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by Grady T. Turner
|Sydney, Australia, is a booster's paradise. The city's place in the Pacific Rim's economy is boldly declared by a skyline of recently minted skyscrapers, each topped by a neon corporate logo. Sydneysiders are taking special pride in the events of this year, which began with their city ushering in the new millennium with a globally televised celebration, and will end with the city's hosting of the Olympic games.
As it rushes to complete the infrastructure that will support the Olympics in a few months, Sydney is currently host to an art event that is, like the city itself, bold in its ambitions -- the Sydney Biennale, May 26-July 30. The first Biennale was held in 1973 at the newly completed Sydney Opera House. As the sweeping jibes of the Opera House's architecture became the city's preeminent icon, the Biennale has developed into a centerpiece of the city's cultural scene.
If expectations were high for this year's 12th installment of the Biennale, its organizers responded with the largest event to date, featuring 48 artists from 23 countries, exhibited in five venues with numerous public programs held in other sites around town. This year, the Biennale raises questions that go to the heart of its mission: what does Sydney accomplish by importing foreign contemporary art to its shores? And conversely, how well does the Biennale expand the profile of Australian artists in the global art world?
For only the second time in its history, this Biennale was selected by a committee of curators, suitably diverse in nationality and including some art world heavy-hitters: independent writer and curator Funio Nanjo, former Parkett editor Louise Neri, curator of Aboriginal art Hetti Perkins, Tate director Nicholas Serota, Museum of Modern Art senior curator Robert Storr and Harald Szeemann, director of the Venice Biennale. The group was chaired by Nick Waterlow, a veteran organizer of three past Sydney Biennales.
Given this intellectual muscle, it is not surprising that the Biennale is driven more by curatorial legerdemain than by artistic vision. Few artists were invited to contribute new work, and most of the art had already enjoyed exposure in galleries in New York and elsewhere. On the whole, the Biennale declined to be daring, and in that respect it doesn't go as far as it might have in expanding Sydney's position as an international art venue. The most regrettable outcome of this lost opportunity is that Australian artists are less likely see their international exposure benefit from participation in their nation's most important art event.
But as for the goal of introducing the best recent art to Australia, the exhibition is a great success. For the 66 days of the Biennale, Sydney is host to an astonishing collection of contemporary art. With a nod to its history, this Biennale places younger artists in the context of art practices that were already established at the time of the first Biennale over a quarter century ago.
This framework was perhaps a predictable outcome of putting the Biennale in the hands of museum curators, for this is how museum curators think: they tend to establish lineages, group artists by themes, and summarize rather than critique. The curators began their task by reaching a consensus about a group of well-established artists -- including Louise Bourgeois, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Bruce Nauman and Gerhard Richter -- whose work they thought to be relevant to recent art. Their work provided the themes that the curators used to choose the remaining artists.
Each of these artists is represented by iconic art, such as Nauman's neon spiral filled by the glowing sentence "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths." Characteristically, Bourgeois conceals as much as she reveals with two recent sculptures and two works created a half century ago. Cell VIII is among the enclosures Bourgeois has produced in her eighth decade, with a high mesh fence containing swatches of blue fabric that partly obscure a collection of marble sculptures carved into fragments of body parts.
The Kabakovs offer a succinct summary of their career in Monument to a Lost Civilization, the lamented civilization being the late Soviet Union. Ilya Kabakov has been preparing its tomb since the Brezhnev era; Emilia has been his partner since 1989. Personal experience and memory are subsumed by empty libraries, maze-like mental hospitals and other numbing bureaucracies, all redolent with the presence of people who seem to have just departed. Documented by drawings and photos of past installations, these environments are combined into a scale model for a giant museum, supported by walls filled with documents and floor plans, as well as plans for a park built over a underground bunker.
Richter is represented in a mini-retrospective of nine paintings, including large abstractions painted with squeegees, blurry by-the-book landscapes, and a photograph of a painting of a photograph of Richter's first wife Emma, nude and descending a staircase in homage to Duchamp. Well after the death of the phrase "the death of painting" -- often ascribed to his work by theorists -- Richter is ripe for reconsideration. No doubt his inclusion here is due to the fact that Storr is preparing a retrospective for MoMA, scheduled for next year. If this judicious selection is a sign of things to come, Richter may soon be back in the thicket of art discourse.
