Rhetorical Gestures: The 18th Biennale of Sydney

Veronica Tello

Reviews / 07.09.2012

Jorge Macchi, Blue Planet, 2003, collage on paper, 30 x 30cm. Photograph: Mark Ritchie. Courtesy the artist and Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago de Compostela

The 18th Biennale of Sydney, curated by Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, was an attempt to produce, in the curators’ words, a ‘groundbreaking’ show.1 Entitled ‘all our relations’, the biennale proposed a ‘new model of art’2 that mobilised an enhanced attentiveness to ‘how things connect, how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit’.3 Reflecting on the intensification of globalisation and environmentalism, de Zegher and McMaster’s biennale was hinged on the notion that contemporary artists are increasingly interested in generating affective, affirmative and ethical relations with nature and amongst human subjects.4 Rejecting modernist and avant-gardist strategies for producing social change, such as alienation and negation, the curators invited artists to contribute works that would instead involve the audience – through conversation, participation, interaction or other means – and further stressed the role of ‘collaboration’ and ‘dialogue’ by encouraging artists to find ways for their works to ‘relate’ to the works with which they would be exhibited.5 While de Zegher and McMaster’s curatorial discourse and methodology clearly intended to draw out a new paradigm for thinking our social and environmental relations, for the most part, the 18th Biennale of Sydney resulted in a conceptually and aesthetically flat exhibition.6

Nadia Myre, The Scar Project, 2005-ongoing, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, the 18th Biennale of Sydney, 2012. Photograph: Alan Wiener. Courtesy the artist and Art Mûr, Montreal

In part, the disappointment with the biennale was bound to the overdetermination of the curators’ (and at times the artists’) claims that the artworks could mend what Nicolas Bourriaud once called, in his categorisation of relational aesthetics, the broken ‘social bond’.7 At the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the biennale’s three major venues, Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project (2009), which the artist describes as an ‘interactive conceptual installation’,8 was positioned as a keynote work of the exhibition. It invited the audience to bring a garment that requires mending to the artist, who uses the situation as a means to enter into a dialogue with the audience. As the curators argue, Lee ‘brings people together in communal encounters […] He initiates not only the mending of wear and tear of their garments, but, by implication, of the social fabric itself.’9 The strategy of mending, and other unconvincing metaphors about the potential of sewing to heal wounds and connect individuals, pervaded the biennale. At the second key venue, Cockatoo Island, Nadia Myre’s The Scar Project (2005–ongoing) invited visitors to stitch representations of their scars, whether ‘physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual’, on small squares of stretched canvas.10 Meanwhile, also at Cockatoo Island, Erin Manning’s Stitching Time – A Collective Fashioning (2012) presented an enveloping, participatory, installation comprising hundreds of pieces of fabric conjoined through magnets and buttons: visitors were invited to work with the fabric and re-compose the ‘architecture’ of the space, in addition to sitting and drinking tea. Like The Mending Project, such artworks, with their penchant for facile analogies and glib statements about social ‘transformation’, failed to generate convincing or compelling ideas vis-à-vis their purported concerns with ‘human interrelations’.11

Hassan Sharif, Suspended Objects, 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view, 18th Biennale of Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2012. Photograph: Ben Symons. Courtesy the artist and The Flying House, Dubai

While parts of the biennale were dedicated to exploring such ‘human interrelations’, others were explicitly dedicated to raising awareness about our relation with the natural environment. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the third major venue of the biennale, Hasan Sharif’s installation Objects (1985–2009) presented a series of sculptures made from consumer goods and discarded industrial elements the artist had found and collected in Dubai over the past three decades. Through its inventory of disparate objects, Sharif’s installation traced the cultural transformations that had taken place in the United Arab Emirates from its founding in the early 1970s to the present. Some of Sharif’s sculptures offered stunning re-arrangements of consumer and industrial products, while others produced a heavy-handed critique of consumer waste. Sharif’s Slippers and Wire (2009), a pile of thong factory cast-offs that was presented at the gallery exit, appeared as an overly pronounced final reminder of unsustainable practices. Meanwhile a range of artworks – from Phil Hasting’s Steadfast (2009) to Adam Cvijanovic’s The River (2012), Jorge Macchi’s Blue Planet (2003) and Guido Van der Werve Nummer Acht: everything is going to be alright (2007) – offered various ways to engage the aesthetics of climate change and finite water resources. The most effective – and understated – of these was Macchi’s collage Blue Planet, which, like much of the artist’s work, takes the shape of a fictional atlas: this one shows a clumsily assembled image of a globe from which landmasses have been excised, though it still bears the outlines of the earth’s various continents and islands. Van der Werve’s large-scale single channel video installation Nummer Acht presented a captivating scenario: the artist walking on ice sheets in the Gulf of Bothnia, the northernmost part of the Baltic Sea, slowly trailed by an enormous icebreaker. But this work was ill-positioned in a corner of one of the galleries at AGNSW, in which the lighting needed to be turned down while the barely audible soundtrack – always crucial in Van der Werve’s work – needed to be turned up. Otherwise, Nummer Acht appeared to be, potentially, quite mesmerising.

