PRINT May 2004

International Shorts

the Biennale of Sydney

Descartes was wrong: The mind/body split is bogus. With this as her hook for the 14th Biennale of Sydney, the director, Portuguese independent curator Isabel Carlos, won’t get much argument there. Titling her show “On Reason and Emotion,” Carlos has conscripted neurologist and compatriot António Damásio, author of such titles as Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens, to provide the theoretical ballast for floating the interdependence of thought and feeling in contemporary art. Looking to settle the score with “northern” (read: New York) intellectualism, her biennale gets behind the feisty “southerner” by favoring artists from South America and warmer European countries, along with a sizable contingent from Australia and New Zealand.

As she acknowledges in her concept statement, Carlos has built her theme on a foundation of national stereotypes and behavioral clichés, most of which more or less hold until she characterizes Australia as the “only true southern continent”—something of a faux pas in a colonized country anxious to get out from (down) under its peripheral relation to Europe and America. Just the same, the synthesis of emotion and intellect that Carlos proposes may well provide a timely corrective for a local scene perhaps too enamored of theory in the ’80s and too easily seduced by its antithesis—poetic and abject expression—in the ’90s.

Working with a two-year lead time, Carlos has chosen anything but the usual suspects. Of the fifty-one exhibiting artists, roughly half hail from either Australia and New Zealand or Portugal, Brazil, and Spain. The remainder are drawn, in descending order of appearance, from non-Latin European countries, Asia, Africa, Canada, and Israel—the obvious loser being the US, which barely gets a look-in, except for Bruce Nauman and Jimmie Durham. There will also be a series of artist’s talks and public programs; the keynote speaker for the main conference is Portuguese theorist Beatriz Colomina.

The global village can’t come quickly enough for the Australian art world, and in this regard the biennale is a crucial date on its calendar. The event serves not only as an opportune international gathering for local artists but as an affirmation of the real in the face of art-media simulacra: Such is the geographic isolation from the centers of Western culture that an Australian’s journey into art from elsewhere is generally signposted by print and electronic media or facilitated by expensive adventures. Either way, this Biennale of Sydney will surely represent the road less traveled.

The Biennale of Sydney will be on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Artspace, the Museum of Sydney, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Sydney Opera House, June 4–August 15.

Jeff Gibson is production director of Artforum and managing editor of Bookforum.