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The Biennale and the Surreal screen

Ella Mudie: 19th Biennale of Sydney


Mikhail Karikis, Children of the Unquiet 2013-14 (video still), courtesy the artist Mikhail Karikis, Children of the Unquiet 2013-14 (video still), courtesy the artist
The title of the 19th Biennale of Sydney, You Imagine What You Desire, may have been a nod to George Bernard Shaw but with its emphasis on psychological and sensory experiences its curatorial philosophy was unashamedly Surrealist. While the influence of Surrealism on contemporary culture is everywhere apparent, its legacy is more contested and as a curatorial strategy for such a heavily scrutinised event as the Biennale it represented a gamble. For while supporters of Surrealism passionately defend its attitude of psychic revolt as binding the world of dreams and desire to social transformation, detractors just as readily dismiss its infatuation with the unconscious as a mere flight from reality.

Like the polarities that separate the proponents and detractors of Surrealism, the 19th Biennale of Sydney has inevitably provoked both positive and negative reactions in equal measure. How much audiences got out of it appeared largely determined by the extent of one’s willingness to surrender to Artistic Director Juliana Engberg’s somewhat esoteric premise that art represents a form of “active desiring.” Given that I hold the first view of Surrealism, I was genuinely excited to encounter a Biennale that in most respects offered compelling evidence for the continued vitality of the movement’s politics of subversive re-enchantment. As expected, moving image works feature prominently across all five principal venues: the MCA, the AGNSW and Cockatoo Island as well as Artspace and Carriageworks. And while thematic concerns ranged from explorations of cognition, memory and psychoanalysis to more humanistic and ethnographic works, the thread of continuity among them was undoubtedly a sustained fascination with film as a medium of sensation.

Douglas Gordon, Phantom, 2011
Douglas Gordon, Phantom, 2011

photo Ben Symons, 19th Biennale of Sydney
Douglas Gordon

Since he was one of the first artists to pioneer video art as a conduit to psychic disturbances and disruptions in perception, the invitation to Douglas Gordon to present the Biennale’s opening keynote lecture signalled Engberg’s interest in exploring these themes in Sydney. As the banners and bill posters went up in late March, the disembodied eye of Gordon’s epic video installation Phantom (2011), made in collaboration with musician Rufus Wainwright, cast its uncanny gaze across the city. At the MCA, where cognitive, Surrealist and psychoanalytically inflected works across mediums were arranged in what Engberg termed “proximities and itineraries of encounter,” Gordon’s Phantom engineered a spatially disorienting sensorium. Placed upon a stage was a Steinway and another piano burnt to the ground in a ruinous heap lying beside it, creating an atmosphere both funereal and theatrical. As Wainwright’s heavily made-up eye blinked eerily in slow motion on a luminous white screen the melodious lament of his vocals and piano resounded in the space and the viewer was absorbed in a moving yet impersonal performance of grief.

Pipilotti Rist

Where Gordon’s video work explores the darker undercurrents of the workings of film, memory and the psyche, there was a fascinating dialectical tension between the dystopic Surrealism of Phantom and the engrossing utopian sensuality of Pipilotti Rist’s six-channel high digital video installation, Mercy Garden Retour Skin (2014). Situated on the ground floor of the MCA, Rist’s immersive “video aquarium” enveloped the viewer in a liquid and ethereal space brimming with lush imagery of microscopic and macroscopic views of nature, seducing the viewer with the psychedelic cosmologies of the natural world. Sometimes critically overlooked thanks to their hedonism, Rist’s installations nevertheless reinterpret the Surrealist notion of libidinal excess as a subversive force from a feminist perspective. In overstimulating the senses Rist seeks to dissolve the boundaries of the ego upon which we base not only our identity but also the repressive and disciplinary structures that order the world at large.

Tacita Dean, Event for a Stage, 2014, presented at Carriageworks in association with ABC RN, courtesy the artist, Fifth Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris, co-commissioned by the 19th Biennale of Sydney and Carriageworks Tacita Dean, Event for a Stage, 2014, presented at Carriageworks in association with ABC RN, courtesy the artist, Fifth Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris, co-commissioned by the 19th Biennale of Sydney and Carriageworks
photo Zan Wimberley
Tacita Dean

Riffing further on the Surrealist associations, British artist Tacita Dean has remarked that “André Breton once explained ‘objective chance’ as external circumstance acting in response to unspoken desires and demands of the human psyche.” Highly regarded for the conceptual elegance of her rigorously edited 35mm and 16mm film installations, Dean is an artist for whom the workings of chance, or the “lucky find,” has played a determining role in her practice and as a highlight of the Biennale’s middle program the artist travelled to Sydney to undertake the risky venture of her first foray into live performance, Event for a Stage (2014). Dean insists that she never pre-plans or storyboards her films, preferring to work from a state of chaos in an indeterminate artistic process that threatened to unravel as she moved into the scripted, rehearsed and ritualised world of theatre.

The opportunity to present a performance work was prompted by the inclusion of Carriageworks as a Biennale venue partner and in response to Engberg’s invitation Dean devised the intriguing meta-theatrical scenario of casting an actor to play himself in the role of an actor. The experimental undertaking was accepted by British film, television and theatre actor Stephen Dillane though not without trepidation. Not only was the project lacking in the usual credentials that an actor relies upon to assess a role, like a script and a story; even a week out from the first programmed performance details of its content remained scant prompting speculation of tensions between the two collaborators. As it turns out, these tensions were productively utilised by Dean who turned the mismatched expectations between actor and artist into the ‘middle ground’ where the limits of what delineates visual art from theatre were bravely tested in a highly exposed fashion.

