Art The Five El­e­ments

Julie Ewing­ton on the 21st Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 -

Mami Kataoka, the subtle and ur­bane chief cu­ra­tor at Mori Art Mu­seum in Tokyo, is, re­mark­ably, the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney’s first Asian artis­tic di­rec­tor in its 45-year his­tory. Sig­nif­i­cantly, this 21st edi­tion picks up the strong Asian, es­pe­cially Ja­panese, pres­ence in the first and sec­ond Bi­en­nales of 1973 and 1976. Kataoka’s theme this year – Su­per­po­si­tion: Equi­lib­rium & En­gage­ment – is drawn di­rectly from the Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy of Wux­ing in which five ba­sic el­e­ments of ex­is­tence – wood, fire, earth, metal and wa­ter – work sym­bi­ot­i­cally. The theme sits well in Syd­ney, with its strong Asian com­mu­ni­ties. While the “su­per” in “su­per­po­si­tion” might be hip in to­day’s Ja­panese ver­nac­u­lar, bal­ance and har­mony in the uni­verse have been sought in East Asian world­views for cen­turies. Such sweep­ing themes con­ven­tion­ally pre­cede am­bi­tious con­tem­po­rary art ex­hi­bi­tions in or­der to struc­ture them, of­ten less than suc­cess­fully. Kataoka’s em­blem is as­tute: her thor­oughly tra­di­tional premise trans­lates into the con­tem­po­rary no­tion, draw­ing on quan­tum me­chan­ics, that all as­pects of life are in­ter­con­nected. Within this broad range, Kataoka has faith­fully fol­lowed her ba­sic ma­te­ri­als, ex­pressed in a con­sid­ered mix of works, across the ex­hi­bi­tion’s six venues. This sup­ple

struc­ture plays out well in the great aban­doned in­dus­trial spa­ces of Cock­a­too Is­land, to take just one site, where the artists’ making pro­cesses are re­vealed. Aus­tralian Yas­min Smith has set up a work­shop trans­form­ing her clays, Par­ra­matta River man­grove wood for glazes, and the salt of Syd­ney Har­bour in a beau­ti­fully cal­i­brated process that will en­dure through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion; her dry­ing room, on the is­land’s up­per level, is phys­i­cally sep­a­rate but con­cep­tu­ally in­te­gral. And the Thai sculp­tor Tawatchai Pun­tu­sawasdi is show­ing beau­ti­ful metal forms – sim­ple enough but obey­ing the com­plex laws of their curves – along­side the tem­plates and mea­sure­ments used to de­vise them. This site speci­ficity is con­sis­tently reg­is­tered in Kataoka’s Bi­en­nale; in­deed, ex­plor­ing Syd­ney has be­come one of the chief charms of the Bi­en­nale. On Cock­a­too Is­land’s up­per ar­eas, across two aban­doned fac­tory build­ings, the vet­eran Amer­i­can Suzanne Lacy has in­stalled (2016), a poignant ex­am­i­na­tion of the death of a once-great tex­tile in­dus­try in north-west Eng­land and the heal­ing com­mu­nity ex­pe­ri­ence of singing and chant­ing to­gether. In no other set­ting would this glo­ri­ous work be so pow­er­ful: one stands where hun­dreds once worked, and their pres­ence, in­ti­mated by video in­ter­views of their English coun­ter­parts, is pal­pa­ble. Nearby, Ryan Gan­der re­vis­its his English child­hood in a newly com­mis­sioned in­stal­la­tion re­plete with mag­i­cal speci­ficity; it’s another world, but a minia­ture ver­sion of Cock­a­too Is­land’s famous Dog Leg Tun­nel, cut through the is­land’s mas­sive rock, be­comes the skewed tele­scope of mem­ory. This mo­tif of place­ment and dis­place­ment re­curs all over the is­land. Across town, Red­fern’s Car­riage­works has never looked bet­ter. Kataoka has mas­tered its cav­ernous reaches with an ex­tended play on paint­ing, de­ploy­ing im­pos­ing works with­out in­ter­ven­ing walls. (There was no bud­get for build­ing, as Kataoka wryly noted at the me­dia pre­view, and the space is all the bet­ter for

