19th Biennale of Sydney (Part 2)

April 19, 2014
Michael Cook, Majority Rule (Tunnel), 2014, inkjet print on paper, 98 x 140 cm or 140 x 200 cm.
Michael Cook, Majority Rule (Tunnel), 2014, inkjet print on paper, 98 x 140 cm or 140 x 200 cm.

In a dream I’m walking through a vast international exhibition with Juliana Engberg, director of the 19th Biennale of Sydney – You Imagine What You Desire. We both have notepads on which we list those works we find especially interesting. Strangely enough we never stop in front of the same work. The things I like, she walks straight past. Where she stops, I move on. It’s not a deliberate policy – it’s a reflection of instinctive differences.

At the end of the walk-through we compare notes. Juliana has listed 90 things, I’ve listed six, but those six are not included on her list. My attitude towards the work is skeptical – I feel I’ve seen most of it before. Much of it seems pretentious, dull or poorly executed. She has a contrary idea: there is a lot of exciting art here, a lot of important issues and ideas. It’s as if we’ve just seen totally different exhibitions.

Truth is stranger than fantasy, because I can hardly remember seeing a show on the scale of this year’s Biennale with so little visual interest. It’s not simply a question of taste: it’s more to do with the expectations one has from a work of art. It shouldn’t be easy to be included in a Biennale. The possible inclusions are almost limitless, and selection processes need to be rigorous.

Instead, this Biennale feels as if it has been selected along whimsical lines. If any reader can make sense of the rationale given in the catalogue introduction, I’d love to hear about it.

One imagines the curator waving her wand in the direction of a suppliant artist and saying: “Yes, you shall go to the ball!”

I’m sticking with my usual habit of devoting two columns to the Biennale, which is Sydney’s biggest, most important contemporary art event, but the show has not grown more enticing. All Biennale directors tend to favour artists with whom they have collaborated in the past, and Engberg is no exception, having already organised exhibitions by many of the local and international figures included in the show. If these artists produced exceptional work there would be no cause for complaint, but this is rarely the case.

Take Susan Norrie and Callum Morton, for instance. These artists are Engberg favourites whom she included in her selection for the 2007 Venice Biennale. They are back again with new pieces at Cockatoo Island, but neither measures up.

Norrie’s video, Dissent, shows ten minutes of amateurish footage of an anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo. That’s almost all there is to say about the work, which records the ongoing anger around the Fukushima disaster of 2011 and the mismanaged aftermath. This bland re-presentation of a demo doesn’t reveal any of the complexities of the nuclear debate in Japan, where the widespread distrust of atomic power didn’t prevent the election of a pro-nuclear government.

Anyone who visited last year’s Aichi Triennale in Nagoya would have marvelled at the way Japanese artists are responding to Fukushima – from a full-scale model of the nuclear plant transformed into traditional Japanese buildings by Katsuhiro Miyamoto; to a giant-sized action figure called Sun Child, by Kenji Yanobe. Fukushima was no less of a preoccupation in two museum exhibitions held in Tokyo at the same time. In comparison, Norrie’s video is completely lacking in imagination – a piece of soft propaganda for the anti-nuclear cause.

Callum Morton’s The Other Side is a typical work by an artist who always seems to have a promising idea but fails to deliver. When we get on this toy Ghost Train for a ride through a dark tunnel we don’t know what to expect. By the time we get off, after a very brief trip, we’ve heard a bit of eerie music and experienced some mist and lighting effects. That’s all folks! No self-respecting fun fair would have anything to do with such a dud ride.

Some items at Cockatoo Island are even harder to fathom. What was the point of including a three-minute video called Space-Girl Dance by Viennese artist, Marko Lulic, when the piece is five years old? That’s a long time for a teeny-weeny joke video clip to be hanging around on the Biennale circuit.

Lulic’s video is a spoof on the modernist sculptures that provide a backdrop for his space-age dancers. It is one of many Biennale works that parody earlier works of art, but this kind of humour is so cheap it’s almost shameful.

In another example, Hubert Czerepok at the Museum of Contemporary Art creates a spiralling neon sign that parodies Bruce Nauman’s already parodic The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (2012).

It would be much more challenging – and more enlivening for the viewer – if the director had included works that tried to make something memorable without the sneers. Sculptures by James Angus, Benjamin Armstrong, and even Ugo Rondinone’s tiny bronze birds at Artspace, all delight in their own self-conscious quirkiness – but quirkiness palls when there is nothing that strikes a more serious note. Even if there is nothing new under the sun, that doesn’t mean artists should stop trying to make works that engage our hearts and minds.

The MCA also features Aurelién Froment’s Tombeau de Ferdinand Cheval – a series of photos documenting the work of the great outsider artist who built his own fantasy palace in the French village of Hauterives. Cheval is a fascinating case but it’s symptomatic that we experience the work of a visionary artist only at one remove.

At last year’s Venice Biennale many of the top international curators expressed their displeasure at director, Massimiliano Gioni’s core exhibition because it included so many outsiders and folk artists. Engberg seems to be of a similar persuasion: let the outsiders be represented only through the appropriations of the insiders. It suggests the contemporary art scene is an exclusive club open only to those who show their allegiance to certain values – a facile political belonging, a professional ethic that recognises the mechanisms of celebrity and the marketplace, and a cynical relationship to the art of the past.

There is always a lot of fuss about how ‘passionate’ Biennale directors are about their work and about art in general, but there is not a lot of passion to be found in most of this year’s exhibits. The other great omission is the sense of spectacle.

Recent Biennales have included huge installations by artists such as William Kentridge, Isaac Julien, Cai Guo Qiang, AES + F, and Anthony Gormley. This year there is virtually nothing that commands a central focus. Certainly not Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger’s gym equipment, Randi and Katrine’s fairy tale village, or Eva Koch’s projection of a waterfall, all at Cockatoo Island; let alone Jim Lambie’s jazzy floor painting at the MCA. These pieces occupy space, but are conceptually shallow.

Entering the Biennale rooms at the Art Gallery of NSW, one is confronted with a large quotation from cultural theorist, Edward Said, in white neon letters: “Modern western culture is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés, refugees.” This is almost a truism, but in the context of this Biennale, which has seen the founding sponsor exiled because of links with refugee detention centres, it has an ironic ring.

The stand-out work is Michael Cook’s photo sequence, Majority Rule. In a set of carefully composed black-and-white images Cook has set the same Aboriginal man, over and over, in various public places in Brisbane. He addresses the marginalised status of indigenous people with a science fiction vision of a world in which they are the only inhabitants. That world, however, is a facsimile of the modern western world. The repeated figure is a clone, no less disturbing than those men in bowler hats in Magritte’s Golconde (1953) that fall from the sky like raindrops.

Michael Cook, 'Majority Rule', 2014, inkjet prints on archival Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper. 140 x 200 cm each (unframed). Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph: Gunther Hang

Michael Cook, ‘Majority Rule’, 2014. Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph: Gunther Hang

Cook is suggesting that ‘majority rule’ is an unhealthy state that breeds deadening social conformity. It is no less so when indigenous people, who form a small minority in their own land, are magically transformed into the majority. Like all good artists Cook surprises us, makes us look hard and think twice. An invasion of replicants gradually transforms itself into a plea for inclusiveness and understanding.

19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire
Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks, Artspace,
until 9 June.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26 April, 2014