Sydney Biennale 2018 Part 2

March 30, 2018
Miriam Cahn, 'bau, 18.5.16'

Is it only me, or is there something intrinsically boring about art projects that involve community participation? I know there is a strand of thought in contemporary art that loathes the very idea of the master artist or the individual genius, believing every human being should be encouraged to harness his or her innate creativity. The problem is that a great artist may spent a lifetime honing those creative instincts while most of the general public rarely give such matters a moment’s thought.

Here those supposed enemies – art and sport – find common ground. If I watch a football game or a cricket match, I’d prefer to see top players in action. If I visit an art exhibition I’d like to see work by skilled, inspired artists. The joy of watching ordinary people do arty things is no substitute for quality.

These reflections have been prompted by some of Mami Kataoka’s choices for the 21st Biennale of Sydney, subtitled Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement. There’s Suzanne Lacy’s installation on Cockatoo Island that features a singing project by a community in Lancashire that has been deserted by the textile industry. At Gallery 4A one may see a work by Akira Takayama in which Sydney people were invited to perform a song or a poem. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ciara Phillips has set up an entire printmaking studio for local community groups.

Then there are those works that are essentially documentation. Khaled Sabsabi’s installation on Cockatoo Island shows us the shrine of a Sufi saint in New Dehli, filmed from various angles. At the Art Gallery of NSW we can sample an archive of the activities of Sa Sa Art projects of Cambodia, and an archive of previous Sydney Biennales. Oddly there is a vitrine filled with clippings about the controversy in 2014 in which the exhibition split with its inaugural sponsor, Transfield. It’s a mystery as to why the Biennale would want to draw attention to this historic debacle.

Esme Timbery's 'Shellworked slippers' (2008)

Esme Timbery’s ‘Shellworked slippers’ (2008)

Most of the indigenous work in the show is community-centred, such as Marlene Gibson’s naïve paintings of Victoria’s western districts at the AGNSW, or the soft sculptures of the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists at the MCA. At the same venue, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Esme Timbery explore indigenous art and craft traditions with weavings and shellware.

There’s audience participation, with Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s multimedia work at the AGNSW, and Marco Fusinato’s Constellations at Carriageworks, where the viewer is invited to bash a wall with a baseball bat, sending out a horrible, amplified noise that must be driving everyone crazy by now.

Marco Fusinato wins the award for most annoying work in the Biennale

Marco Fusinato wins the award for most annoying work in the Biennale

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this Biennale is the amount of art that seems purely formalist, from Roy de Maistre’s colour charts of 1919; to Syd Ball’s hard-edge experiments of the late 1960s; to Riet Wijnen’s attempt to construct a kind of extended diagram that combines a work by Grace Crowley with one by British artist, Marlow Moss. These three pieces share a very dry corner of the AGNSW.

Sydney Ball, 'Black Reveal' (1968-69). Nostalgic hard-edge

Sydney Ball, ‘Black Reveal’ (1968-69). Nostalgic hard-edge

Maria Tanaguchi at the MCA has an equally formal installation consisting of one wall-sized, monochromatic painting in a brick pattern, and various geometric shapes made from thin strips of wood. Even George Tjungurrayi at Carriageworks, is treated as an abstract formalist, with a display that emphasises the repetitive nature of his signature lineworks.

Maria Tanaguchi's geometrical fantasia at the MCA

Maria Tanaguchi’s geometrical fantasia at the MCA

Presumably this must all be part of Kataoka’s scheme for of balancing ‘equilibrium’ and ‘engagement’. Yet somewhere along the line she seems to have forgotten that a work of art must first of all capture the viewer’s imagination if it is to have any impact whatsoever.

Too many Biennale pieces seem to have posed fascinating intellectual challenges for the artist but have little to offer an audience. Nicholas Mangan’s video of zircon particles drifting in space, at Cockatoo Island, could win an award for dullness. Its only challenger might be Jacob Kirkegaard’s MCA installation of a wall with 30 minutes of faint street noises. The sound was recorded on the West Bank in Palestine, but it could have come from anywhere.

It’s actually a little unfair to single out one or two pieces, because most of the Biennale left me wondering how artists’ imaginations could have become so narrow, so constipated, so devoted to issues and ideas at the expense of the fundamental visual element that makes us want to spend time with a work of art.

Geng Xue carves up her man in 'The Poetry of Michelangelo'

Geng Xue carves up her man in ‘The Poetry of Michelangelo’

Surely it must be possible for a piece to combine issues, ideas and something to look at! Among the few exceptions to the cloud of tedium that envelopes most works are Miriam Cahn’s paintings at the AGNSW, that can boast a certain primal energy; and Geng Xue’s video at Artspace, The Poetry of Michelangelo (2005), in which the artist crafts a man from clay and and dismembers him. It’s a piece full of associations, from the story of Pygmalion to that of the Golem. Some will remember having seen this work at the White Rabbit Gallery.

Michael Stevenson's installation at Carriageworks. Go figure.

Michael Stevenson’s installation at Carriageworks. Go figure.

I enjoyed the labyrinthine conspiracy theories at the heart of Michael Stevenson’s Carriageworks installation but I have to admit I had the benefit of the artist explaining the entire project. In Michael’s absence viewers might find it rather cryptic.

At the same venue Chen Shaoxiong’s projections take on a poignancy when one realises these are the views the artist saw from his death bed. They are frail, introverted images, but in the circumstances one could hardly expect otherwise.

It would be nice to say, in the words of the old hymn, that death is not the end, but this show does little to allay fears that the Biennale is currently on life support. To get this ailing institution back on its feet will require a significant injection of funds, but even more importantly, an infusion of affirmative, imaginative thinking. For too many years the organisers have simply chosen a director and said “How fabulous, darling!” to every selection.

As such, the exhibition is a symbol of the complacency that is such a feature of the way the arts are treated in this city nowadays. Sydney has a bad habit of always thinking too well of itself when it needs to take stock. The feeling of cheerful clubbiness, the cycle of unconditional positive regard has to give way to some critical self-examination. We’re skating along on a surface that’s growing thinner every year.

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, 31 March, 2018