MESSAGE ON THE SPONSOR
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
The Quiet Shore (2011) by David