sydney biennale 2008

i know i promised that “tomorrow” i would give you the extended version of my biennale trip, but well, i’ve been snowed under with paperwork shit. and running around like a blue-arse fly.

OK, so here’s my headline: BIENNALE OF SYDNEY 2008 IS THE FUCKING BOMB!!!

As a whole bunch of you may know, I saw a lot of biennales/art festivals last year. in fact since the last biennale of sydney, i’ve been to sharjah, venice, athens, lyon and ars electronica. plus i went to 150 galleries last year. this doesn’t actually mean that i know anything, but it does mean that i have a reasonably decent base for comparison. And i can categorically state that this year’s biennale is world-standard. Yes, kids, world-standard.

It’s shitloads better than the last one, better than Hans Ulrich Obst’s at Lyon and better than Robert Storrier’s at Venice. In fact, I would say that Athens is only slightly better, simply because of the context of the theme within the city. But only just. The way that Caroline has grouped artists with absolutely relevant approaches to the idea of ‘revolution’ was fantastic. She disected and deconstructed the spread of the theme with such alacrity that sometimes i almost wept with excitement. That sounds rather dramatic, but it’s true.

And either despite of perhaps because of this, the Australian artists absolutely held their own against the créme de la créme of contemporary art. I know i sound more surprised about that than i should, but please forgive my parochial cynicism. Special gold stars go to Mike Parr, Shaun Gladwell and Raquel Ormella as my personal favourites for stickin’ it to ’em.

Day 1
AGNSW: Top 5

Joseph Beuys/Adolf Luther/Raquel Ormella
It took us fucking forever to get there, but we were able to spend a couple of hours at Agnes Wales. not enough time to really see everything, but enough time for me to fawn over the Beuys/Luther/Ormella room – fantastic grouping of artists and these works illustrated Beuys’ process of revolutionary philosophy sooooo much better than the Beuys/Steiner exhibition at the NGV last year, simply by having some better descriptions, the video of his speeches and 1 blackboard. And Raquel’s revolving/interactive political landscapes on whiteboard were gold. i hoped for a print out. Not to be.

Fischli & Weiss
My dear friend Seb was blagging about how he got to see the Fischli & Weiss show in Hamburg the other week. Well, this was a hella cool close second. All 80 Equilibres photos – the bits and pieces balancing in a state of equilibrium and/or tipping point. The titles are great, but i just loved the sheer volume, the survey of the nuance of balance. Like the difference between The Time At Our Disposal and The Secret of the Pyramids. I think my favourite was As Far As It Goes – a series of objects creating a ‘trajectory’.

Gianni Colombo: Elastic Space
I freaked out over this one. It is gasping! It’s a black-lit dark space, mapped out with a grid of white string, which glows in the dark. My first impressions were that it was pretty cool, if not slightly reminiscent of Yasoi Kusama’s Infinity of the Soul from the APT 4. I thought it could be really cool if the viewer could move the string and change the nature of the grid and therefore the space, but left. Then, on wandering into Dan Graham’s piece, I noticed the winch attached to the outside of the space, realised that it was winding the string from Colombo’s space, pulling it slowly to and fro. I ran (literally) back into the space to watch it ever-so-slowly morphing and changing into a distorted structure, an elastic space. It was brilliant! I was so delighted and could have sat there for days. And days.

Yoko Ono‘s phone.
She didn’t call. She promised she would. I don’t even know if she even will or has. But i promised myself that if the phone rang, I would be unashamed to rush that damned telephone to talk to the Fabulous First Lady of Fluxus.

Michael Rakowitz: Tatlin’s Tower
So many reasons to love this work: I love the original. I love Michael Rakowitz (I saw his work at Sharjah and ICA, London). I love architectonic works and I love anything that responds to the political climate. The physical structure is beautiful – made of recycled wood and flying the aboriginal flag as the new revolutionary state. my only pedantic problem with the piece was that the “two tiers of parliament” – the square and triangle – were originally intended to be transparent and revolving, representing the principle of a transparent, revolutionary and rotating (dynamic) government. these spaces in the Rakowitz piece are closed spaces made of rusted corrugated iron. i’m not sure whether this was just an aesthetic and material consideration, whether he’s conceptually suggesting that the australian government is closed and rusted, or the aboriginal leadership. perhaps i’m reading too much into it. loved the piece anyway.