it.) The grand scale of all the works in the huge room is breath­tak­ing. The in­stal­la­tion in­cludes works by the West­ern Desert painter Ge­orge Tjun­gur­rayi, which are backed by a video ex­plo­ration of the same coun­try by the French artist Lau­rent Grasso. The English duo Semi­con­duc­tor (Ruth Jar­man and Joe Ger­hardt) stand out. Their puls­ing multi-screen an­i­ma­tions, riff­ing on seis­mic data and min­eral sam­ples, con­stantly transform the gloom with daz­zling chang­ing colour. This is the finest of many works across the en­tire ex­hi­bi­tion evok­ing cos­mic power, el­e­men­tal forces. At Car­riage­works two par­tic­u­lar el­e­ments are no­table, each sug­gest­ing the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the whole. In the tiny cin­ema in the fur­thest cor­ner, eas­ily over­looked but not to be missed, is Nguyen Trinh Thi’s video Let­ters from Pan­duranga (2015). Her gen­tle epis­to­lary study of the Cham peo­ple of south­ern coastal Viet­nam sug­gests some­thing of the com­plex­ity of in­ter-cul­tural di­a­logues within and across Asia, an alert­ness that runs through this en­tire Bi­en­nale. Nguyen’s softly spo­ken voiceover is, from time to time, in­ter­rupted by faint boom­ing echoes: Marco Fusi­nato’s great wall is be­ing struck by a base­ball bat in another huge room nearby, like a tem­ple gong registering merit. Sound res­onates else­where in the Bi­en­nale, in­clud­ing in another won­der­ful mono­lith: Ja­cob Kirkegaard’s Through the Wall (2013), at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, repli­cates the West Bank bar­rier sep­a­rat­ing Is­rael and Pales­tine, sum­mon­ing sounds heard at that sad, fraught site. On a more pos­i­tive note, Ja­panese theatre di­rec­tor Akira Takayama’s lovely Our Songs – Syd­ney Kabuki Project (2018), at Chi­na­town’s 4A Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Asian Art, grace­fully cel­e­brates com­mu­nity stories and was filmed in the Vic­to­rian splen­dour of Syd­ney Town Hall. And if you can get a ticket, don’t miss Oliver Beer’s ec­static Com­po­si­tion for Tun­ing an Ar­chi­tec­tural Space (2012/18) at the Syd­ney Opera House un­til May 18.

In no other set­ting would this glo­ri­ous work be so pow­er­ful.

All this speaks to the in­ge­nu­ity and con­fi­dence with which Kataoka has wo­ven to­gether this study of equi­lib­rium and en­gage­ment. Each venue is a mi­cro­cosm of the whole, and as a fel­low cu­ra­tor I greatly ad­mire this den­sity and sus­tained quiet thought­ful­ness. And then there is the un­ex­pected – al­ways hoped for, ever cru­cial. Look at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for Sa Sa Art Projects from Ph­nom Penh as ev­i­dence of vi­brant creative life in Cam­bo­dia, or the po­lit­i­cal acu­ity and bit­ing hu­mour of Cer­cle d’Art des Tra­vailleurs de Plan­ta­tion Con­go­laise from Africa, or ex­quis­ite or­ches­tral

ex­per­i­ments by the Syd­ney-trained, Hong Kong–based Sam­son Young. At the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia I can­not forget the pro­bity of Maria Taniguchi’s pris­tine black paint­ings and open wooden sculp­tures, or the per­sis­tent in­ge­nu­ity of Tom Ni­chol­son, man­i­fested in an ex­pan­sive pen­cil wall-draw­ing not­ing the cre­ation of na­tional bound­aries since Fed­er­a­tion, or the group of burial bas­kets by the great Ngar­rind­jeri weaver Yvonne Kool­ma­trie from South Aus­tralia, or the Amer­i­can Liza Lou’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Zulu ar­ti­sans from South Africa in a sub­lime room filled with tiny beaded clouds. Good use is also made of works from lo­cal col­lec­tions: one ex­am­ple is Geng Xue’s mes­meris­ing video Po­etry of Michelan­gelo at Artspace; it nor­mally lives in Syd­ney’s White Rab­bit col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese art.

Bi­en­nale vis­i­tors and crit­ics are ask­ing if the time of the large in­ter­na­tional ex­trav­a­ganza has come and gone.

