Biennale of Sydney 2008: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Tracey Clement interviews Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, curator of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, and finds out what she thinks about the Stendhal Syndrome, Biennale Syndrome and the politics of language.

Stuart Ringholt Circle Heads (detail) 2005, book, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

In a culture shaped by the economic imperative of relentless, never-ending growth, in which individuals are consumers, the selection of a Venti Mocha Frappacino at the local Starbucks is seen as a mode of self expression; 31 flavours, channels or brandname running shoes are barely enough and the catch cry, 'more, more, more', ricochets off the glittering canyons of Westfields worldwide, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev[1], Artistic Director of the 16th Biennale of Sydney, is keenly aware that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
The gluttony of rampant consumerism and the cacophony of information overload have saturated every aspect of our culture, so it's not surprising that even the fine art realm of international biennales has been affected. For Christov-Bakargiev, the result is that attending them becomes something akin to a trip to the mall, a symptom of what she calls the Biennale Syndrome. Her use of the word syndrome deliberately evokes connotations of disease, but it also references the Stendhal Syndrome, which as she explains, 'means a kind of a collapse because of an excess of aesthetic experience.'[2] For Christov-Bakargiev, 'In a world where there are 104 biennales, if not more, we are near a kind of collapse (due to the) over-presence, the over-visibility of art. It's not about an excess of existence of art in the world, as a natural human impulse, but it is about the circulation of art, and the exhibition of art.'

As with most things, there are both positive and negative aspects to Christov-Bakargiev's Biennale Syndrome, 'I use the term to describe the situation where there is a biennale in almost in every city, so the good aspect of the Biennale Syndrome is of course that contemporary art gains a space in daily life, which in many ways was a utopian ideal, actually of the very radical 1960s& On the other hand, however, I think it is an expression of a crazy sort of disease of consumer culture, where everything has been consumed.'

For Christov-Bakargiev, the distinction between international biennales and international art fairs has become altogether too blurry. Both have become places of frenzied spectacle, where as much art as possible is presented and devoured in vast quantities by voracious consumers browsing for culture. As a curator, Christov-Bakargiev attempts to disrupt this model. The theme she has devised for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney is 'Revolutions: Forms That Turn'. It sounds both political and radical, and it is, but in unexpected and subtle ways.

Christov-Bakargiev's 'Revolutions' is not an overt reaction to the current political affairs splashed across newspaper headlines and blaring non-stop from CNN. According to her, an emphasis on what's topical is part of the Biennale Syndrome; in the drive to get as many punters as possible through the door you have to latch on to what their concerns are, but Christov-Bakargiev declares, 'I think it is important to shift biennales away from content-based shows, to remind people of the politics of language itself.' 'Revolutions' focuses instead on 'the formal gestures embedded in the etymology of the word': inversion, reversing, rotating. As expected, there will be kinetic artworks, and remnants thereof, such as a fragment from Jean Tinguely's iconic, self-destructive, 'Homage to New York', but Christov-Bakargiev is also interested in the flipping and turning that happens internally when confronted by a truly revolutionary artwork, such as Kasimir Malevich's very static 'Black Square'. As she says, 'When you change your point of view a formal gesture occurs in the mind.' For Christov-Bakargiev, 'Revolutions: Forms That Turn' 'is really very much about the politics of aesthetics.' And one of its most radical elements is her curatorial strategy.

Rather than the marketplace buzz of a major art fair, Christov-Bakargiev will be 'using a terrorist tactic' to create a different atmosphere for her biennale, 'What I can do is what they can't do. I can withdraw art.' In a bold move, she plans on leaving several gallery spaces empty, 'to create a dialectic between presence and absence', but also to take a political stance. As she says, 'There is a point to making a space of emptiness in a world that is all about consumer culture. It's a little bit of magic.'

Christov-Bakargiev also rejects the cult of newness that defines consumer culture and which has inevitably seeped into our approach to biennales. She refuses to play the competitive game of my biennale is bigger than yours, has more undiscovered, talented, young things or specially commissioned hot-off-the-press works. She asks, 'Is it culturally important that Sam Durant has made a new work for 'Revolutions: Forms That Turn?' She answers her own question with an emphatic, 'No!' For her, the art world's current obsession with newness is damaging, it pushes people right back into a shopping mall mentality. With this in mind, Christov-Bakargiev will present works from historical avant-gardes alongside contemporary pieces. In fact, she feels so strongly about the negative impact of focusing on when something was created that she is considering not listing dates at all.

In addition to artists already mentioned, in no particular order, (and this is not a complete list) the 16th Biennale of Sydney will feature works by Lawrence Weiner, Stuart Ringholt, Tracey Moffatt, Giuseppe Penone, Jannis Kounellis, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, William Kentridge, Dora Garcia, Brian Jungen, Paul Pfeiffer, Susan Philipz, Michael Rakowitz, Mike Parr, Dan Perjovschi, Pierre Huyghe, Nalini Malini, Rachel Ormella, Joseph Beuys, Sharmila Samant, Shaun Gladwell, Dan Graham, and Anawana Haloba.
By mixing up the old with the new, Christov-Bakargiev also wants to fracture the linear model of history saying, 'Anything that exists in the world is philosophically contemporary, because it exists.' But perhaps more importantly, she uses this strategy as diversionary tactic. As she explains, when discussing her vision for the Biennale of Sydney with a participating artist he suddenly understood why Marcel Duchamp's 'Bicycle Wheel' was included: as a decoy, a device to draw attention, to create a gap allowing the other artists room to move. Christov-Bakargiev concedes that his instinct was, at least in part, correct and admits, 'In some ways all of my exhibitions are decoys.' They are designed to create a certain kind of space, gap or 'platform' which facilitates conversations between artists and artworks, both dead and alive, real and unrealised; fertile discussions between what is visible and the invisible presence of what is not.

With curatorial tactics like these, there is little doubt that Christov-Bakargiev's 'Revolutions: Forms That Turn' will indeed send the wheels of our minds spinning into rapid motion. Viva la revolucion!

[1]- Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has been Chief Curator of Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy, since 2002 and before that Senior Curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York. She has published on Italian and international art, including Arte Povera, and the relationship between historical avant-gardes and contemporary art.
[2]- The Stendhal Syndrome was named after the experience of Stendhal, a 19th century French writer who travelled to Florence and became dizzy, disorientated and completely overwhelmed by art.

All quotes are from conversations with the author on 21 and 23 January 21 2008.

Tracey Clement