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

Since the 2008 edition of the biennial, the more ambitious, often large-scale works have usually been shown at Cockatoo Island, a Commonwealth Heritage site and former nineteenth-century prison and shipbuilding yard, located fifteen minutes away from Sydney’s iconic harbour.12 For the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev exploited the oft-eerie ambience and large-scale architecture of the island and its historical buildings to produce some remarkable exhibitions.13 For instance, in one of the island’s decrepit buildings, strewn with buckets of the artist’s urine, Mike Parr installed his deeply unsettling site-specific work, Mirror/Arse (2008) comprising a series of video projections of Parr’s visceral performances from the 1970s onward. In another building, viewers could experience the exquisite site-specific video installations by William Kentridge I am not me, the horse is not mine and What will come (has already come) (both 2008). For the 2010 Biennale of Sydney artistic director David Elliot made similar good use of the island’s architecture, premiering Isaac Julien’s expansive nine-channel video installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010) in one of the island’s warehouses. Its multi-screen immersive environment transposed viewers into a volatile and deeply affective visual landscape of heterogenous images bound to Chinese history, mythology, identity and modernisation. To an extent, with regard to their curatorial choices for Cockatoo Island, de Zegher and McMaster showed a similar degree of sensitivity and ingenuity. Fujiko Nakaya was commissioned to produce one of her spectacular, ephemeral, fog installations, Living Chasm – Cockatoo Island (2012), which intermittently covered one of the island’s cliff faces, evoking the aesthetics of the Romantic sublime. And in the turbine hall of the island’s former shipyard, Peter Robinson installed an impressive large-scale polystyrene sculpture, Snow Ball Blind Time (2008), which through its lightness and materiality playfully inverted tropes of Minimalist art, in particular Richard Serra’s monumental Cor-Ten steel sculptures. But Nakaya and Robinson’s compelling installations did not make up for the plethora of dull works that dominated the remainder of Cockatoo Island.

Fujiko Nakaya, Living Chasm – Cockatoo Island, 2012, water-fog, SUS foglines with 1000 nozzles, high-pressure pump and motor system, four electro-magnetic ball valves, anemometer and timer control system. Installation view, 18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island. 2012. Photograph: Sebastian Kriete. Courtesy the artist

Peter Robinson, Gravitas Lite, 2012, polystyrene, dimensions variable. Installation view, 18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island, 2012. Photograph: Sebastian Kriete. Courtesy the artist; Sutton Gallery, Melbourne; Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland; and Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

More than any other venue, Cockatoo Island suffered from lazy interpretations of the biennial’s theme of ‘all our relations’. Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground (2010–11), for example, comprised of ‘interactive fronds, filters and whiskers’14 which lit up and moved around the audience, offered some viewers the delight of encountering a responsive ‘living’ artwork.15 Yet, to this viewer, Hylozoic Ground and a range of other interactive works featured at Cockatoo Island – from Dan Roosegarde’s Dune (2007–11) to Li Hongbo’s Ocean of Flowers (2012) – echoed the inadequacies of The Mending Project, The Scar Project and Stitching Time and presented little more than obvious and feeble metaphors about the role that art can play in eliciting audience participation and interaction – and in turn, a sense of inclusion.16

Bouchra Khalili, Mapping Journey #5, 2010, video, 11min. Installation view, 'You have been there', Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, 2011-12. Photograph: Marc Domage. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Polaris, Paris

