Biennale of Sydney: more popular than ever

Op-ed Aug 20, 2010 No Comments

Invited to assess the 2010 Biennale of Sydney for a forum at the UNSW College of Fine Art, The Art Life editor Andrew Frost found it harder to make up his mind than he had thought…

On August 4th the Sydney Morning Herald reported that for the first time visitor numbers to the Biennale had topped half a million people. As Adam Fulton wrote:

“The three-month festival – Australia’s largest contemporary-art expo – attracted more than 517,000 people to its seven city venues, eclipsing 2008’s record of 436,000, despite rainy stretches. The figures released yesterday matched the early predictions of its curator, David Elliott. Cockatoo Island proved the star venue in its second Biennale appearance, boosted by free ferry transport. The former jail and shipyard was visited by 157,000 people, an increase of 82 per cent on 2008. On one Sunday, it drew more than 6400.”

From that report it would seem that the Biennale of Sydney has attained an unprecedented level of popular appeal. Compared to other Biennales it’s startling. The numbers for the Berlin Biennale this year was 83,000 visitors over ten weeks. The numbers for Venice are usually around 350,000 and that’s over a six month run. The Whitney Biennale in New York is about the same as Venice last year, 375,000 – so I ask you – what’s going on? [True, these European and US biennales are ticketed affairs, yet the numbers in Sydney point to a surge of popularity that is, how you say, “inexplicable…”]

And there was something odd about those Sydney figures. If 167,000 people went to Cockatoo Island, where did the other 360,000 go? I wondered if, even with free ferries, the other Biennale venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Artspace, the wharf and the Art Gallery of NSW had the lion’s share of visitors. I had visited the other venues a few times for various reasons and compared to the crowds on the Island, they were pretty thin, especially the Art Gallery with its half dozen Biennale art works in the foyer…

Reading further on it was revealed that the Biennale were claiming that 408,000 people had visited The Botanical Gardens during the show’s run to look at the sculptures they had dotted here and there. I’d seen the volunteers at Cockatoo with their clickers counting people as they got off the boats and since there was every little else to see, I’m assuming those visitor numbers are pretty solid. But when you put the Cockatoo and Botanical Gardens visitor numbers together you actually end up with 575,000 visitors before you even add in the numbers for all those people who went to Superdeluxe at Artspace, or had a coffee at the MCA…

Now, I’m not accusing the Biennale of creative accounting but what’s obvious I think is that the Biennale was experiencing repeat visits across all the venues, and as for the Botanical Gardens, it’s more than likely they’re counting all those casual tourists who wandered in.

Anecdotal evidence seemed to be saying that the Biennale, thanks to the Cockatoo Island venue, had drawn from a much wider audience than it has done in the past. My sister and her partner made the effort to go and I count them as people with only a very casual interest in art. They like Sculpture by The Sea, and they go to the Archibald if they can remember to get there in that very brief three month window of opportunity. So I think we can say well done to the Biennale for now being as popular as those other headline art events.

This popularity has in a sense armor-plated the Biennale to critical appraisal. Certainly, the Biennale, and by that I mean the people who run it as well as those who get chosen to curate it, exist in a world that is resigned to getting slated by our esteemed critics in the broadsheets. They put the show on, the critics come in and rubbish it, and we all move on. In the lead up to the Biennale I met David Elliot and I asked him whether he was bracing himself for the inevitable bad review. He told me that he was looking forward to it because, in his opinion, it was a sure sign of curatorial success.

Presumably the Biennale, like many other large exhibitions in Australia, count visitor numbers as their initial sign of success, then perhaps wait for more reflective reviews, essays and critical appraisals to slowly emerge from monthly and quarterly art magazines before they decide whether the show has been critically successful.

Or maybe they don’t – maybe they don’t give a toss since the Biennale has its own momentum powered along by the tight-knit art community who have the money and organisational chutzpah to make it happen – those people who put up money in the form of services like freight or real cash like that put up by Balnaves for the ferries – and think about the next one even before the last one is over.

But I digress.

Critical assessments of the Biennale of Sydney inevitably rest on the success of the curatorial gambit. And therein lays a vexing problem. The gargantuan scale, the spread of venues, the fragmented nature of the experience, works against coherence. The question people ask one another after the simple – did you like it? – then the next question is about which of the venues was the better experience.

You know that the curatorial idea is based on the whole show, rather than its constituent parts, and although there is a curatorial logic to each venue, putting one’s mind to the whole thing is no easy task. Elliot’s idea was to highlight the act of anthologising a selection of often seemingly-disparate individual art works. Like the DJ who puts the play list together, it’s assumed that there is some reason to the experience, a narrative that plays across the show. And to a substantial level I think that gambit worked.

Taking the title for the show from Harry Smith’s Folkways music anthology of folk music was a major cue – this stuff works together, runs along a certain course, consider these art works individually, now connect the dots. When you compare The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Revolutions Forms That Turn there was a palpable difference to the experience.

Personally, I enjoyed this year’s Biennale a lot more than Charles Merewether’s Zones of Contact or Isobel Carlos’s On Reason & Emotion, but much less than say Rene Block’s Readymade Boomerang or Richard Grayson’s The World May Be Fantastic. And that’s because the Biennales that work best, at least from my own perspective, are the ones that are more idiosyncratic in their choices, have more poetically interesting ideas behind them. The act of the anthology is a fine premise, yet it’s one that seems a little wanting, not because the overall show didn’t work – it did – it was that many of the individual pieces in the show felt like filler tracks on a double album.

