Biennale of Sydney 2008

Various Venues

The entwinement of art and revolution would appear to be an impossibly quaint notion these days, especially when viewed from the comfort zones of the global art industry. The thought that art can spark a revolution of some kind––whether aesthetic or cultural, let alone social or political––betrays a touching nostalgia for Europe’s historical avant-gardes and the heyday of manifestos, and is ultimately as futile as believing that blockbuster exhibitions like biennials can disrupt the contemporary conditions of spectacle from within. Nonetheless, while these two conceptions of art’s potentiality resemble exercises doomed to failure, they also provide the ambitious philosophical core of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, titled “Revolutions––Forms that Turn.”

According to artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in her extensive catalogue essay, this biennial is a “decoy,” a means to revolt against the conceptual frames of most large-scale exhibitions and their fetishism of the new (new artists, new artworks, new conceptual paradigms). “The question today,” she writes, “is how not to be contemporary, how not to make a festival, how not to communicate, and yet somehow manage to deliver the event.” As she argues further, though, this curatorial reaction to the makeup of many biennial’s may be just one way to understand “revolution” in the early twenty-first century. This can be revolution as a sociopolitical force, but also––and given her exhibition’s focus, perhaps more importantly––the formal revolutions of works that spin (such as Alexander Calder’s Hanging Spider, 1940, and Roxbury Flurry, 1946, that hover alongside the more energetic rotations of Olafur Eliasson’s Light Ventilator Mobile, 2002); works that reenact historical moments to retrace their utopian visions; as well as spiral formations, video loops, and myriad kinds of wheels.

As this playlist suggests, Christov-Bakargiev’s biennial frequently veers between the overly literal and the déjà vu. The inclusion of many important works from Europe’s avant-garde and neo-avant-garde canon, from Aleksandr Rodchenko to Arte Povera, certainly revises our usual thinking about the composition of biennials. However, the cost of transporting the objects to Sydney appears to have significantly affected the funding of specifically contemporary art. This is particularly evident for practitioners from or based in Australia, for instance, a number of whom were relegated to the biennale’s online venue. At least Sydney- and Boston-based performance artist Tony Schwensen has sought to prevent the same thing happening again: For Fundrazor (fuck you pay me) or Who gets to sit at the pointy end of the plane, 2008, Schwensen staged a barbecue in the shadow of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge as a fund-raiser to support local artists exhibiting in the 2010 Biennale.

This is not to say that “Revolutions––Forms that Turn” lacks exceptional contemporary work or curatorial prowess. The decision to stage much of the exhibition on Cockatoo Island—a former shipbuilding yard and colonial prison in the middle of Sydney Harbour—is nothing less than inspired. The ferry ride from the Opera House to the island is a remarkable experience in itself; once visitors arrive, they encounter some of the biennial’s best exhibits (including a superb mini-retrospective by 1970s performance artist Mike Parr) set cleverly amid the entropy of the venue’s heritage buildings.

For the most part, though, the preponderance of European works seems oddly out of touch with both the potential of biennials to interweave art from diverse locales across the globe, and Sydney’s status as a teeming Asia-Pacific metropolis. There is more than a hint of ideology at play here. By exhibiting European art’s revolutionary histories to the near-total exclusion of practices from Asia, Latin America, Africa, or the Pacific, Christov-Bakargiev suggests a shoring up of the European canon at a time when its influence is threatened by the demand for more global art histories. What this Biennale really hints at, then, is less the possibilities of revolutionary thinking than a reiteration of the tried and tested, an opportunity lost for the curator and her audiences.

Anthony Gardner