Using the profound to mask the pedestrian: reflections on the 21st Biennale of Sydney

21st Biennale of Sydney, SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement, 16 Mar—11 June 2018

On the opening night of the 21st Biennale of Sydney, Mami Kataoka found herself addressing a marble hall brimming with benefactors, curators and art administrators inside the Museum of Contemporary Art. Since her appointment in 2016 as Artistic Director, the Australian art world has been waiting with bated breath for her creative vision to be realised.

Kataoka was undoubtedly a skilful choice. Known as the longstanding chief curator of Tokyo’s eminent Mori Art Museum, her role as the first Artistic Director from Asia signalled a radical shift in Australia’s Biennale landscape. Having helmed blockbuster exhibitions including surveys on photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and political dissident Ai Weiwei, Kataoka seemed more than capable to cement the Biennale of Sydney as a truly global phenomenon.

The theme of the 21st Biennale was both whimsical yet dense—SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium and Engagement—taking on the cumbersome language of science in pursuit of artistic clarity. In a well-rehearsed ritual, Kataoka stripped bare her curatorial ethos, unpacking the phrase as an engagement with the uncertain and politically jarring, linking the two concepts through current debates in international affairs. Pragmatically, the Biennale sought to expound the interlocking relationship between cultural dissonance, globalisation and the renegotiation of political power. Though, as Kataoka distilled the theme, it became abundantly clear her mask of scientific erudition was inelegant and needlessly superfluous.

Unconsciously, Kataoka exposed the Biennale’s central conceit. Her deviation into quantum mechanics was a thinly veiled attempt to repackage the pedestrian as something profound. While relevant, political uncertainty is hardly revolutionary in the field of art curation and falls strangely flat for a Biennale purported to be of such gargantuan standing. As Kataoka’s speech faded into final ovation, I felt a niggling sense of nihilism.

 

How bad is the damage?

In the weeks following the opening, Christopher Allen—the national art critic for The Australian—decried Kataoka for the ‘vacuity’ of her concept, labelling the Biennale an exhibition of ‘second-rate international art’ and that ironically, exercising the term ‘superposition’ to reinforce meaning rendered her entire project meaningless.[1]

I too (alongside many others in the art world) questioned Kataoka’s vision with the same melancholy one might judge a wayward teenager. Put simply, the 21st Biennale was seen as a project with boundless promise, though manifest as an awkward and at times perplexing mess.

However, I believe there is space for generosity. The shortcomings of Kataoka’s Biennale should not come to wholly define a project still in its adolescence. Therefore, what follows is not a rampant and derisive critique. I believe there are lessons to be learned from this stage of the Biennale lifecycle, as Kataoka’s captaincy did begin to signal a coming of age for curatorial practice in Australia. Her leadership is a timely departure from the event’s long line of European curators, marking a new era of openness through embracing voices and perspectives from the Asia Pacific.[2]

 

So what went wrong?

A salient weakness of the Biennale was its scale. While Kataoka presented a tighter program than her predecessor Stephanie Rosenthal (who showcased over eighty artists at a dozen or more locations), including seventy artists over seven locations still felt suffocating. The challenge of presenting scores of artists instead of ten to twenty in any Biennale is of course underpinned by commercial objectives: present widely to attract a broad audience and consequently a broad range of sponsorship. It is difficult for many to accept that cultural events are contingent on these financial targets, but such is the reality of a project operating within a business model regulated by the greater art industry.[3]

Non-commercial devotees of the Biennale’s scale will defend the inclusivity afforded by a breadth of perspectives. While true, so long as the Biennale purports a theme, the artworks included must be referential to the concept and in nuance to one another. The works included in this year’s program were not innately ‘second-rate’ per se, rather the impact of each artwork was significantly weakened by either overly obvious or unconvincing connections to the theme of superposition, and more importantly, their lack of interrelation.

