Review: Taking a Stroll through the Sydney Biennale, 2004

The Sydney Biennale, 2004, is to be digested at a leisurely stroll that can be choreographed according to whim and preferably across a series of days. My perambulatory survey began at the MCA on a Friday morning, where I managed a brief glimpse before I met my philosophical American friends, Daniel and Emily at Circular Quay at noon. We wandered through the Botanical gardens and the various installations on display there, and then wound our picturesque way across to the Gallery of NSW. With tactile delight we penetrated its felt-like threshold installation, part of Carolyn Eskdale, Untitled Room series begun in 1995. We were even allowed to touch! Somewhat fatigued and over-saturated with art, we concluded our tour at Art Space in Woolloomooloo bay, where, disconcertingly, we discovered a mostly empty gallery space. And during our entire flânerie, the sun shone with an indecent brilliance (at least for a tourist like myself visiting from grim winter Melbourne). On the Saturday I returned to the MCA with James (artist). On the Sunday I ventured again through the Gallery of NSW, and the Museum of Sydney (though it was too early to witness Daniel von Sturmer’s site specific installation) with Karryn (film-maker). I had decided to practice looking through other people’s eyes.

To take in the Sydney Biennale it is necessary to have, ready to hand, instructions for use in the form of the free exhibition guide. At least two themes appeared to be prevalent. One was concerned with subjectivity, and the malleable fiction of the self, and the other with decidedly architectural investigations, such as Eskdale’s furry threshold at the Gallery of NSW, Amilcar Packer’s mad under the carpet crawl (Video#02, 2002), Nathan Coley’s retro-Modernist facadism, and so on. The American philosophers and I discovered ourselves avidly pouring over our instructions for use so as to decode the various works we apprehended. This resulted in too much textual analysis (an occupational hazard for the philsopher). It was Daniel who stumbled upon the first theme, which he took quite personally. He found he was being repeatedly asked to reassess the formation of his own subjectivity, and took some humorous affront at this. The otherwise sturdy relationship between the subject and a world of banal and manipulable objects was, as Dan suggested of his own accord, “problematised.”

Emily, on the other hand, was confronted by the abject horror she read in the dark photographed forms of Helena Almeida, who, as the catalogue informed us, uses her own body as a canvas. We discovered that neither the soul nor the body remain safe havens, nor can they necessarily be distinguished one from the other. A filmic series of large format black and white photographs (Untitled, 2003) depict Almeida emerging in fits and starts from the amorphous form of her black clad torso. First a foot appears, then a hand, but never a head. The artist rendered acephalous (headless). Pat Brassington’s reworked installation In My Father’s House (1992), also disturbed Emily, specifically its conjunction of title and uncanny spaces hidden behind creaking timber doors. While I enjoyed the bleak photographic emergence of Almeida, I was most disconcerted by the serial pink cervical chasms examined with gynaecological detail by Emiko Kasahara in Pink (1997). Not to mention her irksome circular arrays of blonde hair, marked off on the gallery floor with black tape so that no one would trespass into their hairy midst. An excess of hair has always made my skin crawl, I explained to Emily.

The unanimous highlight of our Friday afternoon was the plastic bucket amphitheatre in the Botanical gardens, attended by a young art student who sat knitting long, colourful scarves. Pravdoliub Ivanov’s Water Monuments (1999) featured a series of vividly coloured plastic wash basins and buckets, which had begun to catch garden debris and water. They were inserted into a sloping swathe of grass so that their lips were flush with the green. The young artist told us that it was she who had volunteered to undertake the thankless task of digging the containers into earthy holes. Hence also her continuing presence. Now she had to watch out for distracted joggers and over-excited children who might be caught unawares by the bright bucket potholes. We lingered. As for the Spanish twins, MP & MP Rosado, and their two doppelgangers sitting in the branches of a fenced off Mortan Bay Fig nearby, we almost missed the joke altogether. Dan and Emily raised their eyebrows (we had been standing for some while by the wrong fenced off tree wondering where the art was).

Earlier in the day, on the third floor of the MCA in front of AES+F’s Action Half Life (2003) I stumbled into listening distance of a tour guide’s interpretative remarks. In keeping with the title of the 2004 Sydney Bienalle, On Reason and Emotion, she was encouraging emotive responses from her audience. Images from Action Half Life are featured on the cover of the exhibition guide, leading one to suspect it should be read as one of the more important pieces in the Bienalle. Beautiful children in pristine white clothes captured in the midst of an active gesture hold aloft weapons of mass destruction. AES+F describe these children, the coming community, as their heroes. They proclaim, “the driving concept behind our art is our perpetual attempt to precipitate the ‘genome of herosim’ out of today’s world of grimmer reality.” But the children’s faces are frozen in fake mannequin smiles, and their exquisite purity (to borrow one willing audience member’s description) speaks of unimaginable dystopias, and Hannah Arendt’s conception of the ‘banality of evil.’

When I returned to the MCA with James (and a hangover) on Saturday afternoon, we spent much of the time sitting on the third floor of the MCA fixated by Javier Téllez’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital), 2004. One woman after another confided descriptions of a struggle with madness, as on the opposite wall Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film (cut with additional ‘inter titles’) depicted Joan of Arc’s face in discomforting close-up as she suffered her religious ecstasies. We sat like spectators at a melancholy tennis match turning our heads to and fro so as to witness the distraught narratives relayed by projection onto opposing walls. “A film about them and us. A film about emotions … A film about reason,” murmurs the artist’s statement in the exhibition guide.

The screening of Werner Herzog’s La Soufrière (1976), a documentary set on the island of Guadeloupe where Herzog and a small team of film-makers await the inevitable eruption, forever forestalled, of the volcano La Soufrière, drew Karryn the film-maker and I back on Sunday. Later we sat in front of Almeida again, and I explained to Karryn Emily’s sensations of horror at her abject form. Karryn pointed out that the woman’s figure (the Almeida–canvas) seemed to be approaching and then retreating from us. The frame appeared to restrain her from entering into and sharing our very own space. In the montage-like sequence of Sem Título (1994–1995), she turns a red painted hand to us as though showing a heart on her sleeve. Karryn could not bare to consider the serial cervical cavities either, and pointedly kept her gaze averted. But we both took great joy in Yin Xiuchen’s Portable Cities (2004), where such metropolitan centres as Paris, Sydney, and Lisbon, were sewn out of a luggage of clothing and packed like pop-up books into suitcases. We wondered (as had Daniel, Emily and I on the Friday) what would happen if the suitcase cities where closed up and made ready to check in at the international terminal, Sydney. You see, both of us were dreaming of absent loved ones, hers presently in Auckland, NZ, and mine even further away in Port Rush, Northern Ireland.

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