in this experimental exploration, and provided a singular portrait of our uneasy relationship with contemporary art. Art may induce a physical sensation (like that of falling in love), with the similar requirement for suspension of disbelief. While contemporary art may rupture or use other means to penetrate that space, the audience may also resist such surrender.

The final event by Henrik Hakansson which unifies orchestral music, performance and voice, is to take place in the cavernous spaces of Pier 2/3, and as such promises another experimental, experiential possibility.

In terms of the venues, Cockatoo Island read a little thin, not sufficiently nourished by the artists to step up to its attributes. In recent years it has been the most memorable of venues, but this year the sense of the art industry as a theme park was disappointingly reinforced with Callum Morton’s ghost train-inspired experience using the Dog-Leg Tunnel through the core of the island. Despite its siting and the dark ambience of the space, the ‘surprises’ within The Other Side (2014) came across as lame and half-hearted.

The turbine shop, in previous years including artworks that were a highlight of the Island, was dominated by a technologically produced waterfall, Eva Koch’s I AM THE RIVER (2012). While it spoke to the sublime, it added little to the encounter. Stranger and more wonderful was the live performance in the same space by Tori Wrånes. Her Norwegian heritage was tangible and exotic in the strange and compulsive Stone and Singer (2014), a voice-driven performance where sound across the spectrum was meshed with a seamless other-worldly (neither human nor animal) presence, as she faced off a boulder that swung inexorably, pendulum like, toward her.

Amongst the strongest artworks were Australian Michael Cook’s Majority Rule (2014) photographic series at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. These imagine an alternative reality, a world where to be indigenous is to be in the majority (with the unwritten reminder that a monoculture is dangerous—under any circumstances). Adjacent to this in a lovely curatorial segue was Yhonnie Scarce’s laboratory installation. Weak in Colour But Strong in Blood (2013-14), allowed the viewer to wander within chilling, white-coat territory with organs, in blown glass, black, white and grey specimens, alternately squeezed and held by stainless steel instruments.

Another wince-making experience was Mircea Cantor’s HD video, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (2012/2013). A lit fuse progressed across a circle of prostrate figures, an analogy for truth, acceptance, and a fatalistic cycle of life. The reflection of the lit fuse in the iris of the conductor/protagonist, like a prolonged glint in the eye, crystallised the translation of the title, ‘thus passes the glory of the world’.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the seductive spectacle of botanical colour and movement on huge screens with Pipilotti Rist’s Mercy Garden Retour Skin (2014) and the opportunity to lie amongst the cushions in this large space made for visual respite, if not transformation. Upstairs, the emotional theatricality of Douglas Gordon’s Phantom (2011) used darkness, loud piano and voice, and a huge projected black-rimmed eye to elicit audience response—from confusion to surprise. Its depths were hypnotic.

Carriageworks’ installation-driven display had drama in its stage-set-like layout, with Daniel McKewen’s tireless Running Men (2008-14), sprinting like apparitions behind Gabriel Lester’s spookily frozen house, Where Spirits Dwell (2014). Ann Lislegaard’s Time Machine (2011) was compulsive in the fox’s urgent need to share his story from the future, coupled with viewer discomfort in its inability to coherently communicate.

Artspace was the smallest venue, and somewhat disappointing. Ugo Rondinone’s birds, scattered around on the floor, were quirky and charming, but other works (some of which were not functioning), provided little reward for effort.

The experiential nature of much contemporary art may be leading us increasingly into the performative territory where Engberg’s vision seems most potent. Her Biennale of Sydney ambition was immense, pointing to desire and its physical ramifications. It is a theme that captured the imagination and in the best examples crystallised the negotiated relationship between art and audience. The performative works, and those where the artist was a collaborator in her journey, remain with me. 

Pipilotti Rist, Mercy Garden Retour Skin, 2014. Six-channel HD video installation, sound, carpet, pillows. Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine. Music Heinz Rohrr. Atelier Rist Project Team Judith Lava, Antshi von Moos, Tamara Voser. Created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney and made possible through the generous support of Andrew Cameron Family Foundation. Photograph Ben Symons. 

Tori Wranes, Stone and Singer, 2014. Details, performance, voice and sculpture. Performance for the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) at Cockatoo Island. Created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney. This project was made possible through the generous support of SCANLAN THEODORE. Courtesy the artist. Photograph Sebastian Kriete. 

Mircea Cantor, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, 2012 and 2014. Detail. HD video, 4 mins, wall text written with dynamite blasting caps, dimensions variable. Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv and Magazzino, Rome. Sound Semantron of Putna Monastery. 

Daniel McKewen, Running Men, 2008-14. (video still) Five-channel HD video installation infinite loop. Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) at Carriageworks. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery Brisbane. Photograph Sebastian Kriete. 


1. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (then Chairman of the Biennale of Sydney Board), ‘Foreword’, You Imagine What You Desire: 19th Biennale of Sydney 2014, Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, 2014, p.23.

2. This was due to perceived links with Transfield Services, a company that, in part, is contracted to operate a detention centre for asylum seekers on Manus Island.

3. Two stayed with the boycott—Australians Gabrielle de Vietri and Charlie Sofo.

4. The Serpent, in George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah, Pt. I, Act I, 1921.

5. Juliana Engberg, ‘You Imagine What You Desire’, You Imagine What You Desire: 19th Biennale of Sydney 2014, op. cit., p.64.

6. Tacita Dean’s Event for A Stage was performed at Carriageworks, to full houses, between 1-4 May.

The 19th Biennale of Sydney was held at Carriageworks, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Cockatoo Island, Artspace and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney from 21 March to 9 June 2014.Louise Martin-Chew is a Brisbane-based art writer.

Louise Martin-Chew is a Brisbane-based art writer.