Descending towards the lower ground floor of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) meant being confronted with scenes similar to religious worship. Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video sculpture Potentially for love—mahdollinen rakkaus (2018) sat glowing from the chasm of a dark room, illuminated by both its own LED fabrication and a vanguard of glistening phones thrown up before it. The left wall shone with a projection of a female chimpanzee perched on a stool. She faced away from us—absent and inattentive—fiddling, but never fully looking back. At the centre of the room was a jagged, monumental structure shimmering with neon blue pixels, coagulating to form a floating human body drifting somewhere in the Milky Way. As the figure ebbed closer, she invited us to join her in weightless serenity. Ahtila’s concern with the relationship between human and animal was made clear with two interactive stations, whereby audiences could place their arms underneath a screen to see flesh and fabric transformed into that of a chimp’s.

Potentially for love left nothing to the imagination. The concept was obvious and its impact on audiences predictable. Yet, the triteness of Ahtila’s sculpture is not the paramount issue. Rather, Kataoka’s unsophisticated use of space reflected poorly on her curatorial abilities. Taking into account the sheer size of Ahtila’s main structure, the curatorial team ought to have considered intensifying the work’s impact through tighter controls on the designated space. For instance, restricting audience capacity to augment the intimacy afforded by each video. Or alternatively, allotting time constraints—like that used by Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art for Yayoi Kusama’s Soul Under the Moon—so that the work’s sensitivity could be more fully realised. Disregarding the relationality of space seemed to suggest the curatorial team was happy to leave Potentially for love as an incomplete spectacle satisfying only the Instagram KPI.

In a much smaller gallery next to Ahtila’s sculpture was a nine-minute video piece commissioned by the Biennale: CAPTC—the artists from the plantation: A portrait by Baloji (2018). Scored by art director Baloji and overseen by Dutch artist Renzo Martens, the video explored the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise and their dismantling of colonisation.[4]

The video was a tour de force.

In nine minutes Baloji, Martens and the CAPTC assembled a highly visceral field: movement and stillness brought together through an endless pulsation of colours and a playful background score. Explosions of blue, red and yellow smoke fused seamlessly with mid shot scenes of poised plantation workers, cross cut with others donning tribal masks and dancing in the velvety dark. The music was crucial for cohesion: woodblock percussion and a pentatonic guitar motif enlivening humour and energy. Cleverly, the artists used this melodic playfulness to engage with a more sinister discussion. Human figures made of chocolate were set alight; sweet skin softening into a symbol of cultural obliteration, though unnervingly offset by the unwaveringly upbeat score.

While the aesthetic and sonic mastery drew audiences in, our attention was sustained through considering how the bittersweet reclamation of culture presented possibilities for the future. Baloji, Martens and the CAPTC captured a historiography that is both beautiful yet insidious, highlighting the intensely fraught relationship between the Congolese and colonial intervention. Each time I visited AGNSW, the CAPTC space felt denser than the one Potentially for love occupied: people watched and lowered their phones, absorbing fully what the artists had to offer. To what extent could greater curatorial success have been achieved should these works have swapped spaces?

A similar kind of complexity was found in Akira Takayama’s video work Our Songs — Sydney Kabuki Project (2018) displayed at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Running over four hours, Takayama invited diasporic peoples from across Sydney to share cultural stories through poetry and song. One by one, they walked down an elevated platform through a sea of empty crimson chairs, arriving on a bare stage to sing or speak a narrative anchored to their heritage.[5] Within the colonial structure of Sydney’s Town Hall, each time a participant spoke, they cleaved a larger rift in the abyss of Australia’s white history; stories archived in the silence of an empty chamber though swelling to form solidarity. I was lost in the work for hours. Takayama’s videography was arresting in its unpacking of the complexities which oscillate between immigrant nostalgia, government, and our relationship with place.

Our Songs was a curatorial and artistic success, stressing the anxieties of Australians not veiled by a protective shroud of whiteness. It is interesting to consider how in many ways, Takayama’s video unpacks similar ideas of otherness Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey (2017) also sought to champion. Yet, while Takayama’s work was made with intelligent restraint and community consultation, Ai’s monument was but a flamboyant shrine to his own celebrity masked as a social justice project cementing him at the locus of every discussion. It felt sad that Our Songs was consigned to the unspoken periphery of Biennale – mainstream attention intoxicated instead by the ramblings of an egocentric titan.

