“Signs of Life”

Melbourne International Biennial

Every biennial, from Istanbul and Johannesburg to the Whitney, is scrutinized for answers to the question “Where is art going?” or “Where is art at?” Many curators prefer to dodge these questions. The artistic director of the first Melbourne Biennial, Juliana Engberg, comes with a reputation as the most ambitious maverick curator working in Australia, and she’s enormously popular among artists. Her previous exhibitions, such as “Persona Cognita” at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art in 1994, have interwoven unexpected juxtapositions of the present and the recently rediscovered past. Engberg has an eye for positive fashion statements and the big picture, and “Signs of Life”—the centerpiece of the biennial—is her diagnosis of the state of art.

Presenting work in a wide range of media, Engberg concentrated on four themes—miniaturization, the gigantic, knowledge systems, and collecting—drawn from the work of emerging artists in Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Although several of these artists have begun to attract considerable attention—like Francis Alÿs, who showed eighty-seven delicate miniature paintings here, and Cornelia Parker, who presented an austere suspended lattice made of chalk she gathered in South Downs, England—this was the first time they were bracketed together, the underlying thread between them identified. Almost everything spread out across this ambitious mise-en-scène—eight floors of art in a vast, derelict Melbourne telephone exchange—was either sentimental or an exaggeration, or both.

In the introduction to her 1993 book On Longing, Susan Stewart (who was invited by the biennial to give a lecture) wrote that the miniature is a metaphor for interior time and space, just as the gigantic stands for the authority of the collective and the state. She also pointed out that many dream narratives of the inanimate made animate are symptomatic of the desire to invent worlds that “work” in other words, model worlds. Robert Gober’s old leather suitcase, Untitled, 1995–97, contains one of these complete lilliputian realms: An overflow drain hidden at the bottom of the suitcase gives a glimpse onto a miraculous rock pool, flowing water, and the feet of a man carefully dangling a small child.

“Signs of Life” was obsessed by inventories, lists, and, most crucially, the contamination of the structures of Minimal and Conceptual art through discursive complications. This resulted in work that could be chaotic (one subtitle in Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s 1998 video Anne Aki & God reads “Sure this is a bit untidy, but there is no chaos here”), narrative-driven (Catherine Opie’s sympathetic and carefully crafted portraits of lesbian families), or out-of-scale, as in Mariele Neudecker’s heroically sized model of an alpine mountain range floating in milky liquid (Unrecallable Now, 1998), or her sublime I don’t know how I resisted the urge to run, 1997, an utterly uncanny miniature of a northern forest inside a glass tank, skewered by an arc of light.

For Stewart, all narratives of the self and the world reveal a longing for a place of origin. In this view, exhibitions are places where narratives and nostalgias intersect as property and space. It’s not too much to say that almost every work in this compelling and precisely calculated show touched on these exact themes.

Charles Green