Sydney Biennale 2018 Part 1

March 23, 2018
Ai Weiwei's 'Law of the Journey' dominates the Biennale

Few artists have dominated a Sydney Biennale as comprehensively as Ai Weiwei with his contributions to this year’s show. It’s partly because hardly any of the 70 chosen artists, or groups of artists, have a public profile in Australia, while Ai is an international art celebrity and media magnet. Two years ago the National Gallery of Victoria’s Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei, attracted almost 400,000 visitors. The Biennale will be hoping for a repeat performance.

I’ll come back to Ai Weiwei later, but it’s necessary to begin with a more general look at the 21st Biennale of Sydney, put together by the show’s first ever Asian artistic director, Mami Kataoka, chief curator at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Given that all the most exciting contemporary art over the past two decades has come from Asia, one might argue that such an appointment was long overdue.

Kataoka is a thorough-going professional. Unfailingly elegant, polite and thoughtful, she arrives with a very good reputation. Every Biennale director is roundly praised (at least at the beginning of the show), but rarely has the chorus seemed so genuine in its enthusiasm. Is there something maternal and reassuring in the name “Mami”?

Kataoka’s chosen theme is Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement. Apparently the word comes from Quantum Mechanics and describes the dualistic nature of electrons which exist as both waves and particles. She also relates this to the traditional Chinese concept of Wuxing – the idea that the world is made up of five main elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – which act in constant relation with one another.

This may sound like an imposing intellectual framework, but it’s only the vaguest metaphor for the state of the planet, riven by competing beliefs and ideologies. As such it provides the usual open-ended justification for anything the director would like to include. This Biennale has room for everything from pure abstraction to political activism, rendering Kataoka’s ‘theme’ so unspecific as to make a mockery of the word.

Nevertheless there are plenty of distinctive sub-themes. Abstraction would be one topic. Music might be another, as there are a remarkable number of pieces that incorporate some musical element. A large sub-set of artworks involve community projects in which the artist acts as a stage director. There are works preoccupied with historical events, or with highly personal memories that may be presumed to have universal value. Politics is ever-present.

Mami Kataoka with previous Biennale catalogues. There won't be any addition to the library this year

Mami Kataoka with previous Biennale catalogues. There won’t be any addition to the library this year

Kataoka’s selection is an improvement on 2016 show, and vastly better than the 2014 version, but she has not given us one of the great Biennales. As is so often the case, works that sound marvellous in theory turn out to be dull in practice. The other issue is the budget, which has put the squeeze of this year’s show to such an extent there will be no catalogue published.

This is a terrible omission. Catalogues may not sell in big numbers, but they are extremely important as a record of the event that goes into museum archives and libraries around the world. Look, by contrast, at the inaugural NGV Triennial in Melbourne, which has produced a catalogue the size of a telephone book.

It’s a confession of the Biennale’s poverty alongside exhibitions such as last year’s Kassel Documenta, which had a working budget of €37.5 million, and still managed to run up an €8 million debt. The Biennale’s problems are partly a legacy of 2014, when the show parted company with founding sponsor, Transfield, to make a political point. I won’t go over this story again here.

In the past I’ve devoted two columns to the Biennale, and will do so again this year. Today I’ve barely got space to discuss Cockatoo Island, the part of the exhibition that requires the most commitment from viewers.

The main drawcard is Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey: a 60 metre-long inflatable, black rubber life raft, inhabited by 300 faceless, inflatable, black rubber figures. Law of the Journey is easily the biggest artwork on display this year. The sheer scale is presumably meant to symbolise the immensity of the worldwide refugee crisis that has become Ai’s signature issue. He explores the crisis in greater depth in Human Flow, a full-length documentary that gets a local release this week.

Law of the Journey owes its impact to two factors: sheer scale, and the liberal sentiments of those viewers who believe refugees have been brutally mistreated and misunderstood. I’m a member of the latter category but I can’t get excited about Ai’s raft, which is really a political statement disguised as a work of art. Made in a factory to the artist’s specifications, were it the size of a normal raft it would be a very unimpressive object.

Yukinori Yanagi, eye in the sky

Yukinori Yanagi, eye in the sky

Cockatoo Island, a former shipyard now doubling as a parking bay for private boats, is the ideal venue for Ai’s installation. There are, however, few other works that justify the ferry journey. The outstanding contributor is Yukinori Yanagi, who has built a maze from shipping containers in the Turbine Hall. To walk through these containers is a surprising and disorienting experience. In the Powerhouse building Yanagi has installed a brown, metal bomb that dangles inertly from the ceiling. In the larger room next door, a massive eyeball floats above the machine-packed interior, replaying footage of atomic explosions.

Yasmin Smith from Canberra has set up a kiln at the base of the hill, where she is making vessels from locally sourced materials, including salt taken from the harbour. When completed, her cups are transported to a display area on the upper level. It’s a clever idea, but there’s nothing special about these pieces viewed solely in terms of the potter’s art.

Of the other works, there are few that make good use of the unique spaces of Cockatoo Island. Abraham Cruzvillegas’s dangling junk assemblage looks like a broken chandelier in the cavernous space of the Turbine Hall, while many other works would be more conveniently displayed at the AGNSW or the MCA. Ryan Gander has filled a massive shed with a snow-covered reminiscence of his childhood in Chester, but it’s a novelty that soon palls. Wong Hoy Cheong’s photos and rubbings of manhole covers are swallowed by a too-generous exhibition space.

One artist who does use the space well is Mit Jai Inn, who has created a series of massive abstract paintings, suspended from the ceiling like washing left to dry. He hints at his painting methods with a table covered in unruly splashes of colour, and a tank of water in which lumps of pigment float like noxious weeds.

Ami Inoue loads up

Ami Inoue loads up

The piece that captured my attention more than almost anything else was Ami Inoue’s short film, The Life of the Hunter (2016): the artist’s act of homage to her grandfather, a lifelong hunter who has given the game away after the Fukashima disaster, believing the animals to be contaminated. Inoue takes on the hunter’s role herself, preparing an animal skin with her hands plunged into bloody water. There’s a strong ceremonial dimension to the film, which goes against every pious sentiment we might have about animals. Inoue achieves what all artists seek to achieve: to challenge our received ideas and make us think again about the world we thought we knew.

Sydney Biennale 2018: Superposition
Art Gallery of NSW, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cockatoo Island, Artspace, Carriageworks, Gallery 4a, Sydney Opera House, 16 March – 11 June, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 March, 2018