On the Waterfront

Charles Green on the Biennale of Sydney


Left: Biennale of Sydney director Charles Merewether. Right: Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. (All photos: Charles Green)

“I can’t relax yet, I’ve got at least eight more venues to open,” confessed a grim-looking Biennale of Sydney director Charles Merewether at a chilly Wednesday-morning press preview as installers and electricians raced across the cavernous spaces of Pier 2/3. Set at one of the few nineteenth-century harborside warehouses not converted into condominiums, this has always been a spectacular but problematic setting for art. Here and slightly anxious artists crouched by their suddenly miniature works. A wound-up Merewether marched off to oversee the last touches: no labels or captions to identify the art as yet, though the postcolonial and global themes of the biennale—“Zones of Contact”—were obvious. I spotted Scottish art critic Peter Hill, and together we boarded the shuttle bus moving media representatives between venue launches, for this biennale is spread far across the city.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor apologized, “I’m really sorry about the weather.” Sydney, normally sunny and subtropical, was suddenly freezing. Wall labels and didactic texts were complete here; one Melbourne curator noted the absence of artists’ nationalities on these, which gave viewing a quiz-show spin. The exhibition aims “to change the way we see the landscape of contemporary art,” Merewether asserted in his second speech of the day, with concentrations of artists from Central Asia, the Balkans, and the Middle East. I found artist Imants Tillers (about to have a huge retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia) next to his enormous new painting, Terra Negata, which is composed of his usual grid of small canvas boards and a spider’s web of visual quotations—from a Gabriel Orozco painted skull to appropriations of Australian Western Desert artists’ cursive designs. According to the usually laconic Tillers, this was the “unpromised land,” and we turned around to face Dutch artist Lidwien van de Ven and her austere photographs of Palestine, the promised land. Director Merewether still looked grim, perhaps anticipating more speeches and openings; “it isn’t finished yet,” he reminded me.

Left: National Gallery of Victoria curators Jason Smith and Kelly Gellatly. Right: Artist Rebecca Belmore.

The buzz by then, though, was almost universally positive. Everyone was relieved the show looked at least interesting and at best very smart, especially after the anemic, universally disliked biennale curated by Isabel Carlos two years ago. Somewhere in the suddenly packed galleries were groups of jet-lagged visiting grandees, including 1990 Biennale of Sydney curator René Block and the next edition’s director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, but I couldn’t see them amid the crush of arriving interstate curators, including the National Gallery of Victoria’s Kelly Gellatly and Jason Smith. Queensland Art Gallery’s Julie Ewington was talking secretively to someone, possibly about of the opening in November of the next Asia-Pacific Triennial in a brand-new museum on the Brisbane River. By now conservators were everywhere underfoot with flashlights and wipes, checking final condition reports and looking for dust. MacGregor’s trademark Scottish tartan shoes were on, her usual focus lost briefly as Merewether gave his next speech; her vacant moment was captured by a young art-world dude with a video-equipped mobile phone. Rhana Devenport, the biennale’s public programs manager and just-appointed next director of the Govett-Brewster Museum (New Zealand’s only serious contemporary art institution), smiled so hard it looked as if she was about to burst into tears.

Another bus, this time to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has a love-hate relationship with the biennale. Well, mainly hate, for Sydney audiences remember rumors that the AGNSW massively truncated Block’s biennale. But AGNSW (called “Agnes” locally) had beautifully installed its capacious lower levels. During Merewether’s third speech of the morning, AGNSW curatorial head Tony Bond grinned broadly; I’d heard that his support for expatriate former Getty curator Merewether was crucial two years ago during the process of selecting a director. Paula Latos-Valier, who has managed almost all of Sydney’s biennales since their inception, looked anxiously at her much-used mobile phone. This is her last biennale. I couldn’t find anyone prepared to tell me her replacement.

Left: Dealer Barry Keldoulis and assistant. Right: Biennale artist Imants Tillers.

Finally, the opening parties—MCA first—which are legendary for tightly policed RSVPs. Inside, dealers held court and everyone ignored Federal Minister for Communications Senator Helen Coonan’s speech. Sydney audiences are notoriously unruly; this lot had absolutely no interest in what anyone had to say (least of all a federal minister about to rewrite the media laws in favor of Rupert Murdoch), looking instead at what everyone was wearing. Who were the three underdressed young women in pink gauze and blinking party lights? The dealer Barry Keldoulis was in a benevolent mood. MCA director Macgregor was worrying about the future already, clearly preoccupied with the idea that scarce biennale funds would be siphoned off to pay for the vast upkeep of Pier 2/3. Everyone was drinking very fast. I headed west along the winding harbor-edge back to the supposedly strictly invitation-only artists' party but immediately spotted two young students who’d smiled their way inside. By now Merewether was starting to relax, as even he could see the show will be a success. People were beginning to act over-friendly, slurring their gossip. But without an official pink plastic wrist tag to enter the VIP enclosure and hear more, I chose to make my way into the night.

Left: Artist Tom Nicholson. Right: Artist Lidwien van de Ven.

Left: Biennale public programs manager Rhana Devenport. Right: Revelers at the biennale.