20th Biennale of Sydney
Melbourne had a Biennale once, back in 1999, before you were born. Curator Julianna Engberg called it Signs of Life. But it died. Reputedly went three times over budget it did and Melbourne University (who had underwritten it) decided they weren’t rich enough to go into the red for culture, so they canned it. A crying shame it was too, because it was a very good exhibition. Sometimes now, I sit round my home studio shed, wasting my time making some facile piece of worthless shit that will never see the light of day, wondering what I’d be making if the Melbourne Biennale hadn’t have been canned. What dreams would I be dreaming with exposure to International calibre art (and the artists who make it) every two years, all at my front door? Not all artists can afford the time, or the expense of going abroad to see the latest hottest tickets, or the oeuvre of the established legends. So thank heavens for the Sydney Biennale, celebrating its 20th edition. It’s just up the road from Melbourne; you get on the Highway and keep peddlin’ north, till you hit water.
Sydney Biennale has survived the highly political sponsorship fallout, during the 19th Biennale, which (in a strange twist of fate) saw curator Julianna Engberg at the helm of that one too. Talk about heavy Biennale karma… This could be a new benchmark!
Preceding the last Biennale, artists reminded everyone that: Yes. We are a political group of people, concerned with the rights of others. Like people who have had the misfortune of having been born, or residing in a country at wartime, people seeking asylum within Australia’s relative freedom. The fight for fair treatment of asylum seekers continues in Australia. Well both in Australia, and in the remote offshore detention centres that operate to process their claims, in a system that optimises the full ineptitude of bureaucratic process, against the people whom it is purportedly treating equitably.
The 20th Biennale of Sydney is titled ‘The Future is Already Here – It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed’, a title very much confronting the testing times in which we live. Times in which we see corporate/capitalist interests go full tilt whack job on our sweet democratic asses. Times in which we are reminded that war is very good business, as are fossil fuels. Still, propped up as they are by government subsidy. A time when the world’s economic growth is based on two things: car sales and real estate. And there is no city more obsessed with real estate than Sydney.
Speaking of real estate, Archie Moore’s public sculpture, ‘A Home Away From Home (Bennelong/Vera’s Hut)’, sitting under the watchful gaze of the iconic Sydney Opera House, has quite the location location location! Australia’s recent colonial past cannot be denied from this vantage. This land always was and always will be, Aboriginal land. The 20th Biennale began here, with the best Welcome to Country I’ve ever attended. Not that welcome to countries are a competition, but this was as moving an occasion as I’ve ever attended. We acknowledged the traditional owners of the site, known as Tubowgulle, on Gadigal land. Gadigal Elder, Uncle Chikka Madden welcomed us, and then Matthew Doyle performed a smoking ceremony. It cleansed, purified and healed the body, mind and spirit of those lucky to be there.
The hut Archie has rebuilt, once the home of Bennelong, was also cleansed. Captain Arthur Phillip built a “white fella house” for Bennelong, when he returned home from his voyage to London. The first tent embassy if you like. Matthew Doyle also performed a song that Bennelong had performed for the court in London and recorded for installation within Bennelong/Vera’s Hut. For Bennelong (c.1764-1813), there’s a huge reassessment presently going on and really, what a surreal life this man lived. Forced to straddle two civilizations, caught up in the racist anthropological interests of British Imperialists and their sinister use of science to back up Terra Nullius.
Public sculpture is the worst performing of all the art forms. Perhaps it’s the safety issues that do it in, or maybe it’s dealing with Councils. Anyway, with so much crap public sculpture round our cities, we must all work to preserve good examples of art in public spaces. Archie Moore’s public sculpture A Home Away From Home (Bennelong/Vera’s Hut) isn’t good. It’s great. There are already calls to make the work permanent, and we hope that the Royal Botanical Gardens, partners with Archie on the project, can acknowledge the cultural and historic importance of this art, by working to secure its stay, after the Biennale closes. A Home Away From Home (Bennelong/Vera’s Hut) is due to be demolished at the end of the exhibition, and I think that would be a missed opportunity for us all.
Down at Circular Key, smack bang in front of the MCA, Richard Bell presents his Aboriginal Embassy. An Embassy with a curated programme of talks, forums, guest speakers and videos about Aboriginal Rights in Australia. Issues discussed included self determination and how it might play out in the next ten years; land rights (I’m no Tenant, I’m the Landlord, said Richard); the questionable quality of education being delivered by the federal government; Aboriginal Hip Hop and the course in Contemporary Aboriginal Art, a culturally appropriate course developed in Brisbane at Griffith University.
I saw two talks, one with Richard and Lyall Munro jnr., another with Richard, Gary Foley, Aunty Bronwyn Penrith and documentary maker Darleen Johnson (The Redfern Story 2014). Gary and Aunty Bronwyn both appear in Darleen’s film.
http://www.creativespirits.info/resources/movies/the-redfern-story#axzz443edvO7n (Synopsis of the film with a link to the trailer)
In introducing Aunty Bronwyn, Richard acknowledged that Aunty had set him straight about his sexism, that he was a poor student and their work together on his personal growth continues. Gary Foley, Aunty Bronwyn and Darleen all spoke about the Redfern Theatre Group, how Bob Maza, following a trip to New York, where he saw the Black Theatre group operating in the Bronx, established it. This, and the Aboriginal Medical Service, and the Aboriginal Legal Service, were established in response to police brutality at the time that there was a feeling of being under siege within Redfern in the early 70’s. At this time, there were between 20,000- 30,000 Aboriginal people living in Redfern, the highest destiny of Aboriginal people living together within their 60,000-year history.
As the talk continued, Gary Foley noted the arrival of Captain Cook’s Cruises, mooring to pick up another group of day-trippers, who were surely missing the irony of the group’s corporate branding. Otherwise they’d take their custom elsewhere.
