Expectations were rather high for the 21st Biennale of Sydney, largely resting on the fact that it was the first with an Asian curator. The designation ‘Asian’ is already too encompassing, but in any case the appointment of Mami Kataoka from the Mori Museum in Japan, suggested an interest in a different perspective from the years before, possibly a break from Euro-American inheritance, and a renewed examination of Australia in relation to its cultural and geographic position. Where previous Biennales have come under criticism for their flagrant populism, Kataoke’s wheezed under the weight of cultural gerrymandering, and of overemphasis of one artist over all others. North and South America were almost deleted, while the Japanese love affair with Francophone nations was kept well alive. From the perspective of previous Biennales, Australian artists fared better. But given the ongoing presence of Queensland’s Asia-Pacific Triennial, which was established precisely in order to narrow the cultural gap between Australia and its immediate neighbours, this Biennale exposed problems of what else there was to do in this sphere. In doing so, it repeated what is becoming an ever more looming question as to the effectiveness of international art festivals beyond tourism and entertainment.
If you chose not to consider this the elephant in the room, then this Biennale had another, in a far more literal sense, in Ai Weiwei. It is best to discuss him first if only as the publicity from both the Biennale itself and the outside gave the impression that he was the axis around which all the artists were expected to orbit. When he was arrested in China in 2011, his fame skyrocketed, giving his already saturated image the sanctified glow of martyrdom. Since being allowed to leave China in 2015, Ai has increasingly devoted himself to global, as opposed to Chinese political causes, making him without peer the global contemporary artist. He will throw himself with gusto into a political cause on an economy of scale unavailable to most artists. Put another way, he is officially the Jeff Koons of global political art.
As evidence of this, the crowning feature of this year’s Biennale was his sixty-metre long black inflatable lifeboat, filled with faceless robotic ciphers of the same material. Titled Law of the Journey (2017), it was set on a massive grey low-lying plinth on which were pasted, at regular intervals, quotes on loneliness and alienation, including several by Kafka. In an adjacent space was a row of televisions placed over stylised wallpaper of multiple, repeated snapshots by the artist of material related to the refugee crisis. One screen contained inexplicably banal footage of an inflatable life raft bobbing in the water, while another was a quasi-documentary on the artist. The latter was a key to the rest, which hid flagrant self-aggrandizement under the thin veil of altruism. In its scale and grandiosity, Ai’s work is arguably a model case of the yawning gulf between political commentary of artistic privilege and the dire circumstances themselves. It is one thing for an artist to speak on behalf of those with whom he identifies, it is yet another to take up a political cause, which in its gravity and urgency is bound to receive general approbation. Unfortunately there is not enough space to deal with Ai’s crystal ball or the opportunistically faux-empathetic film, first screened last year in Venice.
Once Ai was out of your system, you could turn to some of the more satisfying works on Cockatoo Island. One memorable work was by the Canberra-based artist Yasmin Smith, in a space perched high over the others on the upper level of the Island. Drowned River Valley (2018) was of three units: bent bone fragments, segments of weathered wood fragments, both laid out on the floor, and a lattice supporting a collection of cups, all made from ceramic. Against the wood floor and the cast iron walls, the work had a shrine-like quality that sought affinity with a traditional airy and disciplined Japanese aesthetic in its poetic response to the seasons and the elements. Apparently the artist had set herself a studio on the foreshore of the island where she cultivated the salts to make glazes for more cups, progressively adding to the collection. At a time when superfluous interactivity and performativity have reached saturation point, this last detail was neither here nor there. The work was enough.
If there was a noticeable quality distinct from previous Biennales it was the regular presence of the crafting or re-crafting of materials, and an emphasis on the physical qualities of form, colour and their arrangement. This was evident in Koji Ryui’s installation, Jamais Vu (2018), of a small forest of rearticulated glass objects made from glasses and other vessels, over which hung a sculpture made from repurposed wire. In the space nearby was the not-so-happy outcome by the Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, a configuration of everyday objects, suspended from the ceiling, that looked like the artist's impression of space junk. A Biennale is never complete without neo- or post-post-Dada work using ‘stuff’. The recommendations that this concatenation was inspired after an ancient Chinese philosopher does not alter it as art-school déjà vu.
