We were curious. Dr. Charles Merewhether is the director of The Biennale of Sydney 2006, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research at the Australian National University, an author, a curator and frequent flyer. What is in store for this year’s multi-venue extravaganza? We decided to go straight to the source and ask the extremely time sensitive director just what’s happening. He obliged Art Life readers with this exclusive insight into the director’s background, the forthcoming exhibition, his thoughts on superstar curators and the vexing question of the chairness of chairs…
We first became aware of you in the 1980s when you were lecturing at Sydney University, but you were active as a writer and critic in the 1970s.
Dr. Charles Merewether: Who are “we”?
The authors of The Art Life…
CM: Oh really? Mmmm…. Aware of me in the 1970s? That’s an awfully long time ago. Where do you want me to start?
Start at the very beginning.
CM: I studied comparative literature. Because I loved writing and literature I ended up writing about art and, eventually, moving over to art history and doing my doctorate in that. I was teaching in art schools and then at Sydney University. I was doing lots of different things like putting out magazines or being involved in galleries, such as the George Paton Gallery in Melbourne. By 1984 I had decided to go to South America. I’d been working on a doctorate on the German and Soviet avant garde. By 1984 I’d been visiting Columbia once a year for three months and traveling around Brazil, Cuba and other places. At the end of 1984 I resigned and moved to Columbia about a week after I opened an exhibition at The Art Gallery of NSW called Art & Social Commitment, which was on Australian art of the 1930s and 1940s. It was about the debates that emerged between the Angry Penguins and the Communist Left – Tucker and Nolan on the one hand, and Counihan and O’Conner and others.
I left Australia and lived in Colombia. I got a couple of grants and sold my library to get by. I survived for a while but moved to Mexico where I started teaching and started rethinking what I might do as an art historian, whether I would go back to doing that kind of thing. Columbia was an extraordinary experience insofar as living with people who had an incredible cultural history and oral memory. It turned my head around in terms of understanding a very different aspect of contemporary life and what else was going on in the world. So I ended up doing my PhD on Neo Colonialism and the arrival of Modernism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
I lived in Mexico for a few years and organised a Frida Khalo show for the Adelaide Festival and a Cuban show for the AGNSW and a photo show called The Marginal Body for the Australian Centre for Photography. I started to write again. I moved to Barcelona and then to the States where I got a research fellowship at Yale and then a position at the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterey Mexico. I did their inaugural show and helped set up the museum. In 1994 I was offered a job at the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles overseeing the building of the research collection. Because their collection was so heavily weighted towards European art, they were interested in me brining Latin America into the history of European colonization of the region. I traveled to Europe a lot but also ended up in Japan and China where I became very interested in the region. Most of my spare time went into writing about Japan and China.
The Getty Center seems to be a fairly extraordinary institution.
CM: It is an extraordinary institution in terms of the States. It’s very large. It has something like 1200 employees. It’s a big campus and it’s very ambitious trying to build, at this last moment, a European collection. It has certain strengths but I don’t know if it’s in the art collection – there’s some great work there – such as some wonderful Rembrandts and other works – but something that is special is the Research Center because it is interested in trying to save cultural history such as rare documents and letters, correspondence, drawings, photographs and prints from many artists and places around the world, have a David notebook or letters from Andre Breton – the kind of material from which one writes art history. It’s kept in extraordinary pristine condition and kept for posterity.
There seems to be an obsession with thematic exhibitions at every level of the art world, from artist run spaces to biennales. Are you moving away from a thematic organisation for the 06 Biennale, is that how you’ve selected artists?
CM: No. Since the inception of the idea Zones of Contact, I’ve thought of it as a conceptual framework. It allows for certain flexibility in how it might be interpreted by an artist and for me a certain flexibility. I’m not keen on themes. It’s not particularly useful and has no critical agency or power. A theme doesn’t provide you with means to make a critical evaluation. It’s like – there’s a chair – let’s include that because the theme is ‘chair’. So what? It doesn’t seem to me to be a useful handle with which to explore a particular subject at a critical level.
Some of the past themes of past Sydney Biennales have been quite amorphous. Even if a chair was included it was sometimes hard to see how it related to other works that in fact weren’t chairs.
CM: I haven’t seen many Sydney Biennales since I left here so I can’t comment on too many. But yes, I just think that themes can become banal.
Zones of Contact seems to have a connection to René Block’s Readymade Boomerang Biennale.