From the outset, Event for a Stage strategically blurred the lines between artifice and real life. At each performance audiences were seated in the round and the stage simply comprised a circle drawn on the ground with white chalk. Costumed in a periwig and white face powder (which varied slightly with each performance) and wearing a modern top and trousers, Dillane was immediately present on stage, stalking the perimeter of the circle as the audience entered the space. There was a tense atmosphere in the theatre as if we had stumbled into a dress rehearsal or trespassed onto a movie set as two cameras stationed on tripods and manned by crew filmed the performance in real time. As Dillane switched between a kaleidoscope of personas, veering from Shakespeare’s Prospero and a version of himself to readings from Heinrich Von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theatre, it became apparent that the central drama in fact lay in the antagonism between the actor and the artist who had cast him in this most unsatisfactory of roles.

Seated in the front row of the audience, Tacita Dean periodically slipped Dillane pieces of paper (which he sometimes snatched) with notes that probed the inner workings of the actor’s process and her own. In her recent film works Dean has largely worked with ambient sound, however Event for a Stage represented a return to narrative and the spoken word. Intertextual references abounded and the storm of The Tempest, which of course is not a natural phenomenon but a product of Prospero’s magic, particularly resonated with Dean’s concern to reveal the artistic process as artifice, an illusory surface that says more about the preoccupations, obsessions and desires of the conjurer than it does about any objective reality or subject portrayed. In one sense falling short (one suspects deliberately) of presenting a satisfying conclusion that resolved its disparate parts, Event for a Stage nevertheless succeeded in the most difficult task of absorbing the audience in the drama of its self-reflexive concerns. Its coup was to turn the precarious uncertainties of the artist’s encounter with the medium of theatre into a disquieting meditation upon the performative nature of art, identity and life itself.

At Carriageworks

Not only propelling Tacita Dean’s courtship of chance into the risky terrain of theatre, the inclusion of Carriageworks as a venue and partner also provided the Biennale with expanded space in the form of a newly opened Bay. Previously leased as a film studio, Engberg responded to the recent filmic origins of the space with screen-based works that charted surreal currents between the structures of the cinema and the psyche. In its dark nocturnal ambience there was a scenic reconstruction of a Disney children’s classic in Mastering Bambi (2011) by Dutch duo Broersen & Lukács; a trippy journey into the repressed artistic alter-ego of an architect in Henry Coombes’s I am the Architect (2012); and an uncanny remediation of the 1930s Hollywood musical in Mathias Poledna’s A Village by the Sea (2011), among other works. Particularly impressive was Brisbane artist Daniel McKewen’s Running Men (2008-14), a five-screen installation that composited footage of running scenes by Hollywood’s leading men, such as Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise, onto black backgrounds. Divorced from their original context and suspended in a repetitive motion the running scene was exposed as a mere special effect that nevertheless embodies a powerful ideal of masculinity shaped by, and reflected in, action film culture.

Where the video installations at Carriageworks sought to subvert the entertainment values of film to illuminate cinema as a psychic space of fantasy and desire, nearby the presentation of The Long Program was more subdued. A rolling two-day program of films by artists working with feature length or documentary style and screened in a dedicated theatrette, many of the films were drawn from Northern Europe and could be situated within the ethnographic turn in video art characterised by research-driven projects that use non-actors and involve extensive collaboration and low production values. In the selection of films that I caught not all projects transcended the ordinary but those that did, such as Renzo Marten’s confronting journey into the spectacle of poverty in the African Congo, Episode III (2008), were reminders that artist documentaries can make important interventions into the dominant perspectives circulated by mainstream media.

On other screens

While these ethnographic works provided a counterpoint to the more spectacular larger-scale moving image installations, there were also a number of humanistic gems scattered across other venues. Over on Cockatoo Island, the post-industrial site provided an evocative setting for the screening of Mikhail Karikis’ Children of Unquiet (2013), a stunning portrayal of a group of young Italian children occupying a recently abandoned workers village located in the vaporous terrain of an industrialised geothermal region in Tuscany. In a haunting collage of human, industrial and geothermal sonorities the children’s voices, movements and their uninhibited play reactivated the disused village, releasing a sense of potential amid its industrial ruins. At the AGNSW, Australian video artist Angelica Mesiti’s In the Ear of the Tyrant (2013-14) similarly sculpted space with sound. In the cathedral-like space of a 20-metre high limestone cave in Sicily, the artist engaged an Italian singer to perform a traditional lamentation. As the acoustic properties of the cave amplified the intensity of the vocalised mourning, Mesiti’s video offered a powerful connection to a lost tradition of catharsis rarely expressed in the modern world.

The Surrealists believed that in liberating the world of dreams, the unconscious, the irrational and those two key terms in the Biennale title, imagination and desire, they might prise open a more enchanted reality. World events extinguished their optimism, yet whether subliminally courted through objective chance or returning unbidden in moments of heightened affect and visual shock, the 19th Biennale of Sydney revealed to what extent sensation, rather than mere perception, continues to shape our encounters with contemporary art. In this respect You Imagine What You Desire was indeed a Biennale of “lucky finds.”


You Imagine What You Desire, 19th Biennale of Sydney, Artistic Director Juliana Engberg, Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carriageworks, Cockatoo Island, Artspace, Sydney, 21 March–9 June.

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 50-5

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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