The func­tion of art as a lib­er­at­ing, so­cially sub­ver­sive force is a per­va­sive theme of this year’s Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney, writes Adam Geczy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

REVO­LU­TION is not a word used much th­ese days, ex­cept per­haps to sell home­wares and sham­poo. Its po­lit­i­cal ca­chet is all but dis­cred­ited; passe. So is avant­garde, as it re­lates to art, since the art world is too di­verse for any­one to know who is at the front guard. Even post­mod­ernism doesn’t get much air­play th­ese days.

So what does Carolyn Chris­tov- Bakargiev mean with her con­cept for this Syd­ney Bi­en­nale, Rev­o­lu­tions: Forms that Turn?

Bi­en­nales are a cul­tural jug­ger­naut born of the pub­lic love of hype and spec­ta­cle. Iron­i­cally, the mag­ni­tude of such events and the wide­spread cam­paign to dumb down art in the name of user­friend­li­ness can emas­cu­late art’s most rad­i­cal in­ten­tions. Chris­tov- Bakargiev’s idea of artis­tic revo­lu­tion comes from im­pa­tience with art as en­ter­tain­ment in favour of art’s long­stand­ing im­pulse to re­sist forms of power. The term revo­lu­tion is ap­plied to what she calls the au­ton­omy of the art ob­ject ‘‘ spin­ning on its own and de­tached from daily life’’.

This has a familiar ring to many of us who can re­mem­ber what was prob­a­bly Syd­ney’s best Bi­en­nale, cu­rated by Rene Bloch in 1990. Bloch lo­cated sev­eral key fig­ures from the 20th cen­tury, such as Mar­cel Duchamp, and ex­am­ined their in­flu­ence as a se­ries of con­cen­tric cir­cles like rip­ples in wa­ter.

A strength of Chris­tov- Bakargiev’s Bi­en­nale is its em­pha­sis on the lengths to which artists go to chal­lenge and sub­vert, even at the ex­pense of con­ven­tional beauty or risk­ing the au­di­ence’s dis­plea­sure. Since at least the late 1960s, this has been car­ried out largely in ways that are anath­ema to com­mod­ity cul­ture; hence the so­called al­ter­na­tive ap­proaches of per­for­mance, hap­pen­ings, in­ter­ven­tions, video and in­stal­la­tion.

Chris­tov- Bakargiev en­lists nu­mer­ous his­toric works as al­i­bis for her con­cept of rad­i­cal­ism. For in­stance, Chris Bur­den’s sem­i­nal 1971 per­for­mance Shoot , in which he had him­self shot in the arm as protest against the Viet­nam war, is as res­o­nant to­day as ever. So are Hans Bellmer’s har­row­ingly dis­mem­bered dolls ( La Poupee , 1936) that pre­saged the Nazi death camps. Saburo Mu­rakami at­tempted to vent the pent- up frus­tra­tion of post- war Ja­pan in the ’ 50s with sym­bolic, ex­plo­sive acts, such as jump­ing through a huge sheet of pa­per. As with the work of Bur­den and oth­ers, th­ese acts are rep­re­sented in rel­a­tively small black and white pho­to­graphs.

The ex­hibit at the Art Gallery of NSW mostly com­prises his­tor­i­cal works, mainly from the past 40 years. The line- up is a who’s who of ex­per­i­men­tal art: John Cage, Dan Gra­ham, Yves Klein, Jan­nis Kounel­lis, Len Lye, Man Ray, Mario Merz, Tina Modotti, Yoko Ono and Bruce Nau­man. With early avant- garde works, such as Ital­ian Fu­tur­ist Luigi Rus­solo’s Riot ( 1911) and Alek­sandr Rod­chenko’s so­cial­ist- con­struc­tivist pho­to­graphs — not to men­tion graphic op- art guru Vic­tor Vasarely — it seems the cu­ra­tor is draw­ing a rather long bow. For one may as eas­ily ask why the great­est painter of the French Revo­lu­tion, Jac­ques- Louis David, isn’t in the Bi­en­nale as well.

At times the ex­hi­bi­tion turns from ex­am­ples of artis­tic sub­ver­sion into a deco­rous his­tory les­son. Oc­ca­sion­ally, his­tor­i­cal works abut the con­tem­po­rary. Klara Li­den’s raw video from 2006, Bod­ies of So­ci­ety , in which she at­tacks a bi­cy­cle in her liv­ing room as an ex­pres­sion of so­cial dis­sent, be­comes a foil to Duchamp’s fa­mous Bi­cy­cle Wheel of 1913.

