Biennale of Sydney 2016

March 23, 2016
Ming Wong, 'Windows On The World (Part 1)', 2014, mixed ... rkshop, Hong Kong. Photograph: Glenn Eugen Ellingsen
Ming Wong, 'Windows On The World (Part 1)', 2014, mixed ... rkshop, Hong Kong. Photograph: Glenn Eugen Ellingsen

There’s a lot to like about the 20th Biennale of Sydney, but it isn’t necessarily the art. Curator Stephanie Rosenthal, born in Germany but employed by the Hayward Gallery in London, has proven herself to be one of the most committed of all Biennale directors. Previous incumbents have tended to fly into Australia for quick visits, but Rosenthal has been resident in Sydney since September. She has been assiduous in visiting galleries and studios. She has scouted around for unorthodox venues that connect with the social fabric of the city. She has brought in an architect to help design and finesse exhibition spaces.

The director has impressed everyone with her work ethic and her comprehensive vision for the show, which takes its theme from a line by science fiction writer, William Gibson: The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. The only problem is that after trawling through the works of 83 artists from 35 countries, one is left with very few memorable impressions. This is a Biennale of ideas rather than images. Some will find this fascinating, but I suspect that many will struggle to engage with the vast majority of works.

After the debacle of 2014 when the chief sponsor was sent packing as part of a dubious political protest, the budget seems to have taken a nose-dive. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the Neilson Foundation, which has taken on the lion’s share of sponsorship, the show would be struggling. Rosenthal has disguised this in a curious way, spreading works across a greater range of venues and ‘in-between’ sites. So while there may be fewer pieces at Cockatoo Island, the entire Biennale takes longer to circumnavigate.

As yet I don’t feel sufficiently familiar with the show to give more than a fleeting impression, so this week I’ll grapple with the conceptual framework and come back to the art in another column.

A couple of weeks ago I said the current Adelaide Biennial: Magic Object was a show with no insiders and outsiders. The Sydney Biennale, despite its intentions of reaching the broadest audience, is very much an insider’s affair. Works that are visually slight, or so obscure that one needs a user’s manual, are presented as if they were transparently important. Maybe one needs to meet the artists, read the background information, and consider all the issues involved, yet this is not viable for a mass audience. There has to be an immediate visual lure before we feel compelled to dig a little deeper.

The catalogue is symptomatic of this approach, being an anthology of texts that relate only tangentially to the works on display. There are extracts from theoretical and philosophical tracts laden with jargon, and chatroom discussions between artists that are often embarrassing in their banality and narcissism. To find any useful information one must consult a smaller book, The Guide.

Rosenthal’s big idea has been to structure the Biennale as a series of “embassies of thought” which are “meant to function as spaces for ideas within a particular physical location, access to which is not based on one’s nationality, race or cultural background, but on ideas and the potential they offer.”

They are as follows: Embassy of the Real (Cockatoo Island), Embassy of Spirits (Art Gallery of NSW), Embassy of Non-Participation (Artspace), Embassy of Translation (Museum of Contemporary Art), Embassy of Transition (Mortuary Station), Embassy of Disappearance (Carriageworks); and finally the Embassy of Stanislaw Lem – a mobile book stall devoted to the great Polish science fiction writer who gave us Solaris (1961).

I can’t hope to briefly explore the multiple meanings assigned to these embassies. In The Guide each venue gets an explanatory essay and a list of buzz words. The menu for the Embassy of Spirits at the AGNSW reads: “Belief Structures/Ancestors/Spirituality/Body/Nature/ Invisibility/Rites of Passage/Ritual/Re-spiriting/Ghost.”

When ideas can be presented as a shopping list we are being fed too much information. We may accept that a work has a spiritual dimension or a sense of ritual, but to write a list of concepts is reminiscent of a high-school art project. “Hands up! What do you see here?”

There was an arbitrary feeling about the 2014 Biennale, as if every piece had been included as a whim of the director. This time there are so many reasons for every chosen work and every section of the show, one would have to be a human computer to keep track. There is, for example, a recurrent reference to Kazimir Malevich’s famous painting, Black Square, first seen in 1915. This abstract picture is repeatedly compared to the black square of the ubiquitous digital screen.

Malevich gets his moment in Justene Williams restaging of the Russian Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun, in collaboration with the Sydney Chamber Opera. This was one of the genuine highlights of the first weekend, but limited to only three performances.

Justene Williams, Your Boat My Scenic Personality of Space, 2012, video still. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

Justene Williams, Your Boat My Scenic Personality of Space, 2012, video still. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney

Victory Over the Sun had something that is missing from most of the Biennale work – a sense of spectacle. If one were to judge only by the accompanying publications, the show suffers from logorrhea – defined as excessive wordiness or incoherent speech. The irony is that most viewers won’t read anything more than the wall labels. They will base their impressions on the visual information they get from a work, deciding pretty quickly whether or not a piece is worthy of a lengthy consideration. They are not concerned whether or not a work justifies its inclusion in a political or intellectual sense, they want to see something that stimulates the imagination.

In such a busy show, the pieces that inevitably stand out are the simplest. It seems that everyone loves Taro Shinoda’s Abstraction of Confusion at the AGNSW, whose title belies its minimal nature – nothing more than a light-filled room covered in white clay that is slowly cracking. The piece is viewed from a platform covered with a tatami mat. It’s a place of “stillness”, a meditation space in the midst of a profusion of activity.

Another piece that impresses by its simplicity is William Forsythe’s Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, a field of pendulums suspended from the ceiling of a cavernous room at Cockatoo Island. The installation invites viewers to move between the pendulums, making each person into a dancer as he or she threads their way between the swinging weights.

Such works must be set against the usual barrage of videos, often on multiple screens, that test one’s patience. But this is not a show dominated by technology. There is also a handicraft element, with dense textile works by artists such as Sheila Hicks, at the AGNSW, and Noa Eshkol, at the MCA. There are several dance-based works, including ‘experimental’ pieces by Shahryar Nashat and Adam Linder at the MCA, that seemed designed to make the dancers look ridiculous.

Charwei Tsai's work at the Mortuary Station

Charwei Tsai’s work at the Mortuary Station

The old Mortuary Station – as the Embassy of Transition – contains works by Charwei Tsai, who has created a series of sculptures that resemble over-large mosquitos coils, inscribed with passages from a Tibetan text for the dying. In front of the station, Marco Chiandetti has installed a set of designer bird cages, into which he will be releasing Indian Mynas. The work plays on the supernatural and symbolic role of birds in various cultures, but one thinks more immediately of the Mynas as undesirable immigrants who have been put in detention.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, You are the Prime Minister, 2014, neon, 200 cm. Courtesy the artists; waterside contemporary, London; and Galeri Non, Istanbul

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, You are the Prime Minister, 2014, neon, 200 cm. Courtesy the artists; waterside contemporary, London; and Galeri Non, Istanbul

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler have enjoyed the privilege of having Artspace – AKA. the Embassy of Non-Participation – to themselves. They have created a series of multi-layered audio-visual installations, the most striking being one that incorporates closed circuit video footage of the 2008 terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, overlaid with the telephone voice of a controller who keeps urging the gunmen to kill everyone and die themselves. Like so many truly horrible things, it’s compulsive viewing.

This is an intrusion of reality into a show that often seems devoted to the fantasies of science fiction. Rosenthal argues that “technology has already surpassed our idea of what the future could look like,” but the close-up footage of terrorists in action is a glimpse of a future that seems uncomfortably close. There are times when it’s best not to gaze too deeply into the crystal ball.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26th March, 2016