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listening to the turning world

gail priest: 2008 biennale of sydney


Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Murder of Crows Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Murder of Crows
photo Jenni Carter
EXPERIENCING SYDNEY THROUGH THE FILTER OF THE 2008 BIENNALE, IT SEEMS AS THOUGH THE CORPORATE CHARACTER OF THE CITY IS CHANGING: EMBRACING AND CELEBRATING THE CHARACTERFUL GRUNGE OF HISTORIC INDUSTRIAL SITES RATHER THAN BULLDOZING AND SWEEPING ALL REMNANTS AWAY FOR MORE DESIGNER APARTMENTS. ALONG WITH THE STANDARD GALLERY VENUES OF THE MCA, ART GALLERY OF NSW AND ARTSPACE, THE 2008 BIENNALE OF SYDNEY HAS ONCE AGAIN SECURED PIER 2/3 (UNDER SIEGE FROM EXPENSIVE RESTAURANTS BUT STILL A GLORIOUS DRAFTY SHELL OF A WAREHOUSE) AND ALSO ADDED THE WONDERFUL CRUMBLING INDUSTRIAL PLAYGROUND OF COCKATOO ISLAND.

The Biennale seems even more abundant than usual with over 150 artists contributing, but at Wharf 2/3 we are offered a succinct selection of 3 works, allowing for focused, unpressured contemplation. The first piece consists of reproductions of some of Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori (Italy), but they are frustratingly silent—like pictures in books. What do these things sound like, and how do they work? While the intention to illustrate the origins of sound art and exploratory music is clear, the inclusion of these inert replicas feels like a hollow educational gesture.

Any discontent quickly dissolves viewing the mesmerising untitled painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra (Australia). Placed horizontally just off the ground, to be viewed from above, the rivers of intricate dots make the work pulsate and strobe before your eyes. Adjusting you begin to see the illusion of three-dimensional sculpted peaks and troughs of hills and valleys, based on the landscape around the Pollock Hills area in Western Australia, home of the Marrapinti people. Though two dimensional, it is far from inert and absolutely dazzling.

The rest of the cavernous space is given over to The Murder of Crows (2008, Canada) a massive sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Although the intention is to foreground sound over sight, it is certainly visually impressive. Ninety-nine speakers are distributed around the space—on the floor, in the ceiling and placed on some of the chairs arranged in a circle. These are centred around one large old-style gramophone horn, from which Cardiff’s own voice emanates, quietly recalling disturbing scenes from her dreams. Cardiff’s narrative is interspersed with soundscapes and orchestral and choral compositions in which each instrument or voice is delivered by an individual speaker. Initially I am sceptical—100 speakers is rather excessive (even the idea of the artists’ 40 Part Motet seemed decadent)—and the assignment of one speaker per sonic element is quite literal, a kind of long-hand methodology considering the complex developments in spatialisation such as wave field synthesis. But as I hear the string section of an orchestra start up instrument by instrument enveloping me in a sphere of soaring song, or hear the individual voices of a Russian marching chorus approaching, or the wingbeat of a swooping crow pound the air above me, I cannot help but give over to the sonic wonder—it’s a spectacularly immersive experience.

The 30-minute work, is described as a soundplay, and is reminiscent of a particular style of radiophonic feature. The dreamscape offered in the narrative is engaging and dark, yet the compositions retain a gentler melancholy tone traversing a range of musical styles from contemporary classical, post-rock to pop-folk. While the music is neatly sutured together with evocative soundscapes to form a shifting dreamland, the use of so many styles occasionally felt like the 100 speaker system was a demonstration model being put through its paces. That aside, it was undeniably a listening feast.

A very pleasant free ferry ride whisks you across to Cockatoo Island, which offers too many works to absorb in just one outing. In some incredible victory of common sense over the stultifying strictures of public liability, works are installed in dusty warehouses with creaky staircases and uneven floor surfaces, amongst bits and pieces of defunct machinery. And the works thrive in this environment. Australian Mike Parr’s retrospective Mirror/Arse feels truly fetid and dangerously infectious installed in room upon room of the old Sailors’ Home. Videos are secreted in claustrophobic spaces, with speakers further spread, making the whole building quake with moans, shouts and cries from the various tortures Parr has inflicted on himself over the years.

On a far point of the island in an old fuel storage tank is Nalini Malani’s ‘The tables have turned,’ A Shadow Play (2008, Pakistan/India). Animals, objects and scenes are painted on cylinders of acetate, which are placed on revolving turntables with a collection of coloured lights scattered around the floor. The colliding shadows are reminiscent of rock paintings and shaman magic, and the curved wall of the tank offers a perverse replication of a cave. But the work is sadly diminished by the sonic element of a radio drama voice telling tales of Helen of Troy which bounces around the reverberant walls. Sean Gladwell’s Ghost Rider (Australia, 2008), is another work which looks better than it sounds. Accompanying the poetic video of cyclists travelling down empty streets late at night and releasing their trusted bicycles to their own trajectories (‘ghosties’), were two rows of bikes mounted at shoulder height, emitting tiny sounds (run by large amplifiers), creating an indifferent haze of buzzing, burring and humming. There was something overly fussy about the sound installation which failed to really resonate the bike frames and the work as a whole.

In the centre of the Turbine Hall is the ultimate soundscape of the Biennale. Standing amidst Jannis Kounellis’ architectural, overlapping sails strung from floor to ceiling like a web, the caw and squawk of Cockatoo Island’s seagull population accompanies the strains of the Internationale emanating from Susan Philipsz’ single speaker tucked in amongst ancient machinery (UK/Germany, 1999). While perhaps an obvious gesture given the theme of revolution, the melancholy irony of Philipsz choice is undeniably effective. Then there is the roar of truck engines and the harmonically surprising roundelay of horns floating out of the small machinery room which houses Chen Xiaoyun’s video work : A Mythical Wild Animal–Symbol of Durance (China, 2008). The artist stands in the centre of circling trucks and with frenzied fervour, whip in hand, tries to corral them—is it mastery of man over machine or tragic futility? Set in a muddy wasteland at night, this is a curiously beautiful work, the shooting angles and choreography of bright blue trucks suggesting a kind of contemporary baroque reminiscent of Matthew Barney.

The rich soundscape of the Turbine Hall exemplified what I found most satisfying about these components of 2008 Biennale of Sydney. There is a cohesive sense in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s curation of the desire to explore the relationship between things—how works rub up against each other, infect each other with new meaning. This is evidenced in the inclusion of historic works (with varying degrees of success), but is most strongly manifest in the way works resonate with their sites—how they are part of their surroundings—in the real world.


2008 Biennale of Sydney, Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev,
June 18-Sept 7

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 30

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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