Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sydney Biennale Review

Sydney’s history of spectacular exhibitions stretches much further back than just to the inaugural Biennale of Sydney in 1973. In 1879 Sydney held its International Exhibition, replete with its own grand, and now largely forgotten, reference to London’s Crystal Palace, the Garden Palace. Set in the Royal Botanic Gardens it was just a stone’s throw from Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser’s activated tent work for this biennale, Occupied, 2008. Today Deacon and Fraser’s work sits in the shadow of a glass pyramid which houses the gardens’ tropical plants collection. In 1879 this was the site of the International Exhibition’s Fine Arts Annexe, which at the close of the exhibition, became the first official housing for the Gallery of New South Wales. Significantly, in the current context of a biennale which brings together 154 artists and collectives predominantly from Europe and the United States in a 7:3 split favouring historical works, one the founding sentiments of the Gallery of NSW was a vision of Australia as a latent safe deposit box for European culture in what were turbulent times in the Northern hemisphere (Art Gallery of NSW).

This small history lesson in the early geography of Sydney illustrates the way that apparently diverging trajectories of world exhibition history, of Sydney’s history, of the history of art and its presence in Australia and the Biennale of Sydney 2008 rise up and disappear throughout each other’s paths. Spasmodic and ruptured, diverging and cascading away in schizophrenic ‘lines of flight’, yet weaving together again and again, the structure of relationships evoked between artists, the city and history in the Biennale of Sydney 2008 seem akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulations around rhizomatic multiplicities. These multiplicities are characterised as ‘libidinal, unconscious, molecular, intensive’ and they are ’...composed of particles that do not divide without changing in nature, and distances that do not vary without entering another multiplicity and that constantly construct and dismantle themselves in the course of their communications, as they cross over into each other at, beyond, or before a certain threshold in its relationship.’ (1988: 33)

So it is that an initial reading of the historical works of the biennale, especially at the venues of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Gallery of NSW could easily criticise a tokenism that seems apparent in the selection of uniconic works by historically iconic names (or if you are cynical; drawcards) such as Man Ray, Robert Smithson and Yoko Ono. Yet, upon closer inspection, art historically regimented lineages and hierarchies of movements such as Formalism, the Ready-made, Performance, Feminism (and so on) begin to rupture and flex when the works are presented in a forum which is, in structure, like Deleuze and Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus. The exhibition seeks to set historical and contemporary works on an even footing, without hierarchies and without a regimented ordering through which to travel from work to work or from venue to venue. Juxtaposition of works through proximity in installation is often based on counterintuitive connections, or arbitrary practicality.

In certain instances, the artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, seems to have taken active steps to undercut reverence that might be directed at canonical works such as Marcel Duchamp’s Wheel (1913) at the Gallery of New South Wales to establish this even footing. In this instance, the work is placed against a wall at the bottom of a stairwell, in an access way to the rest of the gallery; any viewers prostrating in front of the work would quickly find themself trodden upon. The work is grouped with works around the image of the bicycle, rather than with works that could be explicitly considered disciples of Duchamp’s ready-made. To the left is Bari Kumar’s video Army of Forgotten Souls 2005 depicting the back of a rickshaw driver amongst the enveloping colour and sound of the rapidly developing Indian city which threatens the man’s livelihood. To the right of the work is another video, Klara Liden’s 2006 Bodies of Society. In a much less cinematic style, Bodies of Society shows a woman violently and unrelentingly beating a bicycle in an apartment. Similarly to the installation approaches taken toward Wheel, the 45-minute documentary film of the late Gordon Matta-Clark’s Program Eight: Office Baroque (1977) finds itself, volume turned right down, in an access-way next to the bag check.

Although this approach to installation frustrates and occasionally seems simplistic it does prompt the viewer to seek out their own connections between works, and to use the language of the rhizomatic multiplicity, to ‘deterritorialise’ the work from its physical site in the gallery and ask the audience to envisage their own ‘lines of flight’ from one work to the next (1988: 32). Christov-Bakargiev hits the ball into the court of the audience; physical mapping which favours arbitrary connections and practicality, facilitates a focus on the audience mapping psychologically for themselves.

The aforementioned Robert Smithson Island Project Drawing (1970) suffers a fate of hanging close to the floor, highlighting the absence of both the artist and Spiral Jetty in Lia Perjovschi’s Subjective Art History from Modernism to Today (1998-2004/8), which sits above the Smithson work. The highlighting of this gap in Perjovschi’s self-reflexively haphazard history makes the rupturing of narratives and connections in the histories of modern and post-modern art at this biennale in general seem logical.

Deleuze and Guatarri speak further on the nature of rhizomes; a ‘rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines’ (2007: 10). This system of thought speaks to the biennale’s flicking in and out of movements, of diverging and ‘entangled lines’ (Deleuze and Guatarri 1988:32) and a tide like return and withdrawal of revolution as a premise to the exhibition’s structure.

