At the inauguration of the 17th Biennale of Sydney—“The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age”—artistic director David Elliott boldly claimed that “the European Enlightenment is over.” The exhibition goes far, if not far enough, to prove this statement.
What’s immediately clear upon entering Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, one of three main exhibition areas, is Elliott’s curatorial skill, particularly his ability to set up poignant relationships between artworks. This is something more easily achieved in group exhibitions, where years of planning and consideration are available, but it is something rarely seen in biennials and biennales of late—their quick time frame often makes them merely responsive to particular trends rather than capable of revealing a possible future direction for art. Dominating the front lawn, and pointing to the successful moments of spectacle and poignancy Elliott achieved throughout the exhibition, is Roxy Paine’s impressive cast sculptural “root ball,” Neuron.
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Particularly astute (and conceptually risky) is a room containing Beau Dick’s masks of the Bak’was—the Kwakwaka’wakw wild man of the woods—along with a series of seven tall bronze casts by the late Louise Bourgeois, all based on re-sewn and formally manipulated discarded clothes. Together, the artists’ works oscillate between magic and myth. Here, Northwest Coast masks are not simply presented as a moment of Surrealist inspiration and appropriation, but considered in light of their own—very different—conceptual and aesthetic underpinnings. Beau Dick’s masks, which for the artist only achieve their full potential through use, radiate off the wall while some of Bourgeois’ bronzes, painted white, take on the appearance of lighting rods.
One of the only historical precedents in the biennale is the inclusion of visionary experimental animations by artist, anthropologist and musicologist Harry Smith dating between 1939 and 1962. Smith is best known for his six-album Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation which inspired the subtitle of the biennale. The magical philosophy of Smith’s work is a pertinent lens through which to consider many of the artworks in the exhibition, including the large installation of 110 intricately patterned larrakitj (burial poles) by Yolngu artists from North East Arnhem Land in Australia. The poles, originally part of Aboriginal funerary rites, have been produced as sculptures since the 1950s, when they were first commissioned for an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Here again, the inclusion of these poles didn’t seem to come from a modernist impulse to exoticize, but rather a desire to consider the knowledge and ideologies they contain in their own right.
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Other works, such as Brook Andrew’s Jumping Castle War Memorial, an adult-only inflatable bouncing castle made in an effort to call attention to the very real impact of colonization on indigenous people in Australia, is conceptually slight and reductive. In other instances, inclusions of strong and well-known works by Cai Guo-Qiang, Steve McQueen, Althea Thauberger and Rodney Graham seem surprising given that they have already premiered at major exhibitions including the Venice Biennale and Manifesta.
On Cockatoo Island, a former prison and shipbuilding yard, highlights include Ten Thousand Waves, a new installation by British artist Isaac Julien, and videos by Yang Fudong and the Russian collective AES+F. A video work spread over nine free-standing screens, Julien’s beautifully shot video combines personal fantasy and realism and is based on the story of 21 Chinese migrants who drowned while picking cockles in England’s Morecambe Bay in 2004. Another particularly affecting work is Fudong’s six-screen video installation East of Que Village. Shot in black and white in the bleak landscape of northernmost China, the centre of the documentary focuses on the abject suffering of stray dogs who live at the very edges of existence. Their lives are juxtaposed with those of local families in the village, who also manage to subsist on minimal means. These videos directly contrast with the deliberate visual and technological opulence of AES+F, whose presentation of The Feast of Trimalchio, which also premiered at the Venice Biennale, is among the most talked-about works in Sydney. Composed of 70,000 animated still images, the panoramic multi-screen video depicts a futuristic feast where, at certain moments, the usual hierarchies between race and class are flipped and the masters take on the role of servants. An uncomfortable tension exists in the installation, where stereotypes are embodied only to become slippery and seductive—where the performers almost, but almost never, touch.
This sense of disquiet is paralleled in Janet Laurence’s Waiting—A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants, located at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. There, viewers can witness a laboratory equipped for the palliative care of sick flora. The work points to the disconnect between apathy and action, well evoking Elliott’s titular notion of precarious distance.
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