CM: Yes, it does. It also has a connection to Tony Bond’s Boundary Rider. I think there are an ongoing set of questions which have been asked in the art world, but they flow on from larger cultural issues having to do with globalisation. – if you want use that term even though I think that that moment has passed and we are moving into a new phase that probably requires a new name. But I don’t want to reinvent the wheel with yet another concept or theme. I want to elaborate on ideas that are already in circulation, vis-à-vis issues having to do with immigration, migration, displacement, with the way in which the local and the global are in a process on transition and exchange, the way in which we might find Iranian artists living in France, or Albanian artists living in Italy or Egyptian artists living in New York. I’m interested in the articulation at the level of the artist on what it means to experience, or to be living in, a foreign environment. Or in fact to have a foreign power to occupy your land and to be living under that; or to be living with the legacy of that; or a civil conflict such as in the Balkans, the Middle East or in Asia. I don’t want artists to be only reflecting on their own conditions but to be thinking about some larger cultural changes or conditions.
You spoke last year of your desire to engage and include artists from places like the Balkans and the Asia Pacific region – was that the commonality that drove you to investigate those areas?
CM: It was partly that commonality, but it was also that they had not been represented and I couldn’t understand why. I thought that the work that was going on those regions was very strong – perhaps but it didn’t fit the theme [of past Biennales]. I’m not interested in doing a survey show but I did think that there was very good work coming out of those regions. It was apropos of Zones of Contact. There was another reason. I just didn’t understand why South East Asia shouldn’t be part of something much larger in terms of my research. My feeling last year was just that these were areas I really should research to find out what’s going on there. Obviously, the Asia Pacific Triennale has done a terrific job in focusing on South East Asia and Asia, but that shouldn’t mean that the Sydney Biennale shouldn’t address it, they should, it should be part of the international focus.
What do you think of current debates around the idea of the curator as an “artist”? Do you see a curator’s job as having some equivalent creativity to what an artist does? Or is a curator more like a DJ?
CM: Yeah, like a DJ or an MC, pulling together a program, putting the pieces together to make a puzzle that you can move through and make sense of. I don’t think a curator is a like an artist at all.
Do you think that question itself is a furphy? Why do think that sort of proposal is raised?
CM: I think they’re raised because, particularly in some places, curators have become like demigods and very powerful. They have been given a lot of power by institutions and high visibility. They seem to be able to become makers and breakers. I think that’s awful and not something I’m contributing to. Hopefully I’m contributing to the recognition of the artists I’m chosen, but I’d hate to think it would be taken in that way, that the Sydney Biennale 2006 is just one of a number of biennales and one of a number of Sydney Biennales. There’s going to be another person who comes along and does something very different and that’s to be welcomed. In relation to your question as an artist, I guess that the reason I’m putting it the way I am, the kind of attention given to the curator would appear to diminish the position, role or significance of the artist. It’s almost as if the curator has displaced the artist. I don’t know if I’d have an argument to say the curator therefore becomes the artist, certainly there are plenty of instances where it’s more about the curator than the artist.
Where would you rate the Sydney Biennale in relation to other biennales around the world? It seems every major city has one now – the Singaporean government just recently announced its own – so how does the Sydney Biennale maintain some point of difference to all the others?
CM: The most obvious response is that all biennales are made first and foremost for the country in which they occur. I hold by that. I’ve tried to understand what the history of the Sydney Biennale is and the specific form that it has taken over the years, what it has addressed and not been able to address. Hence my interest in particular regions, cities and subjects. But having said that, the Sydney Biennale does have a high standing internationally because of a number of factors; one is because its age, it’s been around for a long time and people know it. There have also been some preeminent curators who have come through and done the Biennale, René Block for example, and that gives it a degree of respectability and profile, because people like René Block have made an extraordinary contribution over the years to contemporary art. That is part of the answer.
The Sydney Biennale is also the preeminent biennale in the region. That’s not saying a lot but it will be hopefully be able to sustain itself because, as you noted, the emergence of the Singapore Biennale opening shortly after the close of Sydney, then you have the Guang Joi Biennale in Korea, you have three in the region. I think they will hand out a challenge to Sydney. That’s a good thing as it will make sure there is no complacency. The downside is that it is increasingly a challenge to meet the funding needs to make a world class Biennale that is able to showcase extraordinary work. My biennale will have at least 40 per cent new work and something like than 40 countries and artists from 50 cities. Half of those artists don’t have government agencies to which we can turn and get support. That’s a real challenge since benefaction and sponsorship in Australia is pretty weak. We’re working overtime to be able to make artists from Lebanon or India or Bosnia or Brazil or Russia to be able participate in the Biennale. That’s what I want – those artists to be able to participate. My view is that we’ve got to rewrite the way contemporary art history has been written.
The dominance of the Western press and media has been to the detriment of those countries that don’t have a strong media because it means that their art may come up in the back page of Flash Art or ArtForum, but there’s so much going on in these regions that is extraordinary – and so pertinent to living in these parts of the world and pertinent to the issues of migration and displacement. I want a Biennale that’s able to be inclusive of those countries and contribute to a rethinking of the way we talk about art today.
That’s what it’s about. Let’s see if it works.
The Biennale of Sydney 2006 opens at venues around Sydney on June 8.