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biennale of sydney


a relational biennale

chris reid: 2012 biennale of sydney


CATHERINE DE ZEGHER AND GERALD MCMASTER, THE CO-CURATORS OF
Postcommodity, Do You Remember When, 2009 Postcommodity, Do You Remember When, 2009
photo Jason Grubb
THE 2012 BIENNALE OF SYDNEY, SET THEMSELVES AN AMBITIOUS AGENDA. SUBTITLING THE EVENT ‘ALL OUR RELATIONS,’ THEY ADDRESS THE WAY IN WHICH PEOPLE INTERRELATE—WITH EACH OTHER AND WITH THE WORLD GENERALLY. THEY SUGGEST THAT WESTERN CULTURE HAS HITHERTO REINFORCED OPPOSITION AND FRAGMENTATION BUT THERE IS NOW A NEW AWARENESS OF OUR TRUE INTERCONNECTEDNESS, AND THIS AWARENESS IS REFLECTED IN CONTEMPORARY ART.

The Biennale itself is posited as a gesamkunstwerk produced collectively. De Zegher considers it is necessary to “attend to connection and coherence; to build new narrative structures...The democratic significance of the 18th Biennale of Sydney is of exchange, mutuality and accessibility” (Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, All Our Relations, Biennale of Sydney, 2012).

Their approach recalls the concept of relational art and aesthetics, where the artists are models or catalysts of cooperative action and the audience is a community connected with the artists and each other actively and intersubjectively. Although de Zegher suggests they did not start with a preconceived theme, it appears that much of the art assembled for the BoS is characteristically relational, emphasising interactive processes over the production of aesthetic objects.

The concept of relational art is not especially new, having been identified in the 1990s. But presenting it on the scale of a biennale provides an updated survey of such art practice and creates an immersive experience that tests the hypothesis that collective, relational activity is becoming the dominant operational paradigm not only in art but in society generally, a paradigm that potentially addresses significant social, political and environmental issues. De Zegher suggests that, “In a way, this Biennale may be described as an act of consciousness interrogating consciousness itself. Its mission is different from the proliferation of biennales as thematic compendia.”

The selected art involves relational interaction of various forms: Lee Mingwei mends clothes brought in by audience members, Nadia Myre invites the audience to create representations of their scars and the audience participates in Eva Kot’àtkovà’s performances. Lyndal Jones’ performance involves pairs of blindfolded people entering an ark. Some art is produced cooperatively, for example that of Monika Grzymala working with the Euraba artists and papermakers. Some art represents a community, such as that of Dorothy Napangardi. Bouchra Khalili presents the stories of refugees. By contrast, Judy Watson, Hassan Sharif, Sarah Vanagt and Katrine Vermeire, Juan Manuel Echavarria and Jananne Al-Ani variously examine communities, histories or events archaeologically. Yun-Fei Ji depicts in Chinese classical-style painting a village community’s forced migration in the face of the Three Gorges Dam project. The telling of stories is a characteristic of much of the work. But it is difficult to establish conclusively whether the selected art typifies contemporary practice or demonstrates increased social interconnectedness.

The centrepiece of the BoS is perhaps Postcommodity’s Do You Remember When? in the basement of the AGNSW—a hole cut in the concrete floor of the gallery revealing the earth beneath in a political act of reclamation of the culture of the original inhabitants, displayed with the excised slab and an audio recording documenting the installation process. It’s as if the entire Biennale emerged from beneath the gallery’s floor, challenging the AGNSW as emblematic of western thinking. Ironically, institutionalising such a work within the BoS defuses its iconoclastic power. The floor will duly be restored.

Throughout BoS, art historian Moira Roth’s blog facilitated audience and artist interconnection, extending the Biennale’s function as a relational artwork. The 400-page catalogue can also be seen as a relational artwork. Its format enables the reader to pair images of the artworks, each pairing creating a unique synthesis (literally embodying the well-known idea of the birth of the reader). The numerous essays by thinkers and artists range across the economic, philosophical and psychological aspects of relationship and cooperative activity, making the catalogue a parallel dialogue and equal partner with the art. Given its size, only committed readers will plumb its depths; similarly with the art, which demands close analysis. The effort required to come to terms with both the art and the catalogue is, however, well rewarded, but each work also needs to be appreciated for its individual merits outside the institutionalising context of the BoS.

The pivotal essay is French philosopher Bruno Latour’s Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto, in which he argues against oppositional critique and proposes compromise as a more productive and realistic alternative. He suggests, “For a compositionist, nothing is beyond dispute. And yet, closure has to be achieved. But it is only achieved through the slow process of composition and compromise...” Including Latour’s essay offers compositionism as the philosophical ground for relational art and positions the curators as compositionists. Whether such thinking has any impact beyond art remains to be seen, but the shift from a critical to a compositionist stance entails at least the temporary suspension of disbelief. Curating is a critical as well as a compositionist endeavour.

Gao Rong, The Static Eternity Gao Rong, The Static Eternity
photo Ben Symons
The artwork I kept marvelling at was The Static Eternity, Mongolian-born artist Gao Rong’s replica of the interior of her grandparents’ house. On close inspection, we see that every surface and every object in the house is covered in cloth embroidered to replicate the authentic surface: painted timber complete with scratches and chips, stained walls, the bricks on the floor, even the stove are all rendered with startling accuracy in embroidered cloth of typical colours. Evidently, this massive embroidering project was undertaken cooperatively by the local community (thus satisfying that criterion for relational art) and in part is intended to retrieve the traditions of embroidery. Appearing as the physical manifestation of a memory of, or a desire for, home, it invites us to rethink our familial and community connections. And it prompts consideration of what the minimum of material comforts necessary for survival might be.

The Static Eternity also speaks about the forms and media of visual representation and about the deceptive nature of appearances, and thus has a strongly conceptual character. My response is alternately subjective and objective—I’m an actor in a play, I’m immersing myself in someone’s story and I’m rethinking my own relationships. Simultaneously, I detachedly critique it as an art object, consider sociologically the phenomenon of its creation and ponder the art of embroidery.

Contemporary art, and audience engagement with it, can be seen as a reflexive aggregation of social practices. The huge and diverse audience for the BoS, including family groups, seems comfortable meandering among art of all kinds, conceptual and relational. The question is whether the audience, in person and online, will be influenced in their thinking and behaviour or will instead remember the BoS as another saturating wave thrown up by the ocean of global culture lapping their doorsteps. While it might identify traditions and histories that would otherwise disappear, assembling art from many cultures must inevitably accelerate cultural and artistic evolution and, by rendering the BoS as a sociological museum and us as flaneurs, heighten our sense of detachment from our own traditions.

Ultimately, our future rests on the production and consumption patterns of seven-plus billion people who are generally expected to act in their own interests and only cooperate for immediate advantage. We can’t predict the future except to acknowledge that the world will soon be unrecognisably different and the transition will be uncomfortable. Relational art can show us, archaeologically, what we will lose. It might also be used to facilitate dialogue and to recalibrate our values and beliefs.


18th Biennale of Sydney, 2012, All Our Relations, Curators Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, Art Gallery of NSW, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Pier 2/3, Cockatoo Island, Carriageworks, June 27-Sept 16

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 10

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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