The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

THE pub­li­cists of ex­hi­bi­tions such as the Bi­en­nale gen­er­ally want to sug­gest the work they are pro­mot­ing will be con­tro­ver­sial, dif­fi­cult or in some sense con­fronting. This year’s Bi­en­nale, though, has been overwhelmed by the wrong kind of con­tro­versy, rais­ing ques­tions about the in­tegrity and ul­ti­mate val­ues of the in­sti­tu­tion it­self as well as those of its spon­sors and the par­tic­i­pat­ing artists.

The back­ground to the re­cent events is that the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney has been made pos­si­ble since its in­cep­tion by the sup­port of the Bel­giorno-Net­tis fam­ily, the founders of Trans­field, an en­gi­neer­ing firm that spe­cialises in the build­ing of in­fra­struc­ture. The board of the Bi­en­nale was chaired by Franco Bel­giorno-Net­tis un­til his re­tire­ment in favour of his son Luca. His other son Guido, re­cently be­came pres­i­dent of the Art Gallery of NSW’s board of trustees.

The trou­ble is that there was an out­break of vi­o­lence be­tween in­mates and lo­cal se­cu­rity guards at the de­ten­tion cen­tre on Manus Is­land shortly be­fore the open­ing of the ex­hi­bi­tion, and this drew at­ten­tion to the fact a sub­sidiary of Trans­field was in­volved in run­ning the fa­cil­ity. Some artists were dis­turbed by the as­so­ci­a­tion and de­cided to boy­cott the ex­hi­bi­tion; the Bi­en­nale board at first stood by its pa­trons but fi­nally gave in, re­jected the sup­port of the Bel­giorno-Net­tis fam­ily and forced its chair­man to re­sign.

The sit­u­a­tion was far from straight­for­ward, con­sid­er­ing Manus Is­land is a federal govern­ment oper­a­tion and we haven’t heard any­thing about artists re­fus­ing govern­ment fund­ing. Nor is any­one, as far as I know, re­fus­ing to show at the AGNSW, chaired, as al­ready men­tioned, by Guido Bel­giorno-Net­tis. To make mat­ters worse, Manus Is­land was an ini­tia­tive of the pre­vi­ous govern­ment, so it isn’t even pos­si­ble to blame the cur­rent one. But the mob was cry­ing for blood and had to be ap­peased.

What is re­ally in­ter­est­ing is the light this af­fair has cast on the is­sue of cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship of the arts, and of con­tem­po­rary art in par­tic­u­lar. A few decades ago, in a very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, it would have been un­think­able for a con­tem­po­rary artist to ac­cept cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship with­out los­ing their avant­garde cred­i­bil­ity; and con­versely it would have been very hard to per­suade most cor­po­ra­tions

April 26-27, 2014 to have any­thing to do with this kind of art. How dif­fer­ent things are to­day. Now artists have no com­punc­tion about tak­ing Mam­mon’s cash, and big cor­po­ra­tions re­gard the spon­sor­ship of con­tem­po­rary art as a brand-build­ing strat­egy. What this en­tails, how­ever, is a fun­da­men­tal dis­count­ing of the os­ten­si­ble mean­ing of the work, which is thus turned into an empty and in­nocu­ous sig­ni­fier of in­no­va­tion. And that is the con­no­ta­tion cor­po­rate spon­sors want to as­so­ciate with their brand.

Of course artists have al­ways been spon­sored by the wealthy and there is noth­ing in­her­ently wrong with that. But in most places in the world and through­out his­tory, this re­la­tion­ship has been me­di­ated by a third term, which was the ser­vice of com­mon be­liefs and val­ues — usu­ally the cel­e­bra­tion of re­li­gious be­liefs and shared so­ciopo­lit­i­cal val­ues. It all be­comes more frag­ile, if not fu­tile, when there is noth­ing but the artist’s own sup­posed orig­i­nal­ity or cre­ativ­ity be­ing traded as an ana­logue of cor­po­rate in­no­va­tion. With­out that me­di­at­ing term of su­pe­rior and com­mon val­ues, those val­ues ac­tu­ally rep­re­sented by the spon­sor­ing in­di­vid­ual or en­tity, and im­plic­itly en­dorsed by the artist who ac­cepts the spon­sor­ship, be­come far more prom­i­nent and po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic. Most artists, one imag­ines, would baulk at ac­cept­ing money from a tobacco com­pany or an ar­ma­ments man­u­fac­turer. You would not ex­pect that they would want to be as­so­ci­ated with gam­bling and casi­nos, broth­els, or any com­pany that makes junk food or soft drinks.

