Review: An OK Biennale

The Biennale of Sydney is a very important show for Australians who like contemporary art. Many of us take a bi-annual trip to see the latest and sometimes the fashionable in contemporary art. Australia still suffers from a tyranny of distance. We usually only see the latest art via magazines or websites. The Biennale provides a very important role in bringing us the latest. Unfortunately the European based curator of this Biennale does not understand this. The 2008 Biennale unwittingly stifles conversation and debate. The exhibition catalogue rarely depicts the artwork that the artist exhibited - so once having left the exhibition one cannot reflect on what one has seen nor show your friends. There is a sense that the curator wanted to produce a clever book rather than a catalogue. I am all for intelligent and comprehensive essays but I want to be able to re-live and re-think the exhibition again and again.

The newsprint exhibition guide with its short shelf life and thumbnail reproductions is not sufficent to address this need. So perhaps you can take some photos of the artworks as a mental note? Well that depends which venue you are at. If you are at the Art Gallery of New South Wales there is no problem, they apparently understand they have an educative role, but at the MCA - it is no photos, and at Cockatoo island you can with some but not others. It is not a breach of copyright to take a photograph - it is the use to which the photo is put that is the issue. Photography for the personal educative use is a pemitted use in copyright law. The art community should be encouraging people's interest in art. Ok, to the art. It is frustrating. Much of the work is video art, perhaps 80%. I fully accept all media and approaches to art making but I did walk away from my 3 days in Sydney feeling that to walk around, or in an artwork, and even stand and view a painting would have been a relief. Video art requires a time comittment from the viewer, one needs to give the work a chance but the patience of even dedicated viewers is tested in this Biennale. Sitting in some of the darkend rooms on Cockatoo Island - an old ship building facility with industrial and romantic old buildings I wondered whether the video I was viewing would have any greater or lesser impact if I were sitting in a white cube at the Art Gallery of NSW. In many cases it would not have mattered. Perhaps video art is cheap for the Biennale to stage, the artist posts a dvd, the Biennale bulk buys some projectors and players which it sells at the end of the show. There is no messy customs issues and no expensive crates to ship.
Sometimes at Cockatoo Island the buildings and the setting dominated the art. The other problem with Biennale exhibition was that in many cases the artist was represented by one work. One Viktor Vasarely, one work by Marcel Duchamp (ho hum the bicycle wheel on the stool...), and this occurred with contemporary work too, one painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra, one work by Julie Rrap, one work by Rheinhard Mucha, etc etc. As a viewer this not only seemed tokenistic with respect to the historic works, but made it difficult to development an understanding of the themes and interests of the artist. The espoused theme, 'revolutions that turn', the idea that ideas return and continue to resonate through time was not made through the art exhibited. How does one work by one artist alongside one work by another make enough of a case for a linkage? I did like some art you will be pleased to hear. Gianni Colombo, "Elastic Space" 1967 was a black cube lit with ultraviolet lights. The audience entered the room and found their space delineated by white string both vertically and horizontally. Electric motors visible outside the room moved the string to stretch and expand the spaces. A great kinetic art work that tested notions of space and dimension. John Cage's 3'33" was wonderful to see on video tape, awkward pauses and awkward shuffling, an air expectancy and then humourous realisation, we are all the music. A oldie but a goodie. The obsession that Mirolsav Tichy has with women and his crude photography was engaging - as was his humorous interview shown on dvd. Tichy's crude, poorly chemically developed photographs of everyday women in the street seemed right as an escape from life in the old East European communist block.

Many years ago at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis I had the great pleasure of seeing a massive retrospective of Helio Oiticica the great Brazilian artist. The Biennale presents Helio Oiticica's room of hammocks with film of Jimmy Hendrix playing on the ceiling. It was great respite. When are we going to see more of Oiticica's art in Australia? Pier 2/3 only has the work of three artists but one is a 100 speaker sound work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. It is complex and beguiling. Don't miss it. Of the few Australian artists Shaun Gladwell presents a work that turns the bicycle into a musical instrument and a vehicle for visual poetry. Mike Parr's retrospective of his powerful preformances in a dirty and smelly old building at Cockatoo Island is a compelling and historic body of work. But it is not for the faint hearted. This Biennale has too many artists treated tokenistically - the website based artists the worst example of this. The Biennale would be better off with less artists with more work each across a wider spectrum of media experiences.

By David O'Halloran

David O'Halloran

David O'Halloran is an Australian visual art curator of 25 years experience working with some of the country's most important visual arts organisations including the Biennale of Sydney, the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Contemporary Art Services Tasmania, and the Adelaide Festival. For the Glen Eira City Council Gallery he has curated important exhibitions that surveyed the work of significant Australian artists, including Elizabeth Gower, John Dunkley-Smith, Jon Campbell, Jan Murray, Stieg Persson and Victor Mazjner. David O'Halloran fondly remembers a maxim drummed into students at art school - "you can be so open minded your brains fall out".