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biennale of sydney


the city, the world, beauty & music

jacqueline millner: preview, 17th biennale of sydney

Jacqueline Millner is senior lecturer in art history and visual culture at the University of Western Sydney, and writes widely on contemporary art. Her book on Australian contemporary art, Conceptual Beauty (2010), has just been published by Artspace Publications.

The Death of Adonis, 2009, Kent Monkman, acrylic on canvas The Death of Adonis, 2009, Kent Monkman, acrylic on canvas
image courtesy the artist and Trepanier Baer Gallery, Calgary
“THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: SONGS OF SURVIVAL IN A PRECARIOUS AGE.” IN ITS MELDING OF AESTHETICS, GEOGRAPHY AND POLITICS, THE TITLE OF THIS YEAR’S BIENNALE OF SYDNEY IS OF A PIECE WITH MOST LATE 20TH- AND EARLY 21ST- CENTURY INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITIONS THAT SELF-CONSCIOUSLY DENOTE THEIR STATUS AS NODES IN THE NETWORK OF GLOBALISATION. YET ARGUABLY THERE ARE POINTS OF DISTINCTION, TOO, IN THIS SOMEWHAT INELEGANTLY CRAMMED TITLE.

For one, there are references that can be interpreted as specific to this place, Sydney, Australia, as opposed to those in so many ‘global’ exhibitions that generically invoke ‘place.’ Further, the title explicitly mentions ‘beauty’, long a taboo word in post-conceptual/post-minimal contemporary art discourse. Finally, the allusion to an artform other than the visual—and a predominantly narrative and melodic form that combines the ineffable expressivity of music with the rational capabilities of words—suggests, perhaps, a more ‘folksy’ curatorial approach.

Upon first reading the title, it is hard not to think of the well-known history of Australia by Geoffrey Blainey that coined a phrase now part of common parlance, The Tyranny of Distance. First published in 1966, twice revised (in 1982 and 2001) and continuously reprinted, Blainey’s account of how Australia’s geographical remoteness has been central in shaping its history and identity has become a classic; indeed Blainey’s thesis has been compared to FJ Turner’s explanation of the history of the United States in terms of frontier theory. In updated versions, Blainey argues that even in the age of digital communications, isolation and distance remain vital to Australia’s development.

John Bock, Fischgrätenmelkstand kippt ins Höhlengleichnis Refugium, 2008, video, image courtesy of Klosterfelde, Berlin and Anton Kern, New York John Bock, Fischgrätenmelkstand kippt ins Höhlengleichnis Refugium, 2008, video, image courtesy of Klosterfelde, Berlin and Anton Kern, New York
photo Jan Windszus © John Bock, all rights reserved
In The Death Of Distance (1997)—whose title purposely cites Blainey’s book—British economic journalist Frances Cairncross suggests that the decline in cost, expanding reach and increasing speed of global communications will make distance less important, and constitute the single most influential development in the early 21st century. Cairncross argues that this will likely lead not only to a decline in global conflict, but also to the reinforcement of less widespread languages and cultures, and preservation of cultural heritage. Blainey counters this view, however, by asserting that distance still matters—albeit now measured by the fast second hand of the clock, rather than by the week in the calendar—and that its effects are not always negative. By dint of continuing to be “viewed by the outside world as a billabong standing some distance from the global mainstream” (2001), Australia’s ‘distance’ can “benefit and protect” fragile environments, national security and traditional cultures, for example. This notion of the benefits of distance is developed by Biennale Director David Elliott in his press releases: distance is cast as integral to the differences between cultures, and to the distinction between art and life.

Whether or not David Elliott was aware of Blainey’s book, his opening curatorial gambit pinpoints a key Australian preoccupation, as prevalent in culture and art—recall the early postmodern debates around the ‘provincialism problem’ and the ‘centre-periphery’ dynamic—as in international relations and domestic politics, for example, the ongoing anxiety about Australia’s status as a player on the world stage, or former PM John Howard’s characterisation of Australia as torn between its geography and its history.

Christian Thompson, Isabella Kept Her Dignity, 2008, C-type print Christian Thompson, Isabella Kept Her Dignity, 2008, C-type print
courtesy the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne
Howard’s view of Australia—one that essentially portrays Asian-Australians and Indigenous Australians as outsiders—was ascribed to Blainey himself in the 1980s, following his public expression of doubt about the ability of the Australian public to withstand continuously high levels of Asian migration. Hence to invoke distance (and its ‘tyranny’) in the Australian context is necessarily to invoke both race relations—their painful and contested historical roots and their often troubling contemporary manifestations—and questions that persist about Australia’s identity and agency as a country.

The exhibition appears to take on the specificity of place in a variety of ways. Elliott has selected a relatively large number of Australian artists, both Indigenous and non-indigenous, mid-late and early career. At least two of the indigenous projects appear to have a monumental quality that situates them as exhibition centrepieces: the 110 larraktji (memorial poles or bone coffins) created by 41 Yolngu artists from North Eastern Arnhem Land; and longtime curator and critic Djon Mundine’s permanent memorial to the Eora nation, an engraving of images of Pemulwuy and Bennelong on the rock between the Opera House and the Botanical Gardens.

