Zones of Contact: 2006 Biennale of Sydney

Various Venues

At the start of his catalogue essay for the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, director Charles Merewether states that his exhibition “aspires to be about the ‘now’ of the contemporary, bearing the disjuncture and discontinuities as much as correspondences and transversal movements of encounter and exchange.” Because this is such an ambitious exhibition—the only Biennale of Sydney since 1992 to come with a decent intellectual underpinning, albeit one couched in convoluted prose—Merewether’s claim deserves to be examined seriously. But at a time when the Documenta 10 aesthetic of video and Photoconceptualism with a social activist conscience has become an artistic default for such gatherings, he would need to come up with something more than just another Biennale chosen from artistic documents of forced or voluntary encounters and displacements.

To Merewether’s great credit, the show pretty much passes over established favorites, the exceptions including Mona Hatoum, Tacita Dean, and Antony Gormley. The postcolonial and global themes are obvious in concentrations of artists from Central Asia, the Balkans, and the Middle East. America, 2006, by Rebecca Belmore, a First Nations artist from Vancouver, takes the Biennale’s title quite literally, with cut-up flags of all the Americas patched together. Fortunately or not, the US flag ends up next to Venezuela’s. Much in evidence are newer figures such as Palestinian video artist Emily Jacir and Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, whose spectacular composite panorama of an Israeli air raid, Saida, June 6th 1982, 1982–2006, was photographed when the artist was sixteen years old and stitched together digitally twenty-four years later. Zaatari’s other work in the exhibition, In This House, 2005, is a video that documents the exhumation of a letter to the future hidden in a spent shell buried twenty years before by the artist’s father, a Lebanese resistance fighter. Clunky, handheld, and unspectacular, the video exemplifies the processes of memory recovery for twenty-first-century people who’ve lost or left their homes. As a result, the work—and the Biennale as a whole—has an unexpectedly elegiac feel.

The ghost of Chris Marker’s pioneering short film, La Jetée, 1962, hovers over this Biennale: Its patented combination of generational political commitment and immersive travelogue is ubiquitous. This is true not only of the videos and short films that dominate, from Jayce Salloum’s everything and nothing and other works from the ongoing project, untitled 1988–2006, to The Impostor in the Waiting Room, 2004, by Raqs Media Collective; the same elegiac tone recurs in the paintings that are here in unexpectedly large numbers, such as Mamma Anderson’s ghostly figure composition, Only the Nights are New, 2005, and Imants Tillers’ Terra Negata, 2005. And it can be discerned in installations such as Kai Takemura’s exquisite A.N.’s living room in Tokyo: premonition of earthquake, 2005 (which is threaded together from semitransparent fabric, silk thread, pins, and tape, all both overlaid and underpinned with meandering filigrees of tape, pen, paint, and crayon), as well as in the many sequences of documentary photographs, including Zarina Bhimji’s creepy, deserted Ugandan landscape, Reverberation, 2001–2006. Why this persistent, quiet archiving, retrieving, and rearranging of memories across prolonged periods by so many artists from the so-called periphery? Most obviously—and unlike previous “political” Biennales—“Zones of Contact” includes many artists, such as Zaatari, Bhimji, and others, who see memory as riddled with gaps and fixed merely by the entropic decay and chaotic retrieval that the moment’s favorite ’60s precursor, Robert Smithson, so presciently tracked.

Charles Green