It’s not often that we get to see a work like AES&F’s Feast of Trimalchio in Australia. The scale is too big, too expensive to stage. Yet there it was which, again according to the Sydney Morning Herald, was one of the most popular of the Biennale.

I remember that moment I first saw the piece on the media preview. As I stepped on to the carpeted floor the video screens immediately ahead of me were showing the sequence of slowly turning heads, all morphed and weird, put together from 70,000 still images, like a vision of the future, slowed down, Beethoven’s elegiac 7th Symphony on the soundtrack. The people in the room watching the piece were completely still, my foot hit the soft carpet – it was like being on a space station in a movie directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Now there was also piece by the Chinese artist Cao Fei on Cockatoo and I don’t think I know of anyone who mentioned it as being in their top five art works, if at all. I hunted the piece down because I’d written about the artist in the run up to the Biennale and having never seen any of her work in the flesh, I was curious. It took a bit of finding as the work was stashed away in a tiny room in an old convict building. It was a video work displayed in a dark room with no seating, on a domestic-scale television set. On the TV were scenes from a work Cao had made in Second Life, the online virtual reality world. Its run time was something like 40 minutes. I gave the work about 30 seconds before I walked out.

There was a bunch of other similar works scattered around the island involving long searches and disappointing video installations. Some were sculptures by artists whose names I couldn’t even be bothered to find that included rubble and TV screen, a painting and video screen, or just another video screen. I must say, although I will defend artists who make video to the death, I have a lot of sympathy for my sister who told me on the weekend that she really enjoyed Cockatoo Island but she couldn’t stand another, as she put it, [excuse my French] “another fucking video piece of shit.” I thought of David Elliott’s task of selecting work and thinking of all that space that needed to be filled up. Inevitably, that calls for actual space filler.

The Biennale is an exhibition model that has evolved over the decades into the monster that it is now. As a local audience we take it for granted that this is the way they go and like those people who have a very pragmatic view of what the Biennale offers – a day out in the sun on a boat – we go to see the BOS knowing that our opinions of it amount to very little in the greater scheme of things.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the Biennale of Sydney this year. I did, and I think I saw more of this one than most of the others. I remember some wise words of a lecturer I had at COFA back in the 1980s who advised me to basically forget a curatorial gambit, just go around a big show, look at everything, then go back and spend some time with the works that had some initial attraction. Look at them, savour them, and think through what they had to say or offer as an experience. And that was some mighty good advice over the years. I try to apply it to the Biennale.

This year’s Biennale had a number of works that I enjoyed, and thought worked well as both individual pieces but also seemed to coalesce with the theme. Kader Attia’s Kasbah – the installation of tin roofs, satellite dishes and antennas; Yvonne Todd’s creepy photographs tucked away in an empty house on top of Cockatoo Island, Dale Frank’s paintings with their bizarre and surreal titles and Peter Hennessy’s – My Hubble – a full-scale replica of the Hubble Space Telescope put together from plans and blueprints found on the web. There were a few others, too many to go into now.

At the end of any Biennale it’s important that we ask ourselves what we’ve been left with.

One of the most successful components of this year’s Biennale was the three-times-a-week club nights that were staged at Artspace. Superdeluxe, with its Pecha Kucha nights, concerts, DJs and performances was one of the best offerings the Biennale has done in decades, not just because it was a great night out, but because most of the talent for the show, curated by Blair French and Reuben Keehan, were Australian. Add to that the record number of Australian visual artists who were represented in the show and we find that the Biennale has a particular resonance for Australian art practice. It offered a meaningful context for that art far beyond a token and parochial desire to see our artists next to the international art stars. For all the talk of inclusivity of the past that has failed, and I’m thinking of Merewether’s BOS in particular, this one worked.

What would be great to see in coming Biennales is a continuation of that engagement. And say what you will about the proliferation of video, or video works that have been poorly installed and sited, this is phase of art making that will eventually be better thought through and incorporated into the exhibition as a whole.
In 2008 I was impressed by the way Christov-Bakargiev had managed to pull together a Biennale with an historical overview and do it from the collections of Australian art museums. To think that all this was stashed away in storage facilities was a fascinating insight into the unseen contemporary art collections of Australian museums – it was as though a counter history of art that had been kept from view was now being brought to light. My mistake was to think that the future of Biennales and the Sydney version might be to play more to the strengths of the local scene, both in terms of artists but also to the institutions.

In 2008 I had the chance to ask this question of Christov-Bakargiev and her view was that Biennales were more for the artists than they are for the audiences. And presumably also for curators. International Biennales represent a coterie of artists who show at them, their work easily fitting this curatorial concept or that idea, be it in Berlin or Sydney or Gwunju, and like those decadent tourists in the AES&F video, roll their luggage from one airport bus to the next. There is a certain look to contemporary art that is continuously repeated at any one of the hundred plus Biennales around the world. Perhaps we should think ourselves lucky that we don’t often get a chance to see them since we might end up victims of the same ennui that affects the beautiful people of the pleasure dome of Trimalchio.

I wanted to end on a note of positivity but it seems I’ve ended up sort of disappointed. Perhaps its post-Biennale comedown. To assess the Biennale of Sydney takes a few years because that’s the amount of time it takes to discover how many of the art works that you liked at the time but are still memorable. I’m predicting that this Biennale will mainly be remembered for its successes which, on average, were at least equal to most of the Biennales of the last ten years, probably better than at least two of them. As how the Biennale pans out from here, as to whether the organisation of the Biennale has learned anything, or whether its new found popularity will go to its collective head, well, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

Andrew Frost

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