Signs of Life

Melbourne International Biennial 1999 Telecom Building Russell St and other venues in Melbourne 11 May - 27 June

Large art events seldom excite avant-garde enthusiasm, partly because they are highly capitalized and therefore often vehicles for relatively conservative agendas. The large scale also becomes artistically intrusive, as individual pockets of possibly subversive material are co-opted into an overbearing sense of spectacle which effectively neutralizes their critical content. And then, caught up in a whole promotional machine which involves the media, newspaper critics take part in the festivity and engage military or sporting terms like 'blockbuster' or 'knockout' to describe the triumphal public impact of the curatorial achievement.

No one, however, no matter how skeptical, expected to be seduced so much by the first International Biennial in Melbourne. The Artistic Director Juliana Engberg has achieved everything that you would want from a 'knockout'. An extraordinary array of 59 talents - extensively drawn from the northern hemisphere - was gathered in a modest office tower in the centre of Melbourne, and a good handful of commercial and state-funded galleries which made up the national pavilions. These were most notably the Ian Potter Museum at the University of Melbourne, the Centre for Contemporary Photography, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Sutton Gallery and Tolarno.

All of these satellites were interesting; but the centrepiece of the Biennial was certainly the city building. It was an old Telecom exchange building of little intrinsic architectural merit, destined, it seems, to be redefined as a posh block of apartments. It will function well in that role because nearly every aspect yielded a visually exciting view of Melbourne, a striking element in the success of the Biennial.

The use of old buildings for the exhibition of avant-garde art is extremely common. Sometimes their interiors are renovated so that they resemble new buildings (often homogenized cheaply enough with boards over windows and a unifying coat of white paint). The approach taken by the Biennial was quite different. It sympathetically exploited the episodic nature of the complex, with its impressive windows punctuating the space in a friendly rhythm. Few of the office partitions remained. Large open spaces flowing from the lift- and stairwell on each level were allowed to remain with a charming air of the slightly disused, at times almost precious in their unadulterated decrepitude. This must have been consciously pursued by the team, since most levels contained some pleasant old domestic furniture which would definitely not have belonged to the original Telecom operation. The couches - stationed conveniently near the exits to each floor - were also extremely sympathetic to the installations, some of which involved furniture themselves or other architectonic elements.

All of this downbeat decor contributed greatly to the glamour of the installations, flattering their counter-cultural content but also making them less museological or clinical. Much of the art was deconstructive and intellectually austere, as international art usually is. The encounter in these circumstances was somehow reassuring; the spaces and textures proposed a personal discovery of individual artistic episodes rather than an over-curated design experience. There were visible signs of the success of this casual interface. The energetic participation of children - normally schlepped through silent museums in a state of uncomprehending frustration - was not only endearing but a sign of the approachability of exhibition.

Most of the art on show had a strong installational character, even if photography or video. You often find videos in galleries boring; but part of the reason for your impatience is ergonomic. Video is not a medium which relates to galleries. You rapidly get tired on your feet if you cannot move. The provision of couches - daggy as they were - for some of the videos was inspired. The domestic air of the show was not a design affectation but was actually functional. In the process, it did add a winsome dimension to the psychological effect of the art. Again, it can be assumed that this was intended because it was consistent with the rhetoric of advertisements for the event.
Billboards around town proclaimed that this was to be 'an exhibition which looks at you'. Not actually a claim that is easily submitted to rigorous tests... but nevertheless foregrounding the idea of a personal encounter.

It is interesting to note that this personalizing and domestication (without any loss of content in the individual works) really only worked in the city building. As the satellites were conceived as national pavilions, they were somewhat more totalizing in their approach to art. First, of course, they were contained in buildings of a certain stagy artistic slickness or long-standing reputations for artistic prestige. Second, they were intended to project a single vision or even cultural message from a given nation. And third (which is a similar point), they lacked the spatial disposability at the hands of the artistic director to engineer favourable encounters along personal lines. In contrast to the works in the city buildings, they seemed to represent a now-tired paradigm of art-viewing, very institutionalized, museologically structured and full of boastful cultural authority.

This brings us to the question of the key curatorial premise, well summed-up by the title "Signs of Life". On one level, this could be appreciated simply by the atmosphere of buzzing, teaming, activity-infested art, proliferating throughout the city building. On another, it could be interpreted as the vivacity of the artistic encounter when centred on individual experience. Behind this, of course, lies a potential metaphysic dealing with the ontology of looking and engaging at inanimate objects. These are very special objects, because they are artistically contrived to host the feeling of being.
Although they may be the signs of life, it is only you who are alive, you and your perception. The artworks enhance the consciousness of being by having an investment of ambiguous metaphoric content, the encounter with which suggests a kind of reciprocal intelligence.
The final 'sign of life' has been the discussion which immediately and spontaneously arose in Melbourne. The exhibition had not been opened for a fortnight before a publication emerged, edited by Stuart Koop and Robyn McKenzie, Quick Responses, containing nine critiques of the show (one of which, I have to confess, is by me). The critiques by some of the authors, especially Daniel Palmer and Stephen O'Connell, rather beautifully identified the metaphysical, almost mystical basis in the concept of 'life' in Signs of life.

It is difficult to offer a review of this extraordinary event in any detail. The international artists included big names such as Catherine Opie and Louise Bourgeois, while the Australians included Stephen Bush, Destiny Deacon, Peter Kennedy, Callum Morton and Patricia Piccinini. The impact that the show had nationally and internationally is difficult to assess. The miserable truth of all indicators of public reception is that they are mostly dependent on advertising. Some friends from other capitals told me that the event was not very well publicized interstate. If so it is pity. For the whole duration of the show, Melbourne was abuzz with curiosity, and this in spite of a discouraging review from Peter Timms in The Age. Spectators sensed that this was not just an exhibition which gathered together an unprecedented number of contemporary artists of poetic vision and technical skill, nor just an exhibition which coupled this with an interesting curatorial premise but an exhibition which was truly innovative in proposing a new viewing paradigm for contemporary art.

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