The Possibility of an Island

Reviews Jul 31, 2008 No Comments

From Bonny Dot Cassidy

The 2008 Biennale of Sydney Cockatoo Island “branch” has now exceeded its anticipated visitation by 5,000 people, and we should expect that figure to continue climbing through August. Sidling over the waves toward the Island, my companion R and I mused on the pros and cons of the detached exhibition space. It says, at once, keep away and come hither. As with that other convict rock, Tasmania, it’s tempting to read the island venue as a metonym of the island-continent itself. Is it Australian art, floating within biennales the world over; or is it the Sydney Biennale, surfacing again from the calendar of international art events? Thankfully, though, the reality of the exhibition at Cockatoo Island dispels this nonsense. It represents a spectrum of countries, and draws visitors into a surging odyssey that goes well beyond a neatly symbolic experience of art.

William Kentridge, What Will Come (Has Already Come), 2007.
35mm film transferred to video, 8:40 mins, 118 cm diameter

It takes roughly six hours to see all the works here, so we weren’t entirely sure what voyagers on the mid-afternoon ferry were hoping to take on. To be fair, it’s impossible to know what one is in for until one has arrived; or to know how hard it will be to leave until mid-way through the adventure. The best time to go is a mid-week morning, armed with free yellow map and a picnic (the café is stuck over at the wharf, far from many of the works, and selling overpriced tea and brownies). I don’t know how disabled visitors are supposed to access Cockatoo Island, nor does the Biennale seem to know; the venue quit being used for festivals last year because of its dormant hazards, and it’s hard to imagine what kind of insurance scheme could possibly cover them. Nevertheless, speaking for my able-bodied self, I love the twists of piping and wire that press into shoe soles; the winding paths to the upper, colonial levels of the island (yes, the higher you ascend the deeper in time you go); the sandstone dust and oozing walls; the staircases that go bump in the dark. But they are the detritus of deeper encounters with discomfort, and if I had to reduce Cockatoo Island to a generic form it would be a kilometre-square endurance work that sucks at every drip of the place’s dark history.

Depending on the direction of the hooting wind, everyone will be held by a different work out here. The praises of William Kentridge’s pair of son et lumière creations have now become universally sung in critical reviews and pub conversations alike. Like many of the Island’s installations, the smaller What Will Come (Has Already Come) is so organically framed and positioned that it might as well be site-specific. The same can certainly be said for Mike Parr’s survey of video performances, Mirror/Arse, housed in the old sailors’ quarters and naval academy. It is a haunting interrelation of space and materials.

Entry to the quarters is policed but, like other “guarded” precincts on the Island, we found that regulations had become rather slippery. R observed that a gaggle of kids had somehow entered the adults-only building; and, despite the volunteer’s polite request to leave via the entry, I nearly took several exits that freely lead out to god-knows-where. Perhaps it’s this fine balance of rule and anarchy in Parr’s quarters that really gripped me. Take sound, for instance: Parr’s videos are not sound-scaped, that is, aurally designed. But wandering the sailors’ corridors, often blind to the images that lay behind particular doors, I realised the significance of their soundtracks. His hoofing, puffing, slicing and intaking—sounds of actual pain, endurance, shock and relief—become a voice for the walls of the building.

And the building is thick with the fug of a male domestic space. Every spectator of Mirror/Arse is trespassing—into private rooms and cul-de-sacs and toilets and stairwells—but for the female visitor there is a second threshold to cross. Here, a spew of work clothes; there, like pin-ups for monks, are mysterious reproductions of second-rate romantic artworks or a Virgin Mary. Now, industrial kitchens disused, forgotten, collapsed; now, bathrooms like gas chambers. And the constant, matted bits of down and birds, where men and animals have ferreted about together. In some of the empty rooms, I forgot all about Parr and became sad as I looked over the harbour—to other islands or Drummoyne cranes, all turning distantly and silently beyond the glazed windows.

In Vernon Ah Kee’s occupation of a nearby unionists’ toilet block, Parr’s filled silence, his primal screams, are articulated in signs. These two works are sibling spaces. In fact, in my memory I have attached the toilets to the sailors’ quarters rather than to theweathergroup_U’s warehouse space. But these, says R, were not the sailors; they were different men, different times, who scrawled their curses and jokes and tags over the urinal walls and cubicle doors. Ah Kee, he says, has celebrated their political frustration by simply presenting the block in its existent state and without commentary. But I don’t feel any curiosity for these bitterly misogynist and bigoted doodles as historical artefacts. All I feel is the briny pressure of the urinal block, a leering presence over my shoulder, the wind coming in and in and in.

Ah Kee has, to varying interpretation, turned the toilet block back over to its custodians; and the point of Parr’s installation is to turn the only trace of his performances—video—back into physicality. It’s intriguing, then, to consider the aesthetic theory of David Elliott, who has just been announced as director of the 2010 Sydney Biennale. “Art runs parallel to life”, he told the Sydney Morning Herald (July 29, 2008), “it’s not the same thing as life and that distance is what gives it its power”. For what a piece of work is Cockatoo Island; that, while it first appears to be defined by distance, it is in fact an experience of proximity and immediacy. Ah Kee and Parr are saying something contrary to Elliott: the aesthetic is not a “parallel” space of play, just as the unionists’ graffiti is not locked in its context. Are we ready for the velocity that strikes when the white wall between life and art is torn down?

Andrew Frost

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