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