The Australian Biennale

Art Gallery Of New South Wales / Pier 213 / National Gallery Of Victoria

Biennales ordinarily offer a world picture in which local content looms large. Sydney’s is no different; it serves to update the country’s isolated art public, and to present local work in a larger context. As a national bicentennial event, this year’s event offered exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, became the Australian Biennale, and boasted both a historical dimension and a regionalist perspective.

The show was titled “From the Southern Cross, a View of World Art 1940–1988,” and it included a wider range of works than previous Sydney Biennales. Without doubt, the show was stronger for its Matisse cut-out, Polynésie La Mer, 1946, for its Willem de Kooning Woman, 1950, and its Len Lye kinetic sculpture, Blade, 1962–76, yet the role of these and the other older works was less evident than the title suggests. A mere 40 of 240 total works were created more than three years ago; of those, only 28 were by artists outside of Australia and New Zealand. These were scattered throughout an exhibition, structured not according to period or style, but by theme. And the diversity of the themes was such that the historical works never acquired a collective force. While “From the Southern Cross” here and there held out the promise of a view, and a down-under view at that, none materialized.

Director Nick Waterlow organized the exhibition according to five themes, or “avenues for exploration,” as he called them. “The figure and its psyche” featured work by Arnulf Rainer, Mike Parr, Balthus, Taishi Hirokawa, Julie Brown-Rrap, Picasso, Maria Lassnig, and Tatsami Orimoto; it represented an extraordinary collocation that crossed cultures, history, styles, and media.Connections between artists and works within the section appeared to be ad hoc, yet clearly drawn. The spectral figure in Francis Bacon’s early Study from the Human Body, 1949, stepping through a curtain into the dark, seemed the same as the one that emerged in blue relief from the gold ground of Yves Klein’s adjacent Arman, 1962. Sexual violence brought together de Kooning’s Woman, Max Beckmann’s Afternoon, 1946, and Arthur Boyd’s fierce little suburban psychodramas of the ’40s.

Waterlow seems to prefer psychological depths to signifying surfaces, emotion to ideology. Not surprisingly, then, he did much better with themes like “landscape as metaphor” and “myth and allegory” than he did with “the nonobjective” and “intervention and de-construction,” and much better with European than with American work. The viewer’s discoveries were likely to be European: the Yugoslavian group Irwin, whose gorgeously eclectic works are collectively produced, Christian Boltanski’s wall installation Detective, 1987, and Sonja Oudenijk’s enigmatic wall fittings. No single artist stood at the center of any theme, while many served to link one theme to another; no section offered a coherent whole so much as an occasion for the unexpected and illuminating conjunction or sequence. This approach produced a show that was full of incident, of particular clusters, disjunctions, transitions, discrete comparisons, and contrasts. Ultimately, however, Waterlow’s regionalism seemed more about confusing than rewriting the record, about dissolving the distinctions between centric and eccentric in order to benefit provincial and marginal practices.

Some artists had their own agenda. New Zealander Neil Dawson put four 10-foot feathers atop the Art Gallery of New South Wales, making a joke of that building’s sandstone bulk. As a sign of the “primitive,” they implicated the gallery in the politics of the bicentennial celebrations. The Raminging Artists Community’s massive installation, which dominated the Biennale’s harborside venue, went further; a forest of two hundred log bone-coffins stood in desert sand, covering the raw timber boards of the wharf shed (water slapping beneath), serving as a “war memorial to all the Aborigines who died defending their country.” Along with Bill Fontana’s remarkable Acoustic Views, 1988, a live sound-portrait of Sydney Harbor, these two installation pieces belonged most significantly to the event itself; their presence, wit, and moral energy encompassed the geopolitics of the whole.

Wystan Curnow