But there is a seam of lit­er­al­ism that runs through this Bi­en­nale that is not just con­fined to su­per­fi­cial jux­ta­po­si­tions or works with some overt ref­er­ence to revo­lu­tion. One may ask whether works such as At­suko Tanaka’s ro­ta­tional splat paint­ing Spring , or Ola­fur Elias­son’s Light Ven­ti­la­tor Mo­bile — a see- saw­ing fan and spot­light — are both here by virtue of the fact that they ro­tate.

Equally, the overt ref­er­ence to po­lit­i­cal revo­lu­tion can at times get a bit heavy- handed, as in the facile an­thol­o­gis­ing by Tracey Mof­fatt and Gary Hill­berg of cin­ema’s var­i­ous de­pic­tions of the sub­ject. The same could be said of the cat­a­logue of pho­to­graphs by Yev­geniy Fiks of sites across Syd­ney with some past as­so­ci­a­tion with the Com­mu­nist Party. While Fiks’s on­line art­work Daily Mon­i­tor­ing of Lenin’s Sales on Ama­zon. com ( 2007) is a more au­then­tic in­stance of where much rad­i­cal art is oc­cur­ring at the mo­ment, Mof­fatt’s is the kind of en­ter­tain­ment that the ex­hi­bi­tion sup­pos­edly sets out to avoid.

On the other hand, James An­gus’s lyri­cal sculp­ture of a bright blue vin­tage Bu­gatti ( 2006) on its side and askew like a piece of gi­gan­tic origami yanked out of shape has noth­ing revo­lu­tion­ary about it, al­though it is ar­rest­ingly beau­ti­ful. The same can be said of Gianni Colombo’s Spazio Elas­tica ( Elas­tic Space): a pitch- black room de­fined en­tirely with del­i­cately thin col­umns and squares of cord that glow un­der ul­tra­vi­o­let light.

Some of the most sat­is­fy­ing his­tor­i­cal works are those whose ref­er­ences are still cur­rent, as in the writer- artist Adrian Piper’s two cu­bi­cles de­voted to the 1991 beat­ing by Los An­ge­les po­lice of Rod­ney King. The white cu­bi­cle has space for a sin­gle arm­chair to view a looped se­quence of the po­lice beat­ing King. The black ver­sion is like a devo­tional shrine, where one can sit and con­tem­plate King’s im­age.

Yet the sheer weight or num­ber of his­tor­i­cal works, im­por­tant in them­selves, has the ef­fect of sit­u­at­ing con­tem­po­rary works some­times in the too dis­tant past. Tra­di­tions have to be re­spected and re­mem­bered, yes, but is not the revo­lu­tion­ary

im­pulse also a spon­ta­neous leap into the fu­ture?

It is also clear that this revo­lu­tion is a priv­i­leged one that has been oc­cur­ring in Europe and the US. The un­der- rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Asia, par­tic­u­larly China, is con­spic­u­ous and un­ac­count­able. The in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence of Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary art is ac­cel­er­at­ing, not abat­ing.

The other ris­ing world power, In­dia, is rep­re­sented through the stun­ning in­stal­la­tion Against the Grain by Mumbai- born artist Sharmila Sa­mant, about the ef­fects on rural In­dia of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied plants. To as­ton­ish­ing ef­fect, the white walls of the room are ripped away to re­veal the win­dows of the MCA be­hind.

But such in­clu­sions, be­cause they are so iso­lated, are con­spic­u­ous. It’s as if the Bi­en­nale has omit­ted more than two- thirds of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. For a Bi­en­nale in Syd­ney, this is prob­lem­atic. It means Aus­tralian artists are shown against a back­drop of Euro- Amer­i­can in­flu­ences, which was the case in the ’ 70s and ’ 80s but is much less so to­day.

Mike Parr, who drew much from the art of cen­tral Europe in the ’ 70s, is also known and re­spected by Chi­nese artists for his un­com­pro­mis­ing per­for­mances. Parr cap­i­talises on the ret­ro­spec­tive im­pulse of the Bi­en­nale by re­work­ing 14 films of per­for­mances from more than 20 years. The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of the works, in­stalled in sev­eral rooms at Cock­a­too Is­land, is one of seis­mic force, trans­form­ing a trip to the site from pil­grim­age to perdi­tion.

