17th Biennale of Sydney, The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age

Curator: David Elliott MCA, Cockatoo Island, Botanic Gardens Artspace, AGNSW, Pier 2/3, Opera House 12 May – 1 August 2010

Shen Shaomin Bonsai No.4 2007, plant, iron tools, 
60 x 160 x 50 cm. Courtesy the artist and Osage Gallery.
Angela Ellsworth Seer Bonnet IV 2009, 19,872 pearl corsage pins and fabric, 83.8 x 27.9 x 38.1 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery, Scottsdale. 
Photo: Ana Elizalde.

With its mouthful of a title brimming with potential themes, its huge number of artists, and its preference for sites which offered plenty of ideas of their own, the '17th Biennale of Sydney' was a hit and miss affair. The biggest hit was no doubt the compelling location of Cockatoo Island. Yet this also proved the biggest problem, as most of the works installed there were not designed as site-specific, and in turn were dwarfed by this exemplar of the industrial sublime. The other main venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art, with its own quite different space issues, was overfilled, with few works installed to full advantage. Curator David Elliott's intention to introduce a folksy, musical element was not fully realised - the exhibition was overall very much Biennale business as usual, although a welcome initiative was SuperDeluxe’s club-style entertainment at Artspace, which hosted open 'PechaKucha’ nights throughout the event that allowed a grass-roots exchange of ideas in a bite-size format.

Cockatoo Island is itself a museum and historical site. Its cavernous workshops and slipways, its abandoned caretakers’ cottages, are all still abuzz with the traces of the island’s former life as a shipyard, as well as its other less salubrious incarnations: gaol, reformatory and industrial school. The re-dedicated industrial spaces say of Venice’s Arsenale, or Sydney’s Walsh Bay Pier and Bond Stores, are neutral by comparison.
Industrial ruins can of course provide rich fodder for artists, but only if there is time and resources for genuinely site specific work. Otherwise, it is only those pieces that can effectively neutralise the space, whose ideas will not be petered out amid the site’s more powerful aesthetics.

Peter Hennessey’s 'My Hubble: the universe turned in on itself' is a full-scale replica of the Hubble space telescope painstakingly rendered in recycled plywood and waste Mylar, continuing the artist’s transformation of high-end technological icons through humble materials and handcrafting. The eye of the replica is however trained not on the cosmos, but on us, and the artist has provided a viewing platform that allows viewers to inspect each other as if through the powerful optical tool that is the original. True to site specificity, the massive sculpture dialogues powerfully with the vaulting warehouse that contains it: steel and stone against wood, the crafted object against mass manufactured architecture, sophisticated space age knowhow against obsolescent industrial technology. But it is the match of scale that is most effective, a quality that makes the Hubble, along with its insights into the universe, appear human-sized and accessible. That match of scale also works well for Roxy Paine’s 'Neuron', a two tonne sculpture handmade out of industrial steel pipe, installed in the MCA forecourt. The tendrils of this baobab-like object reach out over one of Australia’s most visited and historically charged locations, giving concrete form to the networks of thought that create cultural spaces. This work might also have set off powerful allusions in the Botanical Gardens, unlike the works actually installed there which failed to effectively mine that site’s rich layers.

Video was pervasive in the Biennale, but many works were let down by their installation. Might it not be worth considering having several dedicated screening venues to better serve video work that is not actively site-specific or does not integrate architectural elements? At Cockatoo Island, the spectacular 'Feast of Trimalchio' (2009) by Russian collective AES+F stole the show, its circular nine-channel projection ‘capsule’ completely transporting the audience to an uncanny world of human perfection at leisure. AES+F’s arch take on the ultimate tourist experience had several barbs for the art tourist in each of us hidden amid its digitally enhanced visions of desirability; as a contrast to Yang Fudong’s excruciatingly bleak video portrait of life in rural China 'East of Que Village' (2007) it was even more poignant. Isaac Julien’s 'Ten Thousand Waves' (2010) also neutralised its industrial setting, projected on multiple suspended flat screens in a low-ceilinged room. The installation underlined the fragmentary nature of this self-consciously Orientalist view of 20th century Chinese history. The work juxtaposes references to the representation of China in recent Asian-American cinema - it features well-known actresses Maggie Cheung and Zhao Tao - with archival material, and the reconnaissance footage shot by British coastguards looking for survivors of an accident that killed 23 illegal Chinese migrants working as cocklepickers off the north coast of Britain. (This is a story more powerfully told, however, in Nick Broomfield’s 2006 film 'Ghosts'.)

Despite its title, beauty was no more evident in the 'Biennale' than in any other large exhibition of contemporary art, where the anti-aesthetics of the likes of the Chapman Bros and Paul McCarthy are standard. Yet some works did evoke that affective pleasure often associated with intense attention, a sense of deep connection and wonder. Daniel Crooks’ extraordinary 'Static No 12 (seek stillness in movement)', in which the artist brings his ‘time slice’ video technique to bear on a old man practising Tai Chi in a Shanghai park, thus emphasising the grace of an ordinary body in meditative motion, is one such work. Another is Angela Ellsworth’s 'Seer Bonnets: a continuing offense' (2009-10), women’s pioneer bonnets meticulously crafted out of pearl-tipped seamstress’s pins that from the outside recall bejewelled royal headwear, but from the inside look like the jaws of a piranha. Rachel Kneebone’s erotically charged porcelain sculptures, Susan Hiller’s etchings of sound waves created by short phrases of endangered languages, and the Yolngu Artists’ 'Larrakitj' also each bailed up the viewer with their beauty.

While 'The Beauty of Distance' promised a certain distinctiveness - in terms of greater site-specificity, a foregrounding of aesthetics, and a more inter-disciplinary approach that brought music more squarely into the fold – with some exceptions, the overall impression was of a fairly standard 'Biennale', intricately woven into the tourist fabric of the city of Sydney. Perhaps future curators might look to more boldly depart from the model so that we are not doomed to endlessly repeat the art tourist experience, like the guests at the 'Feast of Trimalchio'.