Biennale of Sydney

Various Venues

“On Reason and Emotion,” as curator Isabel Carlos subtitled her poetic but unfortunately simplistic Biennale of Sydney, threw into relief the often-problematic nature of themes for the well-rehearsed and conventionalized format of biennials—the increasingly difficult task of instilling meaning into an agglomeration of individual artworks, however excellent. Aiming to find intuition in the analytical and rationality in the emotional, and further expanding the cliché of dichotomies into the geographical arena of North and South (as the cultural “sites” of rationality and emotion), Carlos found herself in muddled discursive terrain. Spread over three institutions and various public sites, the exhibition only came together at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where, with an installation structured around Javier Téllez’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (Rozelle Hospital), 2004, the exhibition’s two categories took on real psychological density. In this work, set up as a double projection, Téllez continues his investigation into psychiatry, collaborating with people who have experienced mental disorders to produce a new set of intertitles for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). One screen showed the original film with the new intertitles, continuously inscribed onto a blackboard, while on the other ran a sequence of portraits of the collaborators, including an astonishing segment showing a woman using a small hand puppet dressed up as a doctor to ask herself questions about her condition.

On the same floor, works by several other artists constituted a landscape of distinct psychological and perceptual conditions. James Coleman’s slide projection La Tache Aveugle (The Blind Spot), 1978–90, comprises thirteen individual frames of James Whale’s 1933 film The Invisible Man projected as a loop over the span of eight hours. De Rijke/de Rooij’s film The Point of Departure, 2002, tracks the movement of a camera through and across an oriental rug. Starting inside the fibers of the rug and gradually moving out to scan its intricate patterns, the camera’s movement enacts an abstract drama. Through the installation in the gallery, Coleman’s work becomes this film’s flip side, its “lining” (Chris Marker), as it unravels the workings of film into a space where vision is stretched in time until we no longer are able to see. Michael Raedecker’s brooding paintings, executed with palpable tactility, Asta Gröting’s video portraits of ventriloquists, and Diti Almog’s strangely disquieting paintings of landscapes and interiors further elaborated this part of the exhibition’s unmistakable psychological atmosphere. Downstairs, in Mario Rizzi’s installation The Sofa of Jung, 2004, the exploration of psychology’s spaces continued in a more literal fashion through an abstracted recreation of Carl Jung’s study, complete with chairs and chaises such as the Swiss analyst used in his sessions. (The title is a joke: Jung never used a couch.) Sitting in these chairs, visitors could hear monologues composed of excerpts from the correspondence and diaries of Jung and Sabina Spielrein, a former patient and fellow psychoanalyst with whom he maintained a lifelong relationship—first sexual, then intellectual.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales, the second major venue, suffered from a less focused selection. While the artworks certainly engaged emotions like fear and joy, longing and homesickness, as well as themes of national identity and perceptual slippage, their presentation failed to articulate the connections between them. Gathering many convincing and even outstanding individual works, the Sydney Biennale ultimately failed to come together as a show.

Christian Rattemeyer