Traditional notions of art historical lineage are splintered and take off on unorthodox lines of flight. Rather than envisioning historical figures as the cornerstones of clear, continuous narratives into contemporary practice, they are instead more like the revolutionary moment itself; a point of divergence in many strange directions, and sometimes a point of collapse and seeming withdrawal, followed by points of unexpected return via unorthodox paths. Installation techniques employed in multi media practices across the biennale reflect this, for example, Mike Parr’s 1971-2008 retrospective MIRROR/ARSE on Cockatoo Island has obvious connections in content and ‘period’ to Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 Meat Joy, both with their probes into the meeting of the abject with the spectacle and fetishism of the body on camera. However, despite there being only a few years between Meat Joy and the earliest of Parr’s works in the program, the visceral presence of Parr’s works in the dilapidated sailors quarters is in clear opposition to the depoliticised and mediated display of Schneemann’s work on a flat screen television in a corner of the white cube of the Gallery of New South Wales. The contrasting experiences of these works rupture the meaning of a timeline in which Parr’s work follows obediently on from Schneemann’s in a step-by-step lineage of ‘performative body art’.

Likewise, documentation of other historical works with performative elements such as Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void” 5, rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-aux-Roses, October 1960 (1960, reprinted 2008) or Valie EXPORT’s Touch Cinema (1968) do not necessarily sit comfortably with What a Fucking Wonderful Audience (2008), a performance ‘by’ Dora García. In one sense, García directly undercuts the notion of the artist’s body as a medium by employing another artist, Kate Blackmore, to perform the work. Thus, in a biennale that is so heavily populated by historical works, Dora García’s work forges connections between her practice and the artists that she speaks about, Guy Debord, Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida. And yet with the final artist she speaks about, Chris Burden, the connections back to this tradition of the body in performative practices rise up again in an unexpected way.

In her keynote address, Christov-Bakargiev addressed the etymology of the word revolution: ‘volvere; to turn and revolvere; to turn again’. She stressed that in this sense the exhibition is focused on ‘the formal gestures embedded within the word revolutions; it is not an illustration of revolutions’ (June 26 2008). This seems significant given Dora García’s disconnection from and reconnection to earlier practices in the biennale. However, Oxford American Dictionary cites the etymology of the word revolve slightly differently; as volvere; to roll, + re; back; revolvere: to roll back. As a formal gesture, this etymology alongside Christov Bakargiev’s seems significant in the Sisyphus like motion it evokes. A gesture of the stone rolling back to the bottom of the hill seems fitting in Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s REVOLUTION (2008). The video is a bricolage of scenes appropriated from cinematic versions of revolutions, following the narrative of the birth and crowning of royalty, and then the encroachment of terror upon the luxurious bubble of royalty as revolution approaches. The looping of the video medium highlights that the chaos and debris left in the wake of the revolutions is also the breeding grounds for new leaders to rise to power.

The process apparent in this sense of time in revolution also seems present in the subtext of Pierre Huyghes work A Forest of Lines (2008); over 1000 plants and trees installed in the main theatre of the Sydney Opera House. As oxymoronic as this statement might sound, this work is the one work at the biennale that will be better for those who did not experience it. The beauty of the sentiment of the work suffered in its realisation through wilting plants, overbearing safety precautions, erratic smoke machines (that had the odour of a disco rather than fog) and an evidently exhausted singer. However, within the context of the biennale’s structure of lines of flight that depart from revolutionary moments and individual artworks alike, the work in its abstract state becomes clear and quite beautiful. Focused around the notion of a radically monumental effort to achieve a fleeting image, after the event, the apparition becomes memory and rumour and disperses along tangential narrative lines (Huyghe and Christov-Bakargiev, 10 July 2008).

As a final point, Ryan Gander’s performative piece Loose Associations Lecture (Version 1.1) (9 July 2008) fittingly also reflected the structure of the exhibition as a whole, the first section of the performance focusing around all manner of lines, desire lines, trauma lines, passivity lines. Then, from the image of the interrogation room with its Robin Day polypropylene chairs the lecture took off on a trajectory line of its own, a roller-coaster of Bob Dylan, Gillian Wearing, John Thor - Inspector Morse, the artist formerly known as Prince, London cabbies, and Doctor Mark Chan (the linguist who invented Klingon).

So too might the visitor to the Sydney Biennale find themselves on an unlikely line of flight from Len Lye’s kinetic sculpture Storm King (1964) to Piero Manzoni’s drawing of a line in a tube Linea m10,42 (December 1959). Or from Lene Berg’s interdisciplinary installation in a cottage on Cockatoo Island, The Drowned One, 2008 which questions the properties of truth in photographic images, to collective Claire Fontaine’s Sharing of Private Property (2006), an educational video on how to pick locks. The individual artworks, deterritorialised from their individual spaces to form rhizomal connections with historical and contemporary works alike from across the biennale echoes the aims of the biennale format in general, to deterritorialise art from its site of production and make available (and hopefully relevant) elsewhere (Christov-Bakargiev, 26 June 2008) and indeed, those original desires of the founders of the gallery of NSW.


Art Gallery of New South Wales: History of the Art Gallery

Deleauze, Gilles and Felix Guatarri “1914:one or several wolves?” A thousand plateaus: capitalisma and schizophrenia trans Brian Massumi London: Athlone Press, 1988 pp 26 -38.

No comments: