The Biennale of Sydney 2000

Various Venues

THIS YEAR'S SYDNEY BIENNALE was a poignant exhibition. Though mostly a disorganized and unthematized review of the 1990s, featuring such stars as Matthew Barney, Tracey Moffatt, and Jeff Wall, it was also a Noah's ark of gorgeous, visionary works from the decade's grandfather figures (among them Bruce Nauman, Ilya Kabakov, and Gerhard Richter). Sprawled out among two major museums and a few of the city's experimental art spaces, with more than 150 works by 48 artists or artist-groups, the event was aggressively passive in refusing to assume its own agency, even though it presented a lexicon of artists who have themselves been initiators of new artistic paradigms. A list of the last few decades' “agents of change,” in fact, was originally the Biennale of Sydney's theme, but this unifying rationale fell victim to last-minute nerves and curatorial self-consciousness. Despite the names on the exhibition's credits—a curatorium that included Robert Storr, Harald Szeemann, Nicholas Serota, Fumio Nanjo, and Louise Neri—it's obvious that veteran biennale director Nick Waterlow and his Australian cocurator Hetti Perkins (who was presumably responsible for the selection of indigenous artists) created the show pretty much themselves after the initial intellectual input from this committee. Its role, as outlined in the exhibition catalogue, sounds limited to nothing more reflective than reaching a consensus comprising everyone's favorite few artists according to the crudest geographic criteria. Second, the downside of a Noah's ark of art assembled by the wise is the cargo cult of recycled goods. Every single “young” artist in the twelfth Biennale of Sydney (for instance Doug Aitken, Vanessa Beecroft, or Chris Ofili) is either well established or has a major New York gallery.

More crucially, though the idea of agency is incarnated in works like Mariko Mori's enormous, digitized photographs of herself as avatar and, equally, in Luc Tuymans's pallid trace images of Holocaust documentation, the older artists whom the biennale sought to celebrate (Nauman, for example unsentimentally understood that the agency of the artwork isn't to be confused with that of the artist. Nauman's slogan about artistic agency in the neon spiral Window or wall sign, 1967—“The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”—is ironic. Both Mori's and Tuymans's images of agency are spectacular and seductive. Tuymans's paintings, for example, seem to speak with compelling and articulate intellectual passion about an issue—memory and trauma, to be specific—though almost no trace of that discourse can be seen, for Tuymans aestheticizes and, almost literally, whitewashes everything out of existence rather than into memory. Is Tuymans's evocation of a victim hood that's not his own a European version of what in Australia has come to be called white Aboriginality, like white Australian artists naively painting in a putatively Western Desert abstract style? Perhaps the artistic method of Mori's transparent goddesses and Tuymans's ghastly but illegible lampshades necessarily implies something that neither artist otherwise talks about and that compromises their membership in the band of those who help the world with mystic truths, since Mori's hypermannerist self-image is so seductively narcissistic, and Tuymans's Beckett-like disdain for communication is so at odds with his memorializing intentions.

In exactly the same way; the Biennale of Sydney now has a confused and contradictory place in both the Australian and international art worlds. The global and local art economies, both of which it serves, have proved to be almost mutually exclusive. The Sydney Biennale no longer performs the gatekeeper role it played during the memorable editions of the '80s, including those curated by Waterlow himself, for in Australia, that role is now filled by the Brisbane Asia-Pacific Triennial. The task of artistic redefinition that Okwui Enwezor actively sought in Johannesburg in 1997 requires that a biennial strain against the limits of a public exhibition and initiate a dialogue with living artists.

Charles Green