What then of the ele­phant in the tur­bine shop? The late Nick Water­low, who steered three edi­tions, once said ev­ery Bi­en­nale needs its gim­mick. Ai Wei­wei’s Law of the Jour­ney (2017) at Cock­a­too Is­land is this year’s: the gi­gan­tic black rub­ber raft filled with over­size rub­ber asy­lum seek­ers was the me­dia draw­card of the open­ing week. It is as­ton­ish­ing, so per­fectly scaled in the enor­mous space that it ap­pears, para­dox­i­cally, di­min­ished, even mun­dane. Orig­i­nally made for an ex­hi­bi­tion in Prague, as an em­phatic re­buke of the Czech Re­pub­lic’s re­fusal to ac­cept refugees, the work sits just as well in Aus­tralia, with this coun­try’s record of off­shore in­car­cer­a­tion. It’s very bad art, a gar­gan­tuan one-liner that Ai him­self cor­rectly de­scribed as “silly” dur­ing an in­ter­view at the Syd­ney Opera House, but it has a mes­sage to de­liver, as the nu­mer­ous texts, many from Ai him­self, around the base of the work at­test. Ai’s sup­port for the refugees flood­ing into Europe in re­cent years has made him the most cel­e­brated artist in the world; he re­ceived a hero’s wel­come at the Opera House. Al­ways ready to speak, Ai did name this Bi­en­nale’s key prob­lem. Dur­ing an of­ten petu­lant in­ter­view with Kataoka, Ai told the 2000-odd au­di­ence that, in ef­fect, the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney had an enor­mous in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion but not the re­sources to match it. That’s ex­actly right. I hinted as much two years ago, re­view­ing the 20th Bi­en­nale, but in 2018 it’s clear the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney is an or­gan­i­sa­tion stretched be­yond ca­pac­ity. Kataoka her­self tells me she sees the Bi­en­nale bud­get as “a mys­tery” and “ex­tremely small”. She con­tin­ues, “One must in­vest for new com­mis­sions, site-spe­cific works and longer re­search-based works to make it sig­nif­i­cant and mean­ing­ful … it should not be only about mar­ket-friendly works.” More­over, “be­cause the Bi­en­nale has free en­trance, there is no way to gen­er­ate its own in­come, and this is not pos­i­tive in the fu­ture”. As Kataoka ob­served in a pub­lic fo­rum at the MCA just two weeks be­fore the ex­hi­bi­tion’s open­ing, her chal­lenge was work­ing out what to do given that there are so many bi­en­nales and the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale has only one of­fice and no fixed venues, just long­stand­ing part­ners. And there’s the mat­ter of the cat­a­logue. At one of the open­ing week­end talks, David El­liott, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the 2010 Bi­en­nale, noted its ab­sence. A com­pre­hen­sive on­line cat­a­logue is promised for the con­clu­sion of the ex­hi­bi­tion, there are very use­ful re­sources on the web­site, and the $5 guide is great. But I al­ready miss that print cat­a­logue, the Bi­en­nale’s per­ma­nent record. In the cir­cum­stances, the fas­ci­nat­ing Bi­en­nale archive on dis­play at the Art Gallery of New South Wales took on a slightly vale­dic­tory cast: so much achieve­ment over the decades, but where to next? Bi­en­nale vis­i­tors and crit­ics are ask­ing if the time of the large in­ter­na­tional ex­trav­a­ganza has come and gone. Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy and quan­tum me­chan­ics aside, Mami Kataoka’s key terms of su­per­po­si­tion, equi­lib­rium and en­gage­ment might sug­gest some­thing of the mir­a­cle of in­ter-in­sti­tu­tional co­op­er­a­tion that is con­spic­u­ous in this year’s edi­tion. It sounds like a good story, Syd­ney pulling to­gether. But is all this sea­sonal good­will suf­fi­cient to sus­tain the Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney into the fu­ture? The 21st Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney: Su­per­po­si­tion: Equi­lib­rium & En­gage­ment runs un­til June 11 at the Art Gallery of NSW, Artspace, Car­riage­works, Cock­a­too Is­land, 4A Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Asian Art, and the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia.

Ni­cholas Man­gan, A World Un­done, 2012 (video still), HD video, colour, silent, 12 mins, con­tin­u­ous loop. Cour­tesy the artist; Sut­ton Gallery, Mel­bourne; Hop­kin­son Moss­man, Auck­land; and LA­BOR, Mex­ico City

Morry Schwartz hits the wall, Marco Fusi­nato’s Con­stel­la­tions (2015 / 2018). Photo by Anna Schwartz

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