Biennale of Sydney Volume 1: Cake

Art Life , Reviews Jun 07, 2004 No Comments

There’s a lot of art in the Biennale. spread all over town in galleries, in parks and up trees – too much to get down in one go. So we’re going to follow the classic cake cutting procedure of plunging the knife into the centre first, then cutting along the dotted line, leaving two evenly proportioned sections. On one side are the “Australasian” artists and on the other are the international artists. It’s a completely arbitrary approach, we know, and possibly a parochial one as well, but that’s the way we like our cake.

We have a suspicion the Art Gallery of NSW is a trying to get out of being involved with the Biennale. Over the years the amount of space dedicated to the show has got smaller and smaller and, as more and more of the show goes to the Museum of Contemporary Art and other smaller galleries, we’re thinking the AGNSW is like a friend who you once offered to help move house and now you have to actually go through with it.

“Hi Biennale here, are we still on for June?”

“Sure, see you then”, says AGNES putting the phone down, “Damn it! She does that to me every two years!”

This year’s contingent at the AGNSW is a mere ten artists of whom only four are from Australia or New Zealand: Pat Brassington, Carolyn Eskdale, Daniel Malone and Daniel Von Sturmer.

Now, we were wondering after looking at Pat Brassington‘s art whether she lives in a house made of gingerbread in a dark forest? She probably picks her teeth with the bones of children as she thinks up her diabolical ideas for her new installations. In My Father’s House is a work where there are three full size doors with lights coming through from the other side. The best part of this work is the moment before you open the doors as you stand there wondering what you’re going to see, something monstrous – a doorway into a Lovecraftian dimension?

The answer doesn’t quite live up to the promise – there are some large close up photographs of plants and bits of people’s bodies melded together on the other side, lit up with a fluro light and a few cables visible at the bottom. You can tell you’re supposed to go, wow, how odd, but it isn’t and it’s disappointing. There was a guy in one of our classes at art school who stuck a sausage up a chicken’s arse and took close up photographs and said, isn’t it weird, it looks like porn! Well, no, it was just a sausage up a chicken’s arse and we have similar feelings about Brassington’s installation. On the opposite wall of the room is a selection of photographs by Brassington and we like those a lot more. They are similarly constrained in their photography – unusual angles, strange lighting, the whole Surrealist tool kit – but they work a lot better, and we’re not just saying that because we like white pantaloons.

Carolyn Eskdale has some drawings in the Biennale and a big sculpture. The sculpture is a bit ho hum. There is a huge scaffold-like structure lying on its side up against a window and for a second you think that the sculpture goes through the window and continues out into the sculpture garden. But a nanosecond later you realise that it’s actually another sculpture very similar, a mirror image of the one inside the room. As far as an illusion goes, it’s quite fun and elegantly made, but it doesn’t really engage you beyond the optical illusion.

In the foyer of the AGNSW, there’s a second installation , but this is far more appealing – a wall made of fabric and a furry beam that echoes and parodies the sculptured space of the ceiling above – and we’re not just saying that because we like furry beams. You walk into the gallery and think it’s part of the wall, although it couldn’t possibly be, and once you get the fact that it’s actually a work of art, there’s a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Of far more interest are Eskdale’s drawings. Looking straight at them you think you’re looking at a grey piece of paper, but up close you can see that she’s drawn a series of lines across the page, evenly spread, wavy lines that follow the contours of the paper. Like the sculptures and their intervention into preexisting spaces, the lines are determined by the three dimensional qualities of the paper – so while it’s flat, it’s actually 3D, and it’s amazingly beautiful.

Is everyone in New Zealand called Daniel? Maybe. Daniel Malone has done a work that references a whole bunch of things – Tracey Moffatt‘s film Nite Cries, the paintings of Colin McCahon and Albert Namitjira, the frontier spirit of Australia and New Zealand, the landscape – and all of this is brought together in the form of a dunny.