Day 2
Cockatoo Island (or Cock Is): Top 5

The Island itself
This venue is the most like the Arsenale at Venice than any of the other venues for the Biennale that I have ever been to. The ferry ride over, the industrial landscape, the buildings in a state of slow degradation. And to be honest, i don’t think that’s a bad thing.
What i absolutely loved (and kept going on about) with Cockatoo Island is the fact that, relative to a gallery, the place is pretty unsafe – there’s crap falling off walls, old stairs, smell toilets, puddles, broken bits, etc. And, while there were some safety barriers and a fair few volunteers keeping an eye on things, it wasn’t the constricted panic about public liability that plagues australia as a nanny state. and you know what, the visitors were careful, no one slipped over or cut themselves or cried litigation! which shows me that if you treat people with dignity and respect, give them the responsibility for taking care of themselves and having some accountability, they act like responsible adults! how’s that for a revolutionary idea…

Shaun Gladwell
warning: this content is unabashed fan-do. it has a lack of critical objectivity and may be unsuitable for some readers.

Shaun Gladwell is fucking king. I know he’s darling of the artworld. I realise that he may, in fact, be an arsehole, but based on his prior work, and the work at Cock Is, he gets an A+ from me.
As some of you may know, i’ve been doing a lot of thinking about moving through the city on a bicycle and the effect of movement on the rhythm of a city. and, you may also be aware that i’ve been investigating the role of sound within space and architecture. well mr gladwell has created works that touch on both these aspects (in a way that i could only hope to) and a small work which made me laugh out loud.
his film features guys on downhill bikes popping monos through the back streets of darlinghurst. the cycle and the revolution of time/space tracks past the old jail, the mental institution, the law courts, the health centre that gives out fits and the place where the mob hang out. interesting places to intervene with movement.
Gladwell’s pipe organ, made from the tubes of the Specialized bikes was also fucking amazing. An amazing foray into sound vs space vs movement. Also amazing to use those bikes, obviously used by whomever is sponsored by Specialized these days. And still with the markings of their owners: gaffa, stickers, marks and markers. I haven’t been that close to a DH bike since I busted my arm at Thredbo, but I almost drooled, remembering the almost-fetish nature of being involved in the sport – where each part of the machine was as collectable as the whole.

And for me, the piéce de resistance was actually the model piece of three upturned DH bikes, alongside three white wooden stools: a contemporary deconstruction of duchamp’s readymade. fuck it made me giggle.

Mike Parr
Well may you complain that Mike Parr gets almost a whole pavillion, that he has appeared in the last 3 Biennales, or whatever your gripe is. But you have to admit, his work is phenomenal. Seeing it all in the one place, surrounded by the degrading sailor’s quarters and so charged with pathos, it was really powerful. And apparently i missed a whole swag of it, so caught up with writing about the importance of his lips being sewn up. I may just transcribe my garbled notes [next post], just because it was so inspiring. I think, in terms of australian politics, mike parr reminds us to not get complacent either. just because mandatory detention has been revoked and that indigenous politics is being discussed, doesn’t mean that freedom of speech and civil liberties are guaranteed and that we must continue to protect them.

The facade at Jannis Kounnelis
OK, so it wasn’t made by Kounnelis, (and i did find his work quite beautiful), the facade which made the entrance to his work was exquisite. a throwback from hollywood blockbuster set, it perfectly replicated the chipped brick, steel girders, bolts and rubble. in fact, i only knew it was a facade when i saw one of the volunteers knocking on it.