An­thol­o­gis­ing is also a theme ex­plored by Jeremy Deller in I’m with This Id­iot ( 2008). In con­trast to Parr’s tor­ture cham­ber, Deller’s doc­u­men­tary- style per­for­mance is set up at Artspace in Wool­loomooloo like a familiar lounge room. Flow­ing from the mon­i­tor is a loose vis­ual diary of footage of street protests, graf­fiti, mon­u­ments and pa­rades. Watch­ing this in rel­a­tive com­fort, we are made con­scious of the gaps that di­vide ex­pe­ri­ences and how di­vorced we are from many peo­ples’ strug­gles.

Also at Artspace is a trans­fix­ing video, Spree ( Canal) ( 2007) by Ber­lin- based Brazil­ian artist Mar­cel­lvs L. His large- scale pro­jec­tion is more painterly than nar­ra­tional or doc­u­men­tary. The im­age is cut sharply into two parts: be­low is a row of win­dows, faintly rock­ing; above is a line of build­ings, still. The seven- minute se­quence, which records the top half of a house­boat in Am­s­ter­dam and sta­tion­ary build­ings be­hind, trans­ports the viewer into a state that is as sooth­ing as it is dis­rup­tive.

Some of the most suc­cess­ful works are live per­for­mances. At the MCA is Swiss artist Christoph Buchel’s No Fu­ture ( 2008), a hip, welldecked- out ses­sion room where a se­lected hand­ful of se­niors play the Sex Pis­tols’ God Save the Queen on elec­tric gui­tar. In Anger Work­shops ( 2008), at the AGNSW, Stu­art Ringholt in­vites up to 40 viewer- par­tic­i­pants at a time to curb their anger. It is an in­ge­niously ironic take on the 20th cen­tury’s long his­tory of irate re­ac­tions to the deca­dent avant- garde.

Aus­tralian artists, in­dige­nous and non­indige­nous, are gen­er­ously rep­re­sented, un­like some years when they seemed an af­ter­thought.

Doreen Reid Naka­marra’s un­ti­tled paint­ing is dis­played on the hor­i­zon­tal and il­lu­mi­nated so that the thin rivulets of line as­sume the three- di­men­sional con­tours of a vast land­scape.

It is pleas­ing to see that Pier 2/ 3 at Walsh Bay is be­ing used again as a Bi­en­nale venue, where it al­most ex­clu­sively houses the new col­lab­o­ra­tive piece by Janet Cardiff and Ge­orge Bures Miller, Mur­der of Crows ( 2008). The pair are best known for an in­stal­la­tion at the 2001 Venice Bi­en­nale, The Par­adise In­sti­tute , and to some ex­tent they have lived un­der its shadow.

That is, un­til this work. Like most of Cardiff’s work, it uses sound to trace the lin­ea­ments of un­con­scious thought. View­ers are in­vited to sit on chairs amid 100 loud­speak­ers placed in a scat­tered cir­cle. For a half- hour you are cast adrift in sounds and mu­sic that Cardiff says echo her night­mares. Most of the work is mu­sic, some­times of stag­ger­ing in­ten­sity, in­ter­spersed with speak­ing, foot­steps and the like. One choral se­quence is rem­i­nis­cent of Ben­jamin Brit­ten’s Re­joice in the Lamb . The end is a like a folk lul­laby. The night­mar­ish ex­pe­ri­ence is made beau­ti­ful and present within us. It is a must- see.

The cat­a­logue, con­ceived as a book, is a hodge­podge of oblique excerpts from lu­mi­nar­ies on a very broad con­cept of revo­lu­tion. Th­ese are ac­com­pa­nied by black and white images by artists in the ex­hi­bi­tion, many of which bear no re­la­tion to the ex­hib­ited works. This al­ter­na­tive approach to the main­stream cat­a­logue will not be help­ful once the me­mory of the ex­hi­bi­tion has faded.

Ger­man art the­o­rist Boris Groys ob­served re­cently, ‘‘ the mo­ment at which law tri­umphs, art be­comes im­pos­si­ble’’. This is be­cause art is driven by im­per­a­tives dif­fer­ent from those that struc­ture so­ci­ety. And this is why art will al­ways carry out its own revo­lu­tion. De­spite its cul­tural bi­ases, and its ap­pear­ance of stand­ing too stub­bornly on the shoul­ders of gi­ants, this Bi­en­nale af­fords plenty of glimpses of lib­er­a­tion. Adam Geczy has col­lab­o­rated with Mike Parr.

Turn­ing the ta­bles: Left, a work by op- art pi­o­neer Vic­tor Vasarely; above, Spree ( 2007), a video in­stal­la­tion by Mar­cel­lvs L.; Op­po­site page, Jill McKay in No Fu­ture ( 2008) by Christoph Buchel

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