The cosmological allusions of such works were no doubt attractive to what was for certain the most mystically opaque claims made by a curator in this Biennale’s history. The title, Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement, is itself something pretty challenging to contend with, but when one reads on in the guide (there is no catalogue) about ‘microscopic substances’, ‘waves and granular particles’, and ‘view of nature and the cosmos’, it is hard not to feel in the embrace of 1960s psychedelia. It is certainly easy to dodge the problems we face today with such nebulous abstractions, and safe to hide behind the less than comprehensible, because as Nelson Rockefeller once quipped about abstract painting, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
The highlight in what was otherwise a very cramped hand at Artspace was the enigmatic work by the Belgian Michaël Borremans. Known primarily as a painter, his installation consisted of vitrines of paintings, found photographs, and drawings, placed alongside small hand-made sculptural forms of pared down portrait busts, and two videos. Fading tantalisingly in and out was a still tableau of three men in white sitting still and slouched, while to its side alone on the wall, was a girl staring at her hands which rest on a surface from which her torso emerges. Together with this anomaly, the pale tones and the pictorial stylisation made it a mix between seventeenth century Flemish painting and science fiction. Periodically the girl moved, sighed, and rolled her eyes in apparent ennui, before resuming her pose. The obliqueness of all of this was of a very different kind from that expressed by Kataoka in her spiel. For this work had imaginative density that appeared to be part of the endless campaign of artists to explore mysteries, and the way that, in any lofty search, the banalities of life always tend to intervene.
Addressing migration in a temperate and personal way, the work by Chinese artist Jun Yang at Gallery 4A viewed the refugee crisis that began in 2015 through the lens of the artist’s own migration to Europe while still a child. Another effective socially engaged work was the video, CATPC–the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji (2018) by the collective Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) together with the Belgian-based hip-hop artist Baloji and filmmaker Renzo Martens. The collaboration is of course not by chance, with the Belgian Congo under Ludwig II a root cause of the present catastrophes facing that country. One part of the video is an allegorical love-story, told through richly iridescent-coloured scenes; other segments include historical footage of the slave labour on the plantations. It is an ambitious and multifaceted work that rewards the time spent viewing it. This was contrasted with the large suite of text-based drawings by Simryn Gill, who, in my opinion, seems to have ensured for herself a special space in art’s lipservice to postcolonialism. These were minimalist squares consisting of racist slurs by an Australian and a Malaysian politician. Like all such work committed to the establishment as opposed to the actual cause, it ensured that inflammatory content remained enshrined in a suitably innocuous form.
With the exception of Brook Andrew, who undertook a similar kind of postcolonial critique in a series of aesthetically overdetermined sculptures, the representation of Australian Indigenous artists was remarkable for its avoidance of clichés. Of poignant delight were Bidjigal elder Esme Timbery’s wall installation of baby folk-like slippers crafted from shells, their bright colours belying their elegy to feet and foot-traces lost. Also at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) was the procession of sculptures by the Yarrenyty Arltere artists’ collective. Soft and motley forms that shifted between totem, satire and play. These inclusions ensured that Indigenous painting, buoyed by the commercial market, did not maintain its habitual dominance. Yet the works by veteran George Tjungurrayi, who began painting at Papunya in 1976, were of a singularly high quality: hypnotic swirls, like the blasting of a sand storm, or the teeming energy of the Dreaming just beneath the earth’s surface.
Michaël Borremans, The Bread, 2012. Framed 17-inch LCD screen, HD video, 4 mins, continuous loop. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at Artspace. Photograph silversalt photography. Courtesy the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp
Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) with Baloji and Renzo Martens, CATPC – the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji, 2018. Video, 9 mins. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from the Mondriaan Fund. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph silversalt photography. Courtesy the artists
George Tjungurrayi, Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at Carriageworks. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from Geoff Ainsworth AM and Johanna Featherstone. Photograph silversalt photography. Courtesy the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.