Several older artists were present to enjoy revisions of their historical reputations. After last year's traveling retrospective reestablished Yayoi Kusama's place in the halcyon days of 1960s art, she now emerges frequently from her voluntary confinement in a mental institution to see her work installed in art museums. The local Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) features a seminal early work, an infinitely reflected mirrored room with a floor covered by her trademark dot-covered protuberances. The four-story atrium of the Customs House is filled by large bulbous red balloons covered with white dots. At the Biennale's opening events, Kusama shuffled among admirers with a vacant expression, a mute complement to her art.
A cynic might note that if anything signals that the Biennale is not overly concerned with the cutting edge, it is the high stature conferred upon Yoko Ono. Ono's early poem Scream is plastered on four billboards on the MCA's facade, while a compilation of her films (including Smile, featuring John Lennon's static smiling face) is continuously screened in the museum's lobby. A recent work, Ex It, is installed in the grand lobby of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), and Ono's performance at the Opera House was the subject of a webcast on the Biennale's web site.
To be fair, one should note that the fawning attention on Ono is probably unavoidable given her celebrity. But more so, one should give due credit: Ex It is by any standard a powerful installation. Comprised of 100 crude wooden coffins set in long rows, each with a verdant citrus tree rooted in its head, this simple elegiac grove has a multitude of associations, from the autobiographical (Lennon's assassination) to the political (war, ethnic cleansing). Ono's recent work, consistent with her Fluxus roots and pacifist ethos, makes cynicism a difficult posture to maintain.
Of the artists presenting new work, Cai Guo-Qiang provides the standout work here as he did at last summer's Venice Biennale. In a stately gallery of frothy 19th-century nudes and genre paintings at the AGNSW, Cai recreates the interior of a traditional academy studio, complete with a nude model painted by a circle of artists. In this case, the model was a young woman on horseback. Painting from the nude is mundane for anyone who has attended art school, but the practice is alien and eroticized by non-artists. By juxtaposing tepidly erotic paintings with a flesh-and-blood naked woman on a snorting, defecating horse, in full view of the visiting public, Cai exposes the mysterious inner workings of art, creating a spectacle that is entirely innocent of guile.
Paul McCarthy also dealt with the life of an artist in the video Painter, in which he appears as a grunting, ham-handed clown, covering vast canvases with smears of paint and feces. The artist's hard-won success comes when a clown-nosed collector sniffs his ass and gives it thumbs up. The video is projected within the confines of McCarthy's cheap paneled set, recreated here alongside various props. Looking closer, one notices that many of the props are still crated for shipping. Enlarged texts explain the reason: faxes and e-mails, dated just days before the opening, tell the sorry tale of work damaged in transit.
There is some irony to the correspondence, which notes the anxieties of the artist and the collector who lent the piece, conveying a preciosity to the evidence on display -- splintered two-by-fours and plywood -- that appear intentionally worthless in the video. Given this crisis, McCarthy flew in to supervise the installation at Artspace, a rough-edged former arsenal chosen as the venue for "messy" artists Yun Suknam, Dieter Roth, Franz West and the late Martin Kippenberger. The latter is represented by a forest of faux trees and cabbage-sized pharmaceuticals, collectively entitled I am going into the birch forest, as my pills will be taking effect soon.
Shipping problems were not the only hazards faced by an artist. On the grounds of Government House, a gothic revival mansion overlooking Sydney Harbor, Fiona Hall planted a garden in the form of map. Intending to demonstrate that the importation of species offers a metaphor for intercultural contact, Hall trod on familiar terrain already traversed by Alexis Rockman, Mark Dion and Walton Ford, among others. Hall's installation was not helped by its didacticism, nor by strong sea winds that uprooted plantings within a few days. Far better are her jewel-like sculptures, presented in a gallery, that deal with the sexuality of plants. Sensuous and anthropomorphic, Hall's juxtaposition of genitals and leaves are simple and direct in a way that her garden is not.
Among the Australians on view, there is a decided trend toward somber installations. Ken Unsworth sets the tone with a darkened room filled with ponderous music. Two carts move slowly along circular tracks, each carrying projectors that illuminate a central pile of white bricks with images, one a falling man, the other a grimacing male face. A gallery of Mike Parr's work is dominated by a lifelike wax cast of the artist as a sleeping bride, laid out like Snow White on a high berth. Even dressed in white lace, Parr's individuality is apparent in his middle-aged features and his amputated left arm. Bill Henson's photographs of junkies having sex, of empty roads and blank suburbs, appear to represent disparate subjects. But their velvety blackness, enhanced by a dimly lit installation, unites these images in an interior dreamlike world that still remains a document of contemporary life.
