PRINT Summer 2018



Nguyen Trinh Thi, Letters from Panduranga, 2015, HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 35 minutes. From the 21st Biennale of Sydney.

JAPANESE-BORN MAMI KATAOKA, chief curator at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum since 2003, is the artistic director of the 2018 Biennale of Sydney, the first Asian curator to be appointed to the role in the event’s forty-five-year history. While her selection reflects the undeniable influence of Brisbane’s Asia Pacific Triennial (inaugurated in 1993) on the national scene, this turn to Australia’s neighboring regions feels so overdue that praising it here hardly seems justified.

Kataoka has named her iteration “Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement”; the attendant curatorial rationale (presented in a stapled newsprint guide and online document in lieu of the usual glossy catalogue) adheres to the inflated yet anodyne worldviews of biennial curating. The term superposition refers to quantum theories of electrons existing in simultaneous states (as wave and as particle), which Kataoka has aligned with the Taoist concept of wu xing—the belief that everything in the world is made up of ever-reactive cosmic elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. If the focus on “equilibrium,” “diversity,” “rebirth,” and “antagonistic conflict” in Kataoka’s statement elicits déjà vu, it is because every biennial under the sun now strives to simultaneously address inclusivity, global political unrest, and the primacy of material experience.

It is hardly a surprise, then, to find geopolitically engaged works juxtaposed with those emphasizing material form. Across this Biennale’s seven venues—including regular touchstones such as Cockatoo Island, the Sydney Opera House, and Carriageworks—the overt conceptual structuring of Stephanie Rosenthal’s 2016 Biennale has been dropped in favor of more intuitive and eclectic spatial arrangements, while the number of Asian artists, who make up about 40 percent of the sixty-nine exhibitors, provides a welcome shift in demographics from Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s and Juliana Engberg’s European-heavy ventures in 2008 and 2014, respectively.

Biennials are nebulous by nature, but some have their “eye of the duck” moments, to use filmmaker David Lynch’s term for something that perfectly encapsulates that which surrounds it. At a former industrial shipyard on Cockatoo Island, Ai Weiwei’s installation Law of the Journey, 2017, appears predestined for such an effect. Trouble is, the work—a nearly two-hundred-foot-long black rubber refugee lifeboat packed with roughly three hundred oversize, faceless, inflatable figures—becomes the central void of Kataoka’s exhibition rather than its crowning glory. Instead of evoking the complex and heartrending humanitarian concerns of the refugee crisis—a highly contentious issue in Australian politics over the past two decades—the work is a perfect example of an ethical spectacle turned media event. iPhone photos taken during the production of Ai’s documentary on the global crisis of displacement, Human Flow, 2017, whose Australian release date coincided with the Biennale’s opening, are wallpapered nearby, and a series of his other videos relating to the refugee crisis play on a loop adjacent to his colossal installation, suggesting a connection between Ai’s celebrity status and the continuing political anonymity of his subjects.

As the Biennale’s much-publicized centerpiece, Ai’s work provides an entry point for the Australian public while leaving subtler work to be discovered beneath the hype. One such piece—a standout of the exhibition—is Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Letters from Panduranga, 2015, an epistolary essay-film about the Cham, an ethnic minority group in Vietnam, and their fight against government plans to build nuclear power plants in their native province of Ninh Thuan. Their struggle is patiently, stunningly filmed, with Nguyen employing voice-overs, photographic stills, real-life documentary footage, and self-conscious acknowledgments of the camera—strategies familiar from the work of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard—to make protest art attentive to the gender politics of the narrators’ lives and to the community’s spiritual connection to the land. Located at Carriageworks, Nguyen’s work is part of Kataoka’s most inventive curatorial arrangement, which locates poetic affinities across a diverse selection of artists. The section includes Michael Stevenson’s Serene Velocity in Practice: MC510/CS183, 2017, a conspiratorial and evangelically toned installation about two California university courses; Papunya Tula artist George Tjungurrayi’s pulsating abstract paintings inspired by his ancestral landscape; and Laurent Grasso’s OTTO, 2018, a twenty-six-minute video shot with a drone in the Aboriginal community of Yuendumu in Northern Australia. Conceptually slight and even a little silly, Grasso’s work is nevertheless hypnotic in its evocation of sci-fi and Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, tracking a mysterious orb across striking, sometimes digitally saturated landscapes to a booming, atmospheric soundtrack.

Hidden away at the Art Gallery of New South Wales are two videos that epitomize this Biennale’s mix of cross-cultural navigation and formal sensuousness. Francisco Camacho Herrera’s Parallel Narratives, 2015–17, and Oliver Beer’s Composition for Mouths (Songs My Mother Taught Me) I & II, 2018, occupy their own spaces within the institution’s permanent collections of Asian and Aboriginal art, respectively. While Herrera’s work analyzes archaeological evidence supporting a theory that Chinese sailors crossed the Pacific Ocean to reach America before the arrival of the Spanish, Beer’s is an intimate depiction of two male and two female singers locked mouth-to-mouth, humming tunes recalled from their childhoods that emanate from each other’s noses. Both works cut to the heart of Kataoka’s approach, conjuring the respectful negotiation of shared time and space at the confluence of Asian, Indigenous, and Western cultures. No will-to-power of political relations, this is instead a staging of an artistic ideal, aestheticizing the harmonies, collisions, and entanglements—the superpositions—born from cultures being propelled together.

Wes Hill is a lecturer of art theory at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, and the author of Art After the Hipster: Identity Politics, Ethics and Aesthetics (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017).