Marcus Coates, Pub Shaman, Lamp Tavern, Birmingham, UK, 2007, produced in association with Insertspace, UK Marcus Coates, Pub Shaman, Lamp Tavern, Birmingham, UK, 2007, produced in association with Insertspace, UK
image courtesy the artist and Workplace Gallery, UK
Like certain preceding biennales, this one also takes advantage of Sydney’s particular geography, with site-specific works to be installed in spaces around the harbour which are also still strongly redolent of colonialism, such as Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3 and the Botanical Gardens. In the latter venue, Fiona Hall has again been invited to perform her subtle post-colonial critique. The Australian Aboriginal presence is moreover complemented by the inclusion of a number of important First Nations artists from North America, such as Beau Dick, renowned as a master carver and mask-maker; Dana Claxton, whose performances, videos and installations uncover the history of the Lakota people; Kent Monkman, whose hilarious paintings, photographs and performances imbue the post-colonial gaze with camp; and Annie Pootoogook, whose naïve drawings reveal the bittersweet nature of Inuit daily life.

The explicit recourse to beauty sets the theme apart to some degree from its recent precedents. Redolent of associations with the aesthetic ideals of fascism and bourgeois taste, deemed vacuous and frivolous or distracting of serious purpose, or seen as mere grist for the art market, beauty was for a long time spurned in preference to anti-aesthetic gestures more in keeping with the ugly social reality critical art had in its sights. Yet Elliott does not appear to view beauty as problematic; indeed his definition of beauty in press releases amounts to “a resolution of energy, thought and feeling in aesthetic form”, a view so general that it captures aesthetic, anti-aesthetic and everything in between. In its inclusion of several art world stars, the Biennale will feature artists renowned for their deliberate spurning of positive affect such as Paul McCarthy and the Chapman brothers. Yet the exhibition also includes works whose aesthetic effects can clearly be described as beautiful. Some invoke classical form, such as British Rachel Kneebone’s ceramic sculptures; others evidence intricate craft to critical effect such as in the objects of New Zealand artist Brett Graham or American Angela Ellsworth; others are expertly versed in the beauty of composition and representations of nature, such as the photographs of master Hiroshi Sugimoto, or the paintings of Australian Rosslynd Piggott.

Mieskuoro Huutajat (Shouting Men’s Choir) Mieskuoro Huutajat (Shouting Men’s Choir)
photo Timo Heikkala
Its third distinctive feature might be the Biennale’s promise to feature music as a key form in a visual arts festival. Elliott was inspired in his choice of subtitle, Songs of Survival, by American ethnomusicologist and experimental filmmaker Harry Everett Smith, who during the 1950s collected, documented and publicised a wide range of American folk music from blues to jazz to gospel, grassroots music that had been lost, forgotten or overlooked by the mainstream, and that represented a very different America to that of the hit parade. Ethnomusicology, like its mother discipline ethnography, of course has its culturally problematic aspects. These are evident in another potential reference in the subtitle, namely the recent album Songs for Survival (2008) complied by Molly Oldfield and Bruce Parry “in support of tribal people.” The producers recorded the music of various indigenous peoples, including the Babongo from Gabon, and then invited professional artists to sample the recordings in original songs. Despite the proceeds flowing to participating indigenous communities, such an undertaking necessarily raises issues of appropriation and cultural exploitation.

The archival impulse at the heart of Smith’s work is echoed in at least two other music projects included in the Biennale, Manchester artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White’s Open Music Archive (OMA), and Australia and New Zealand’s Slave Pianos (Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas). OMA aims to “source, digitize and distribute” out of copyright sound recordings now lost to the public through inaccessible media and storage. Slave Pianos, meanwhile, comprises a computer-controlled mechanical piano-player that features the ongoing archive of works of music and noise created by composers who consider themselves primarily visual artists. Along with these documentary-style works, the musical component of the exhibition includes the renowned ‘dark cabaret’ act Tiger Lillies; the Dadaist, Aki Kaurismaki-esque Finnish shouting men’s choir; and the Japanese club sounds of Superdeluxe.

Elliott comes to the Sydney Biennale with many years’ experience as director of flagship contemporary arts organisations, including the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Japan’s Mori Museum. His vision for Sydney appears to balance tried-and-true practices from previous local Biennales with the now generic expectations of global shows, but perhaps to add a welcome element of site-responsiveness together with a folksy touch of grassroots music and a frisson of beauty.


17th Biennale of Sydney, The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, May 12-Aug 1, www.biennaleofsydney.com.au

Jacqueline Millner is senior lecturer in art history and visual culture at the University of Western Sydney, and writes widely on contemporary art. Her book on Australian contemporary art, Conceptual Beauty (2010), has just been published by Artspace Publications.

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 10-11

© Jacqueline Millner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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