Biennale of Sydney 2002

Various Venues

This biennial aimed to please. From the upbeat title—“(The World May Be) Fantastic”—to the effervescent press, the stage was set for fun-filled entertainment. Choosing fantasy and fiction as his thematic parameters, British-born Australian artist-curator Richard Grayson went all out for a crowd-warming engagement with the artistic imagination. In contrast to the Olympic pantheon of seminal figures presented in 2000, or 1998’s quiet consecration of “the everyday,” this edition favored genre grouping over trendspotting or canonical awe.

With help from a team of advisers, namely UK-based American artist Susan Hiller, Budapest artist Janos Sugar, and American critic-curator Ralph Rugoff, Grayson selected fifty-six exhibitors from twenty-two countries. The show took its curatorial focus from Grayson’s own art practice and that of his partner, Suzanne Treister (who was among the exhibiting artists, though Grayson himself was not). In the introductory catalogue essay, the curator claims a long-standing fascination with hypothetical scenarios, phony belief systems, and reality makeovers, characterizing the work in his show as “fantastic, partial, various, suggestive, ambitious, subjective,wobbly and eccentric to normal orbits.” And sure enough, a large percentage of the exhibits here fit this bill comfortably, making for a cohesive mix.

Of the two main sites, the Museum of Contemporary Art took pole position, devoting its entire building to a handsome arrangement of complementary clusters and smartly segued installation spaces. The effect was by turns intriguing, amusing, provocative, and bewildering, bouncing the viewer from comic absurdity to thoughtful conjecture, from whimsical shtick to chastening concern. The other main location, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, provided a similar sideshow-alley ambience with contributions sizable enough to function as self-contained entities, some appropriately resembling arcade amusements or product displays. A handful of smaller venues and off-site solo projects even managed to maintain their connection to the core by dint of the show’s tight thematic focus.

VitoAcconci’s contribution, a series of utopian proposals for architectural and town planning projects, lent star cachet and social relevance to the occasion. Yet though he is not alone in wishing so literally for a better world, the dominant tone was far more escapist, even pathological in nature. Fakes, hoaxes, and artistic alter egos abounded, as in Scottish-born Australian artist Peter Hill’s installation dedicated to his imaginary Museum of Contemporary Ideas and Treister’s elaborate chronicling of the life and times of Rosalind Brodsky, a fictitious time-traveling Zelig-like figure. Bizarre inventions and homemade contraptions also featured heavily. A Panamarenko submarine occupied the traditional public novelty spot at the entrance to the AGNSW, while Kim Adams’s hybrid vehicles and expandable domiciles added a dash of jaunty formalism to the ground floor of the MCA.

Systems, models, and machines predominated, providing either potent metaphors for the ways of the world or compensatory actualizations for the maladjusted. Especially compelling among the many crackpot- and conspiracy theorists present were Jeffrey Vallance’s pseudo-evidentiary display, drawing iconographic comparisons among religion, politics, and the media, and Hiller’s ethereal installation, a galaxy of suspended speakers murmuring extraterrestrial testimonials. The weirdly melancholic videos of Eija-Liisa Ahtila and the tormented drawings and watercolors of Henry Darger provided an effective counterpoint to the mostly humor-driven selection.

Though in need of a convincing rationale. the exhibition had its formal bases covered. Indeed, the event was so accommodating that it came off as something of a crowd pleaser. Oversold as a cavalcade of kooky characters, crazy inventions, and mock-psychotic concoctions but undertheorized as an antidote to endgame self-consciousness, this biennial placed a high premium on mainstream appeal. This reflects a general trend toward populism in Australian art-institutional politics, too often resulting in shows that lack the million-dollar clout of corporate entertainment but also fall short of art’s more reflexive or recondite potential. That’s not to say the show didn’t contain good works or that it failed to fulfill its own objectives. But with all the playing to the stalls, it gets hard to see the art for the bunting.

Jeff Gibson