Jeremy Deller
I didn’t get to see the whole thing, but i really enjoyed watching Deller’s documentary on the re-enactment of the english miner’s strike in the 80s. it’s a piece of political/military history that i know hardly anything about (the diary of adrian mole, billy bragg and brassed off being my primary sources of information). i was fascinated with the strategy of allowing the miners a place to process their experience of the strike through recreation, and also as a training ground for riot police in dealing with future strikes/demonstrations. there’s something slightly perverse about the whole idea. but it did also switch my perspective to thinking that political action is on the same level as warfare (in terms of re-enactments). i’m looking forward to the miners stirke warhammer figures to come out.

MCA: Top 5

There were loads of awesome works at the MCA this time (unlike last time). I’m only choosing my Top 5, but it’s not to say that there weren’t a shedload more.

Helio Oiticica‘s Hammocks
I saw Helio Oiticica’s survey at the Tate last year, so it was fantastic to see his work again: room with a series of hammocks and projections of jimi hendrix clips and music. surrounded by music of the ‘revolution’ – 1969, the year that ‘changed the world’ supposedly. knackered after trying to absorb all the artwork, i lay in a red hammock for about half an hour. i’m sure some of you were in the queue, waiting for me to fucking leave, but i’m sorry, i didn’t care. i just enjoyed the time to absorb and stop. i did wonder how revolutionary laying around in a series of hammocks could actually be. but perhaps that’s the point, right?

Allora & Calzadilla/Tony Schwensen
Both these works reminded me about the value of art, in a monetary sense, and the value of a statement, in a conceptual sense. Allora & Calzadilla, when asked to make a work for the biennale for nothing (is this standard practice?) decided to auction off the whole biennale through sotheby’s auction house. according to the wall text, sotheby’s agreed and then cancelled at the last minute. the result of the process was a drawing of a cheque addressed to the sydney biennale from sotheby’s (or the reverse, i can’t quite rememember) and an interesting thought about assuming that artists will/can create work for nothing. in fact, it kind of reminded me of my friend sam ismail’s response to m&c saatchi’s task to turn an A4 piece of paper into a job (sam auctioned it off on ebay and they didn’t like that very much).
Tony Schwensen held a barbeque to raise funds for the 2010 Biennale of Sydney in front of the MCA in june. sum total raised for the next Biennale: $732.19 (or thereabouts). I love this acerbic whit and and poignant critique of the truth and committment of arts patronage in Australia.

Olafur Eliasson
I wished I could have seen Eliasson’s Weather project at the Tate last year – the images i’ve seen on flickr have been amazing. And his waterfall/sound projects happening at the moment have been really intriguing, so I was really looking forward to seeing his work in Sydney. Like the rising/setting of the moon, this oscillating light/fan work takes you into cycles and rhythms of earth, from an unexperienced point of view – maybe like google moon, or something.

Geoffrey Farmer
I love a good spacial intervention, so Geoffrey Farmer’s hollowed out collages of space were fantastic. Taking advantage of the interstitial spaces, the in-between places of the MCA, Farmer collected the detritus from the venues of the Biennale and other found objects, posting them up, like a collage, into the niches. I think the first one was the best one: it was filled with bits of paper, like graffiti in the girls’ toilets, showing a side to art exhibitions that aren’t often seen. Then at the end of the space, there was a block and rope with the warning: CLOSED DUE TO SOCIAL REALISM. heh.

His three-part play, cockatoo clock was also a major highlight [click to enlarge]:

As was the brief flirtation I had in the space with the beautiful french boy. Heh.

Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle
More than any other time, I wish I spoke French. I am really interested into the Society of the Spectacle and Guy Debord’s Situationists. I was looking forward to seeing the film version of his theories, but it was largely a grouping of images, with a voiceover. In French. I loved being able to absorb it to the best of my ability and i love the fact that his work was included – it has given me the impetus to learn to parlez française.

And they were just the top 5. there were loads of other awesome works and as a whole, a great festival of contemporary art. If anyone is umming and ah-ing about going to the Biennale, just go. It’s bloody briliant.

• I might save my rant about sydney for another day ‘cos i’ve got a rant about transport brewing, and i can tell you that public transport is 90% of what was wrong with the city.

thanks for subscribing to she sees red by lauren brown. xx

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