The work is an actual outdoor crap house that has been imported to Australia from the New Zealand countryside (fumigated) and set up at the end of a corridor. The walls of the corridor have been painted in the style of the backdrops from Moffatt’s film and look a lot like a play room at McDonald’s. You walk to the end of the room and peer in through the cracks in the dunny door and inside is a video of Malone setting up the dunny in the exhibition. We’re going to have to admit we know that this art work means something, but we haven’t a clue what. Answers in the space provided below.

In a similar vein of unknowingness, we also admit we’re not sure what Melbourne resident, New Zealand-born Daniel Von Sturmer’s work The Truth Effect is about either. There’s a big room with a big, tilted, table in the middle with little screens and projectors screening images of ovals and colours, shapes and pens rolling here and there. The catalogue (that is, the cheap catalogue you get for free) is no help at all saying that the “table acts as a reference to a picture plane, extended into real space and as a framing device within the architecture of the gallery.” Gotcha. And the images? “Developed from tests constructed in the studio, with such banal objects as plastic cups or rolls of tape, the videos confound our perception and expectation of space, materials and the properties of objects.”

As much as we like the work and were superficially attracted by the pretty colours and the movement and the shapes, this is the kind of art works that give contemporary art a bad name with the general public. We guess that since you couldn’t really tell what you were looking at, or what the images were made of, that our expectations were confounded. Mission accomplished.

Down at the MCA things get off to a better start with a huge (although fake) white ant nest installed on the grass in front of the building. It’s a 7 metre high multimedia sculpture called Gargalesis by Joan Grounds and Sherry DeLeys. The title refers to term coined by two psychiatrists Stanley Hall and Arthur Allin that means “a tickle that evokes intense pleasure as well as pain”. Inside the sculpture is all the babble of the art world. As you sidle up close you can hear voices swapping art world gossip, platitudes and dirt on various celebs, institutions and artists. We had heard about the sculpture and we were really excited to find out some REAL art world dirt. Putting our ears to various holes in the mound we could hear what sounded like Geoffrey Rush‘s voice saying “…the Danish archirtect didn’t return to see the building crucified…” to which a woman’s voice replied “…the offices at the MCA have the best views and should be made into artists studios!” There was also the sound of some tinkling glasses and a saxaphone honking away. It sounded like a hell of a party in there! (Sadly, Gargalesis doesn’t address the hottest art world rumour of the moment that at the Biennale after party, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor took on some Art Hotel bouncers and had to be pulled off by her companions as she applied what is known as the Glasgow kiss!).

Gargalesis is a pun about “white anting” and we liked it a lot. It was an art work that you could get pretty easily but wasn’t too obvious about it and it attracts tourists with cameras like flies. Inside, there’s another pun, but we found it very troublesome. Derek Kreckler has a series of monumental photographs of fridges hanging from trees at night and another of a fridge hanging from a bridge. Our companions at the Biennale opening thought they were strange and funny and the catalogue talks about the pictures like this:

“[The photographs] merge aspects of the contemporary urban landscape with the staging of enigmatic relationships between humans and environments. The recurring motif in this work is deceptively simple – the refrigerator, the most used household appliance. In hot climates such as Australia, this appliance has acquired a special significance because of its function to contain, preserve and isolate food.”

We knew these images straight away – they were pastiches of infamous images of lynchings of African Americans in the South of the US. Kreckler’s main reference point is an imageof the hanging of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930 taken from the collection of photographers James Allen and John Littlefield. The image of the fridge hanging from a bridge is similarly lifted from another photo, this time from 1910. And the punning title of Kreckler’s work? It’s called Whitegoods. The effect of this work depends entirely on your visual literacy. If, like our companions, you didn’t recognise the source, then the images were weird, funny, theatrical and odd. If you knew the images and the reference of the title, the sight of a room full of people looking up at these photos – at an angle simlar to the onlookers at the lynchings – was very disturbing indeed. We are troubled by Kreckler’s appropriation of the source material, and even more troubled by the pun of the title – and we could easily be outraged by the dissembling of the catalogue description – “contain, preserve and isolate food”! – but the power of the work is undeniable, and if we could be certain that the images weren’t being used for some incredibly flip reason, we’d feel OK, be we can’t and we don’t like being made to feel this way by a work of art…