The microphone was handed to Roxley Foley (son of Gary), who spoke about the efforts of young Aboriginal activists to gain equality and how there was very much a sense of generational baton passing. We will be getting to know Roxley and his crew more in the future.
Keg de Souza’s work investigates the politics of space and there’s no more political space right now, than Redfern. Redfern is a developer’s paradise. Close to the city, the gentrification, of which art and artists play a part, has begun in earnest. Keg trained as an architect and knows her way around a sewing machine. Often she sews together inflatable architecture. Within these spaces, people come together and hang out, informally, and within programmed talks and forums. So the work functions in a similar way to Richard Bell’s Aboriginal Embassy. Keg’s previous works look at gentrification too, through projects like Squatspace within There Goes the Neighbourhood, a project hosted by Performance Space at Carriageworks. http://www.theregoestheneighbourhood.org/project%20brief.htm
‘Within the makeshift architecture of We Built this City, the Redfern School of Displacement (RSD) aims to cultivate local knowledge through a series of discussions and tours with special guests. By creating a platform for conversation and debate that explores the politics of displacement, RSD promotes learning as a useful tool to combat the forces of dispossession.’ (Online catalogue).
Keg’s work wades headfirst, into the messy conflict between the Aboriginal Housing Company, led by Michael Mundine, a charity set up four decades ago to provide affordable housing for Indigenous people, and a group of Aunties, who are opposed to the commercial development of the Block. Jenny Munro is the spokeswoman for the group.
“For us, this piece of land is iconic,” Jenny Munro says. “It’s sacred, it’s sovereign, and every inch of it is black. It’s the first piece of land that was acknowledged as Aboriginal land in the country.”
“He’s telling us we don’t have any say in what happens to this land,” Munro explains, “but if you understand anything at all about our culture and our people, it’s that title is communal. It’s not individual. He’s breaking a lot of laws, both black and white.”
Mike Parr’s performance at Carriageworks saw him defy commodification in a different way. He threw a spade full of lighter fluid on a grid of drenched artist proof etchings. And up they went, like back in 1994, when KLF set fire to a million quid of their own cash. To see what it would look like. Mike Parr’s work was brave programming of a brave artist, the works intensity was heightened by an ominous air of danger, since if the wind had have changed, there would have been Kentucky Fried art lovers standing round supping on bubbles but gasping for air. The work began when a ute drove in, the Talking Heads classic Burning Down the House blaring from strapped on speakers. Some thought this a bit populist, but for my money, I think it worked to diffuse the pretention that builds and surrounds an elite audience waiting for a ‘performance’ to begin. Mike Parr’s legend was ignited again, in a simple but bold gesture.
After Mike Parr’s flames had died down, gallery owner Anna Schwartz was keen to have a word with me. ‘You’re having an affair with my husband’ exclaimed Anna! ‘What’, I shrugged, ’it’s just a pretend affair Anna, we’re not even having pretend sex,’ I reassured her. Australian art is a small pond, and I’m mindful not to make any new well-connected enemies. Fact and fiction are not nearly as closely related as the Melbourne art world is. ‘I haven’t ridden the Morry Lorry, honest I haven’t’, I continued. ‘But anytime I write about it, my blog readership spikes, I can tell you that for free! My readers dictate the content I explore, it’s the price of my independence for goodness sakes”. Anna and I made up; we were able to talk to our shared love of art and culture and words and newspapers and magazines. I felt just like a young Sid Nolan, hammering out the fine print with John Reed. Getting him to pencil me in to Sunday’s hectic schedule. And her perpetual happiness.
Aura Satz exhibited an incredibly good video work at Carriageworks too, about women being early data entry workers, how this labour became the basis of binary, then computers. The work looks too at ballistics, how each bullet makes a unique penetration into whatever it hits.
At The Embassy of Non Participation at Artspace, Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, screen The Unreliable Narrator, 2014-15, a two-channel, 17-minute video about the 2008 Mumbai attacks. We see footage from a variety of vantages- surveillance footage, Bollywood films clearly referencing these real events, recordings between the 10 young radicalised assailants, and the men managing their actions. “Have you set the fire? I can’t see the smoke yet? Leave your phone on and put it in your pocket,” we hear the coach say, and we know it’s for our benefit, so we can all hear the soundtrack of the carnage till the end. This isn’t easy art, the story is sad, over four days the coordinated attacks killed 160 people. A sombre narrator tells us ‘the meaning of an act lies not in its doing, but in it being seen.’
Dane Mitchell presents Remedies for Remembering and Forgetting at the AGNSW and in the Botanical Gardens. It’s got science, it’s got poetry, it’s like all Dane Mitchell’s art. It’s very good. What you choose to remember, and what you choose to forget, is political. One of the more interesting aspects of aging is watching people attempt to rewrite history, from personal histories, to local histories, regional histories to national, even international histories. History, and its telling, who’s telling it, who’s bankrolling them, what they remember, what they forget, is a political mind field. And it’s up for grabs. History isn’t a constant, the rewriting of histories; the reassessment of history must be very closely monitored. History is as tied to ethics and philosophy as every other aspect of life is.
Much of the work I enjoyed at the Biennale is direct in a way that art often isn’t. I think it’s time to mean what you say, to say what you mean. With a range of brave programming by Stephanie Rosenthal, delivering brave projects by brave artists, I reckon there’s plenty of art in this 20th Biennale of Sydney that will get your conceptual juices flowing.
I love art that teaches you stuff, shit you didn’t know yet. I love art that’s about real things and not too way out in LaLa Land. Poetics within art are all well and good, I’m just not sure we have time left for too much that can be lost in translation. Because the future is already here, but it’s sure as fuck not evenly distributed.