On Reason and Emotion

Art Life , Reviews Jun 07, 2004 1 Comment

That’s the BIG THEME of the 2004 Biennale that the curator Isabel Carlos has thought up and applied evenly to all the art. According to the Sydney Morning Herald art critic Peter Hill, Carlos changed her mind halfway through curating the show, at first starting out with an idea to collect together artists from Latin America and Europe and Indigenous artists from Australia and America, but an artist named Jimmie Durham convinced her that this other idea was better.

You’d think after all this time, with all the publicity and all the press releases, we’d be a little clearer on what On Reason and Emotion is all about. The problem seems to be that it’s a bit vague, a bit nebulous and it keeps changing (or more ‘refined’ if you want to be generous). Descartes’ Error by the neurologist António Damásio is a book that analyses neurological case studies to show that emotion is crucial to human intelligence and Carlos has cited it as her prime reference in creating the theme for the Biennale. As Carlos was quoted in a press release in September 2003:

“I believe in the importance of the viewer being confronted with demanding concepts and visually powerful works of art. Rather than the restrictions of the traditional cogito (I think, therefore I am), I am interested in art that creates a bridge between these two poles. Now, one can say I feel, therefore I am. The project aims to invite the spectator to participate in an aesthetic experience using not only their sight, but also all the senses provoking active participation and inciting the emotions.”

“The show has at its core an exploration of perception and its borders. There are several complex threads, intertwining throughout the exhibition: the balance and connection between human consciousness and physicality; the architecture of the built environment as a parallel anatomy; the environment as an experience of space, and ecology as a science of interconnections; and the politics and poetics of human relationships.”

So, pretty much everything in the entire world is part of this show…

Interestingly, back in January, Carlos also cited a novel by Susan Sontag called The Volcano Lovers as an influence on the development of the theme which, in part, is the story of an English nobleman who goes to Sicily and is forced to put up with the boorish ways of his hosts. This reference to Sontag has since been dropped and we are left wondering if it just confused the already airy-fairy explanation of what the hell this show is all about or whether it revealed too much about how Carlos felt about coming to Sydney? Nah, we’re not serious but it makes you think, doesn’t it? This is what she had to say about the altruistic side of the Biennale:

“Australia is the only true Southern continent, but its predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture fosters (again, almost as a cliché) exactly the opposite of what is considered a ‘southern culture’ […] It seems that in the Australian arts culture there is a highly sophisticated critical and theoretical awareness however this faculty is frequently accompanied by a lack of visuality and a lack of direct contact with the art work. One of my aims is to bring artworks together that create a total physical and psychological experience.”

Speaking of thinking, it seems a lot of people have been doing a lot of brain work on On Reason and Emotion as Carlos felt it necessary at the media launch of the Biennale at the Art Gallery of NSW to get up at the podium and offer a further ‘clarification’ about the theme. Is the same thing, she explained, reason is emotion and emotion is reason. Is the same thing! We pondered those words long and hard as we walked around AGNSW and gazed distractedly at the big pictures, the crazy suitcase art, at the video screens and the dinkum dunny and smelled the wafting stink of cabbage from the gallery cafe. If reason and emotion are the same thing – at least as a working proposition for the show, then what does that mean? Then, later at the MCA, we had one of those moments that you hope for but rarely have, that almost physical sensation when the proverbial penny drops and you suddenly get it

Andrew Frost

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