And what of businesses — from fash­ion to con­sumer elec­tron­ics — whose mer­chan­dise is made in for­eign sweat­shops? What of min­ing, oil ex­plo­ration — a re­cent tar­get of ac­tivists in Bri­tain, as de­tailed in Re­view last week — or en­ergy gen­er­a­tion? What of al­co­hol, or big phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals? Or re­tail, which makes money from sell­ing many of these du­bi­ous prod­ucts, and ad­ver­tis­ing, which makes us want things we don’t need? Bank­ing is a favourite for cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship: there are no smok­ing chim­neys, no sweat­shops, no morally rep­re­hen­si­ble goods and ser­vices; yet banks fund all the com­pa­nies one might not touch di­rectly. One com­men­ta­tor has ar­gued that Deutsche Bank, a ma­jor Bi­en­nale spon­sor, has done far more rep­re­hen­si­ble things than Trans­field but cor­rectly points out that manda­tory de­ten­tion is the totemic is­sue of the day.

These are not easy ques­tions, nor can they sen­si­bly be ap­proached in a dog­matic spirit. Com­pro­mise is in­evitable.

But the im­pli­ca­tions are par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing for artists who like to as­sume the moral or po­lit­i­cal high ground and have in many cases been guilty of hypocrisy as well as ide­o­log­i­cal and moral­is­tic pos­tur­ing. As for the so-called cre­ative class more gen­er­ally, with their readyto-wear left­ist opin­ions about ev­ery­thing, many of them are en­gaged in mak­ing prod­ucts as toxic for the hu­man mind as any junk food or pol­lu­tant is for the body.

The re­la­tion of art to pol­i­tics is an im­por­tant but com­plex ques­tion; art is more ef­fec­tive in rais­ing con­scious­ness in sub­tle and imag­i­na­tive ways than in overt de­nun­ci­a­tion, and this more in­di­rect and thought­ful ap­proach is rep­re­sented, for ex­am­ple, in Michael Cook’s al­most whim­si­cal pho­to­graphs, which speak to the imag­i­na­tion pre­cisely be­cause they re­sist the re­flexes of preach­ing and blam­ing; the viewer is dis­armed by their very non-ag­gres­sion.

Other works that touch on po­lit­i­cal ques­tions do so in an in­di­rect way, such as Su­san Nor­rie’s quasi-doc­u­men­tary of an anti-nu­clear demon­stra­tion in Ja­pan. The work’s metapo­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive is con­firmed by the quo­ta­tion from Michel de Certeau with which it con­cludes. If this work is to one side of be­ing di­rectly po­lit­i­cal, Randi and Katrine’s toy-town vil­lage is on the other — it looks like some­thing from a theme park, but the walls around this cosy if rather wonky Nordic vil­lage hint at real and imag­ined threats to the ideal com­mu­nity.

The most strik­ing work that could be con­sid­ered specif­i­cally po­lit­i­cal is Yael Bar­tana’s sump­tu­ously pro­duced video that comes dan­ger­ously close to camp in its styling but deals with a con­tem­po­rary form of po­lit­i­cal threat, re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism. In­spired by a lu­natic fringe Pen­te­costal church in Brazil whose leader is de­ter­mined to rebuild the Tem­ple of Jerusalem in Sao Paulo, the film evokes the trance-like ado­ra­tion the faith­ful and their de­struc­tion in the fire of Ar­maged­don.

At the op­po­site ex­treme of sen­si­bil­ity, colour, move­ment and an­i­ma­tion is David Claer­bout’s black-and-white slide show of the sea­side in

Zobop (2014) by

Jim Lam­bie

The Quiet Shore (2011) by David


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