At the top of the stairs is an installation called Paranoia Annoy Ya by Indigenous artist Gordon Hookey and it’s a shambles. There is so much information, slogans, wall charts, scupltural bits and pieces and pretty rank charicature that we defy anyone (artist included) to give us an explanation of how all of this is meant to work together instead than just some huge melange. We were reminded of those 19th Century political cartoons where you’d have a walrus playing a piano about to go over a cliff and the cliff is labeled EUROPE, the walrus is TARIFF PROTECTION and the piano is POLAND, some approaching storm clouds are PUBLIC OPINION and a twig sticking out of the cliff is made up of the words THE KAISER. You look at Hookey’s work and just go – huh? We suppose that the installation is a pretty accurate representation of politcal debate in Australia these last ten or so years, but without a walrus and a piano and some labels, we don’t know where to begin.

Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi‘s paintings look strangely out of place in the Biennale, not beacuse they are by an Indegenous artist, but because all the painting looks pretty odd in a show dominated by photography, video and installation. Nyumi paints in gorgeous pinks and creams and remined us of the cake metaphor that got us started. These paintings of Nyumi’s landscapes are a very bizarre echo of the Russian team AES & F‘s large photos of kids with sci-fi guns placed in what looks like a Kazakhstani landscape of very similar colours and tonal qualities. Still, ignoring the guns, we were really taken with Nyumi’s impasto application, something very different from much of Indigenous painting that tends to shy away from big, built-up surfaces.

Hidden away in a blind alley is a video installation by Susan Norrie. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Norrie does video art now and not big canvases with Mickey Mouse and bank notes. We know that is a decade old memory and we try to shake it as best we can. Perhaps now, with her new work for the Biennale called Enola we can finally put that behind us. This is a looping video of a theme park in Japan where the world’s landmarks are built in minature, complete with tiny people, taxiing aircraft at tiny airports and a mash up of buildings where the World Trade Center and the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower and the White House vy for space. Accompanying these images is a soundtrack that includes moody humming noises, a kiddy version of Walk On By and, naturally, It’s A Strange World After All. Intercut with all his were images of two Japanese people – a man and a woman – in hooded jackets looking on like visitors from another planet.

It was about here that we started to understand what was going on in On Reason and Emotion and we suddenly felt very relaxed, like endorphins had kicked in, or maybe the valium had finally taken effect. In Norrie’s work was the whole raison detre of the Biennale – don’t worry about what it means, just go with how it feels. Feeling is good, feeling is fine, not an unintended side effect, but the whole reason for its existence. Ahhhhh!

Upstairs we finally saw the cheese but we’ll leave that for next week. We also saw more of Brassington’s trademark crazy lady images and they were good. Like the arrangement of AES&F and Nyumi, and Hookey and an artist named Fernando Alvim, the hanging of Brassington’s work created a dialogue with the art of New Zealand artist Michael Harrison whose series of acrylics on paper looked fantastic. Harrison has some spooky pictures of faces that could also be skulls, but it was his series if pictures of cats that grabbed our attention. The cats are arranged so they create patterns, like a kalidescope, forming mirror images of one another, folding and unfolding along lines of convergence. Finally clued in to the Biennale theme, we saw in these felines not inane images of moggies, but some sort of private code like Egyptian cartouches with an unspoken symbolic power.

We had an image in our minds of Harrison sitting over these pictures late at night, possibly painting them by candlelight, when there is a knock at the door. It’s Pat Brassington come for a cup of sugar as two children named Hansel and Gretel have dropped by unexpectedly. Harrison gives her the sugar then goes off into the dark woods and dances with a giant bear a la that Bjork video while a German artist plays a set of drums made out of a police bus and someone says cheese needs a bandage. Yes, we think we finally understand the Biennale.

Andrew Frost

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