Artists of Aboriginal descent working in contemporary modes are well featured in the main galleries of the MCA and AGNSW. Tracey Moffatt, perhaps the Australian artist best known outside the continent, is given great prominence. Her classic storyboards are perfectly aligned with the confessional voice of the 1990s. Viewers walk slowly through this gallery, engrossed in the unfolding narratives of relationships bound by love, negligence and abuse. Destiny Deacon's photographs and sculptures. more narrowly focused on the experience of being black in Australia, convey a similar fixation on the personal.
Gordon Bennett responds to the call of African-American art, addressing a painting to Jean-Michel Basquiat with the promise that "in the future, art will not be boring." Ginger Riley paints landscapes in a lyrical style that recalls Henri Matisse by way of Milton Avery. But Aboriginal artists working in traditional forms are rather politely shunted off to separate galleries. Many were concentrated in the Object Galleries of the Customs House, though one striking installation is situated in the AGNSW.
The bark paintings of John Mawurndjul are situated among the extenuated sculptural figures of other artists from Australia's western Arnhem land. Mawurndjul paints the region's creator beings in natural pigments, creating geometries of cross-hatched colors that relate ancestral stories such as the tale of the serpentine Ngalyod, who once devoured young girls and now controls the cycle of the rain seasons. The sculptures, created by numerous artists, depict mimi, fragile spirits who mimic the lives of humans in a separate sphere hidden within the region's rocks.
From an outside perspective, the Australian work appears fresh by contrast to the well-known work by art stars such as Matthew Barney, Mariko Mori or Vanessa Beecroft (though Sydneysiders are still talking about the partly clad models she displayed here last year). Nothing special is added to their work here; in fact, a few artists seem diminished. Jeff Wall is given two galleries that essentially recreate his last gallery show. Chris Ofili is represented by gorgeous collages with hunks of enrusted elephant dung that still bear the taint of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's condemnation, courtesy of labels and press releases (having heard that story, I was more intrigued that locals were prohibited from touching the dung for health reasons).
To be sure, there were well-considered choices in the mix. Andreas Gursky, Xu Bing and Bodys Isek Kingelez -- who recreates fanciful versions of the cityscapes of his native Congo in cardboard and recycled materials -- seemed fresh though the work has been seen before. Video art was given its due, with strong examples from Stan Douglas, Gary Hill, Doug Aitken and Gillian Wearing. And any excuse is fine to trot out Pipolitti Rist's risible Sip My Ocean, with its screaming version of a Chris Isaak song set against underwater objects and figures, or Shirin Neshat's stark, stunning Rapture, giving substantial weight to the separate spheres of Muslim men and women. In this installation, these two very different works were placed just steps from one another to good effect.
Putting aside my assumption that most of the curatorial team may have had no clear idea what to do with Australian art, I will only take them to task about the art they did know: I'm willing to be convinced that there is some lineage from Bourgeois to Wearing or Moffatt, from Nauman to Barney or Rist, from Kabakov to Xu Bing or Douglas, from Richter to Gursky or Tuymans, but alas, I'm not quite sure I followed the curators' reasoning in this explication. Overall, the Sydney Biennale seemed to be a good excuse to pull together a lot of great art under a loose rubric. Okay, so these artists explicate themes evident in the work of masters like Bourgeois, Nauman, Kabakov and Richter. What, it anything, is added to our appreciation of any of these artists?
Among the last-minute crises endemic to any undertaking of this scale was the installation of four large works by Mori, all included last year's early-career retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In that exhibition, Mori's cinemascopic collages of herself as cyberspace goddesses were beautifully installed. For Sydney, they were sliced into vertical panels for transport, and attached to the wall with expensive custom-made brackets that arrived just in the nick of time. The effect was not nearly so good as in Brooklyn, and the integrity of the objects seemed compromised.
As the Biennale's organizers contemplate the next exhibition, they may well ask themselves: What if the money spent on a well-exposed artist like Mori had instead been directed toward artists developing new work specifically for this venue, like Cai or Hall? What if the Biennale succeeded not merely in summarizing global art for local audiences, but managed also to contribute to the international scene, perhaps even injecting more Australian artists into the mix? Given the growing number of regional Biennales--from Sao Paulo to Johannesburg, from Istanbul to Seoul -- these are critical questions facing a number of art events that now address global as well as local audiences.
GRADY T. TURNER is a curator and critic based in New York, and director of exhibitions at The New-York Historical Society.