Biennale of Sydney: First Impressions

March 23, 2016
Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand, 2006/2015, mixed-media interactive installation; sand, wooden island, lighting, 1300 x 643 cm. Courtesy of JUT Museum Pre-Opening Office, Taipei. Photograph: Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand, 2006/2015, mixed-media interactive installation; sand, wooden island, lighting, 1300 x 643 cm. Courtesy of JUT Museum Pre-Opening Office, Taipei. Photograph: Taipei Fine Arts Museum

If the previous Biennale of Sydney gave the impression that artists were selected almost at random, the latest incarnation of Australia’s premier international art exhibition sends out the contrary message. Director, Stephanie Rosenthal, has so many reasons for every part of this show that one is left reeling.

The theme this year is The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. It’s a line from science fiction writer, William Gibson (the man who coined the term “cyberpunk”). For Rosenthal this means that “technology has already surpassed our idea of what the future could look like.” It’s a provocative idea that invites participants to explore our relationship with technology, and the social issues to which this gives rise.

The show includes 83 artists from 35 countries, distributed across seven venues that Rosenthal calls “Embassies of Thought”. Cockatoo Island, for instance, is “The Embassy of the Real”, while the Art Gallery of NSW is rechristened “The Embassy of Spirits”. The embassies 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.”

You may be starting to think there are a lot of “ideas” in this Biennale, but what about the art? I wish I could say that all this cogitation translates into a magnificent visual experience, but after ploughing my way through seven venues, plus various on-site installations, there is little that stands out. The show is scattered all over town but is more compact than in previous years. Cockatoo Island in particular, is much reduced.

What remains are a few striking images: Taro Shinoda’s room lined with cracked white clay at the AGNSW, alongside Sudarshan Shetty’s haunting videos exploring the rituals of life and death in India; Lee Bul’s massive installation with plastic curtains and floating silver blimps at Cockatoo Island; Chiharu Shiota’s white beds behind a web of dense black thread, at the same venue; Daniel Boyd’s wall in Vine Street, Chippendale, covered in tiny mirrors; Lee Mingwei’s floor painting of Guernica made from coloured sand, at Carriageworks.

There are other pieces worth mentioning, but on the day of the media preview much of the work passed like a blur. It’s customary to turn to the catalogue for enlightenment, but this year’s publication is an anthology of textual fragments – snatches of theory, chat-room conversations, diagrams, extracts from well-known and obscure books. It’s best described a “reader” although much of it is utterly unreadable.

Most visitors will turn instead to a small guide book that provides entries on individual artists and information about talks and performances. If there is any salvation for this wordy, over-conceptualised exhibition, it may come from events such as Justene Williams’s restaging of Victory Over the Sun, a Russian Futurist opera from 1913, with costumes designed by Kazimir Malevich.

Rosenthal emerges as one the more committed and conscientious of Biennale directors. The problem lies with what George Bush Sr. memorably called “the vision thing”, because one suspects that most viewers will be disappointed or simply bored with her highly cerebral approach. In this exhibition there is a lot to think about but very little to love.