Review: 19th Biennale of Sydney 2014

Art biennials and biennales are heroic undertakings.

The resources required to produce them go far beyond securing sponsors and funding. Add to this deep reserves of determination to do all it takes to make it happen. The Biennale of Sydney (BOS) 2014 had its very public disruption to plans when several artists boycotted the project. The system didn’t go down and the show went on. But in the middle of intense disputes about the rights and wrongs of this action it must have been very human of everyone heading up the project to ask the question ‘why are we doing this?’

This is a question that sort of gets answered whenever panels sit around microphones and reflect on what big art fests have to offer. No one, in my experience, has ever said they are a waste of time. The chat is mostly a lot of show and tell about who’s doing what/where/when and how ‘problematic’ (read dazed and confused) the art world has become. Add to this extensive public programmes which bring artists, curators and wider audiences face to face. By such means biennales/biennials perform splendid service as points of entry into the whirling maelstrom of contemporary art. Like a ride in a weather balloon really.

Thematic titles such as ‘You Imagine What You Desire’ are useful in driving overarching narratives but there is a point beyond which audiences will make up their own minds. It’s a bit like believing in a GPS sat nav until it tells you to drive off a wharf. Applying this to BOS 2014, I wondered if viewers were really getting with the thematic program as they moved from work-to-work and site-to-site.

They were certainly reading the interpretive panels, which is a positive sign of active engagement. The Biennale’s central narrative is about imagination as a portal to endless possibilities. But almost without exception, all works in the show are expressions of imaginations at work. In running with such a theme this project comes close to being themeless. This is certainly refl ected in the very wide diversity of works which, despite the intention to corral them into site-designated groups (e.g. AGNSW as ‘earth/fi re’), just went about doing what most art works do – be themselves. Because of this parallel play dynamic I remain to be convinced that the proximate alignment of works in different locations automatically created ‘little narratives’ that contributed to the larger ‘You Imagine’ story’. On Cockatoo Island, it took a handful of exceptional works including; Eva Koch’s I AM THE RIVER (a super-sized video waterfall experience), Randi and Katrine’s The Village (cuddly-cute Swedish folk houses with spooky eyes) and Christine Streuli’s Wicked (a wildly eccentric, high-energy interior makeover of the Mess Hall on Cockatoo Island) to sustain the welcome-to–weirdo-island hype.

But, to give credit, ‘little narratives’ kicked in occasionally and the Biennale began to sing. It happened for me at the MCA where a number of compelling works/viewing experiences coalesced to create a sense of significance; Douglas Gordon’s Phantom (Rufus Wainwright blowing smoke in the eyes in the darkest of deserted clubs), Roni Horn’s 10 Liquid Incidents (liquidity tablets for troubled giants) and Jim Lambie’s Screamadelica (psychotropic striped ‘Zobop’ installation). To this can be added David Claerbout’s The Quite Shore video which, in an understated manner, built a sense of place and narrative by using stills within a viewing context of a highly reflective floor on which floated open-ended possibilities.

The works at Artspace also worked in concert to stimulate the imagination to engage with ideas about nature in its most reassuring and threatening forms. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and to a lesser extent at MCA, and despite the caliber of the selected works this sense of dialogue between a curatorial intent to cause ‘re-imagination’ is muddied by proximity to other collection spaces and enterprises. Too many distractions and too hostage to being in an ‘art space’ with other collections that hang out there all the time.

Would it be possible for a future BOS to work differently? One: abandon the thematic and simply select work on the basis of not only being extraordinary or game changing but also capable of setting up open-ended narratives. Apply the 3S principle: Select, Site and Show. Then let the inner and outer art communities join the dots and create their own stories. Two: ordain Cockatoo Island as the preeminent BOS venue and make each installation selected for this site really work to justify being there. It’s a remarkable site. It deserves remarkable art. Three: give Carriageworks over to filmic/video work, which goes beyond the routine big screen/ audience-in-the-dark formula to exploit more sculptural/ experimental options. I’m sure Melbourne’s Centre for Moving Images (ACMI) could come up with a few ideas if asked. Four: take the Biennale out of the Art Gallery entirely and give the MCA entirely over to BOS works that require regulation gallery display conditions. Five: consider selecting fewer artists and represent some with more than a single work.

To return to the beginning, such decisions would be heroic undertakings. But, in response to this Biennale’s theme, worth imagining?

19th Biennale of Sydney 2014
You Imagine What You Desire 
Continues until Monday, June 9
biennaleofsydney.com.au

Images: Douglas Gordon, Phantom (video still) 2011, Mircea Cantor, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (video still) 2012