Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ranking the Biennale (a contribution from Wellington artist and educator David Cross)

The 16th Biennale of Sydney: Revolutions – Forms That Turn
Directed by Caroline Christov-Bakargiev
17 June – September 7 2008

I long ago gave up ranking Sydney Biennales. Having been to ten of the past eleven they do begin to bleed over time into a continuum. Often it seems the Biennale is marked more by the constant passage from Artspace to the MCA, to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to whatever alternative behemoth venue the artistic director can wangle in a given year, than by captivating holistic events. You remember the good ones and the bad ones but struggle to remember even the vaguest details of the nascently mediocre ones.

Revolutions - Forms that Turn benefits enormously from coming after two worthy but largely tepid Biennales. It would be fair to say it is a good Biennale, very good even. Indeed so well received has it been that I am yet to come across a naysayer who has poured scorn on the event. This counts for little though as you know that a solid section of the cognoscenti will be scouring the blind spots and working over the rougher curatorial edges in search of the gasping contradiction or oversight. The Sydney ‘banale’ as one colleague in Australia has deemed it will always been fair game for those irascible critics uncomfortable by the sheer massness of the event.

It will be interesting to see where the searchlights penetrate Caroline Christov-Bakargiev’s installment, as this is a well-considered Biennale that holds together both as an idea and as a suite of engaging contemporary artwork. Leaving aside the title, which one hopes is not employed literally - if it is, it’s risible - and concentrating on the work, there is a lot to unfold and contemplate.

A stated aim of this instalment is to contextualise radical aesthetic innovation over the last hundred years, linking Rodchenko with Tinguely, through to Fischli and Weiss. It’s an ambitious attempt (more than 150 artists) to construct a platform from which to locate a particular strand of politicised contemporary art. The big themes are conceptual art, performance, arte povera and situationism and they serve as critical ciphers from which we might approach the work of artists like Javier Tellez, Jeremy Deller, Susan Philipsz and Simon Denny.

Sometimes the recent examples seemed to be overshadowed by this alignment, with works by Shaun Gladwell and Paul Pfeiffer offering a ‘feel good’ sensibility but lacking the necessary bite. This was made clear by the potent offering of Mark Boulos, whose duel video projection work All That is Solid Melts into Air was a devastating meditation on the Nigerian oil industry and the disaffected dissidents attempting to secure, by any means possible, some of its booty. Other video work by Deller and Tellez was equally impressive in linking nuanced critique with documentary modes.

Special mention should be made of Mike Parr’s retrospective within a biennale, which was exceptionally compelling. In a very dishevelled building on Cockatoo Island, Parr restaged footage from earlier performances in rooms that stank of piss and worse. The site responsive aspect offered up new ways of thinking about his extraordinary body of work which seems fresher and more relevant than the escapades of the better known Chris Burden, also seen in the exhibition. There were clangers as always but the Biennale succeeded in building a context for a specific kind of contemporary practice that moved the experience well away from the banalities of the art supermarket.

(The 5 images are - top to bottom - of works by aiPotu (Andreas Siqueland / Anders Kjellesvik), Anawana Haloba, Tamy Ben-Tor, Vernon Ah Kee, and Rosemary Laing.)


John Hurrell said...
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John Hurrell said...

So did David Cross get it right with his assessment of this Biennale? Lots of you Kiwis have been over to see it. Was it really such a goodie?

I've heard there was too much video. That it clogged the show up and that much of it was long and unfocussed. Is that fair?

What about Cockatoo Island? Did Mike Parr do any live performances? If so, be great to know what they were.

And how did Simon Denny stand up? He's been accused of being hung up on Seth Price. Is that bullshit?