Some of the strongest works in the biennial were those that emphasised the singularity of particular subjective experiences – of migration and colonisation, for example – and refused to advance any simplistic notions of inclusion or ‘commonality’. At AGNSW, Bouchra Khalili’s eight-screen video installation, The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11), offered eight (looping) documentations of refugee journeys from Northern Africa and Afghanistan to Europe. Khalili’s aim was to draw an ‘alternative map of the Mediterranean’ which distorted normative cartographies and mapped clandestine journeys. Each screen presents an identical frame: a colour paper atlas focused on the Mediterranean and central Europe, and a man’s hand holding a black or red marker. Yet, they all have different audio tracks, played through headphones, in which a refugee verbalises the chronology and details of his particular journey. As the eight stories unfold, each hand traces a different itinerary over the identical background. Khalili’s work is essentially about the act of documenting minor histories, which are then offered to the viewer for witnessing. But this is not done on the assumption that the stories will find a common ground between the refugee subject and the viewer (as the curators would argue). Rather, like other effective works in the Biennale – such as Postcommodity’s Do You Remember When? (2009) – The Mapping Journey Project stresses the inherent modes of inequality that exist in a globalised, neo-liberal, society while calling on, though never assuming, the possibility of empathy or affinity.

While the 18th Biennale of Sydney presented a range of intriguing and evocative artworks, it was blighted by deeply exaggerated claims about art’s capacity to mobilise social change. The curators (and some artists) relentlessly insisted that art can generate a set of ethical relations – such as empathy, inclusion or sustainability – through the symbolic gestures of weaving and sewing, or by engaging viewers in interactive and participatory works. Such a premise left much room for sceptics, such as myself, to question the seemingly simple and direct relationship between art (and aesthetics) and politics. Aesthetics, of course, plays a role in re-imagining or reconfiguring our conceptions of everyday life and politics, but this is different from claiming that the nexus of participation, interaction and art is implicitly that of a better, more democratic, world.

  1. The curators made this statement at the media preview for the Biennale, 26 June 2012, Museum of Contemporary Art (author’s notes).

  2. Catherine de Zegher, ‘Arc Are Ark Arm Art...Act!’, 18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations (exh. cat., ed. C. de Zegher and Gerald McMaster), Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 2011, p.101.

  3. C. de Zegher and G. McMaster, ‘all our relations’, ibid., p. 49

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid. C. de Zegher also discussed their methodological approach in those terms during a public conversation with Elizabeth Ann Macgregor held at the Museum of Contemporary Art on 5 July 2012 (author’s notes).

  6. Curiously there is no mention of Nicolas Bourriaud’s ideas, the now general term ‘relational aesthetics’ or Grant Kester’s work on dialogical aesthetics in the curators’ catalogue essays. See Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004; Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002.

  7. In invoking the notion of the broken ‘social bond’ I refer to Bourriaud’s argument that art has the capacity to work against the alienating effects of capitalism and create a space for social conviviality, co-existence, interactivity and so on. See N. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, op. cit., p.9

  8. Lee Mingwei, ‘Lee Mingwei’ (artist’s statement) 18th Biennale of Sydneyop. cit., p.281

  9. C. de Zegher, ‘Arc Are Ark Arm Art...Act!’, ibid., p.115

  10. Nadia Myre, ‘Nadia Myre’ (artist’s statement), ibid., p.286

  11. See ibid. and Erin Manning, ‘Erin Manning’ (artist’s statement), ibid., p.285

  12. The shipping yard existed from 1847 to 1992; the convict jail functioned from 1839 to 1869 and 1888 to 1908. See C. de Zegher, ‘Arc Are Ark Arm Art...Act!’, ibid., p.131

  13. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev inaugurated Cockatoo Island into the Sydney Biennale programme.

  14. G. McMaster, ‘Ntotemuk: Commonalities among Great Differences’, ibid., p.309

  15. As McMaster argues, ‘Beesley’s built environments […] address the subject/object relationship in such a confounding way because the so-called objects are now responding to human presence, thus giving the work almost subject status. When we come into contact with his work – with all its highly integrated systems of interactive fronds, filters and whiskers, built around an intricate lattice of transparent acrylic links – it appears to come to life.’ G. McMaster, ibid.p. 309.

  16. Indeed, Dune, a row of black rods with luminous tips which audiences were encouraged to touch, moved McMaster to make some startling claims about the potential of interactive art: ‘Installations such as Dune have the capacity to engage everyone in a way that is both fun and meaningful. Fun, in the sense that its interactivity allows viewers to touch, and meaningful in that it evokes a response whereby we are touched.’ G. McMaster, ibid., p.308.