The press were naturally fanatic about Ai’s sculpture, creating an opportunity for the Biennale to frame his work as the crown jewel resting on their coronet, Cockatoo Island. Sixty metres long and fabricated with the same rubber used to build refugee rafts crossing the Mediterranean Sea, Law of the Journey sought to represent the voiceless through the monumental. The sculpture filled a cavernous hall, surrounded by various videos of Ai and his encounters with the plight of refugees. Like Potentially for Love, Law of the Journey lacked subtlety—though this garishness is often seen a necessary evil of the Biennale model to expand its general audience and reach. [6]

It is difficult to imagine the industry pressures Kataoka must have faced as the first Asian curator of the Biennale. To successfully program an artist with international standing like Ai would have offset various apprehensions, demonstrating her aptitude as a cultural leader and curator. However, the hubris of Law of The Journey was that Ai failed to decentre himself from the narrative he sought to represent. When audiences experience his work, it is first and foremost an Ai Weiwei, then secondly an exposé on the grim realities of refugee experiences. Willing or not, Ai’s work was selfish and proud, with Kataoka’s failure to recognise this fundamental flaw adding to the perception that the 21st Biennale was but a vacuous shrine to the monumental.

The 21st Biennale of Sydney sacrificed excellence for breadth and meaningful dialogue for digital engagement. Weaker works shone with false conviction, whereas conceptually superior works were driven away from mainstream discussion. While it was an inevitable balancing act in such an expansive program, Kataoka compensated for the weakness of artists like Ahtila and Ai with monumentality and marketing. A myopic focus on audience engagement, poor curatorial awareness and an indifference towards conceptual strength meant that existing profundity was forced to wear a mask of pedestrianness. I hope Kataoka’s excursion stands as a cautionary tale for Brook Andrew, who may need to consider more closely the scale, focus and relevance of his incoming repertoire, and indeed how simple it would be for the 22nd Biennale to slide into the same obtuse traps.

 

[1] However, given that superposition is about inconsistent ideas in collision, one questions whether in responding to Allen’s critique Kataoka would simply retort, ‘That’s the point.’ To read more see: Christopher Allen, ‘World without meaning’, The Australian, accessed on 31 July 2018, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/biennale-of-sydney-cockatoo...

[2] Brook Andrew’s appointment as Artistic Director of the 22nd Biennale presents further opportunities for progressive dialogue to take place. His standing as the first Indigenous Artistic Director perhaps signals the Biennale as ready to recognise itself as a colonial project and subsequently Indigenise itself.

[3] The role that funding plays in the programming of events like the Biennale is beyond the scope of this review, though, I feel it would be negligent to completely overlook its importance in my analysis of the 21st Biennale’s structure.

[4] The CAPTC is an ‘art league’ of Congolese plantation workers who have begun to rethink European imperialism in the Congo, and find ways to assert autonomy as creative practitioners. Notably, the CAPTC have erected a museum on a former Unilever palm oil plantation in Lusanga. To read more see: http://www.artnews.com/2017/03/17/congolese-plantation-workers-art-leagu...

[5] In the Kabuki tradition, hanamichi is the Japanese term used for the elevated platform.

[6] Law of the Journey was also custom made for a gallery space in Hong Kong’s Tang Contemporary, as well as Prague’s National Gallery. It is not lost on me that Kataoka’s inclusion of the work was an attempt to market the relevance of the Sydney Biennale in international art circles.

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3_Ahtila, Eija-Liisa_POTENTIALITY FOR LOVE – MAHDOLLINEN RAKKAUS_2018_(silversalt).jpg

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, POTENTIALITY FOR LOVE—MAHDOLLINEN RAKKAUS, 2018, detail. Angular video sculpture of 22 DIP LED modules, 4K/HD, 7:54 mins, looped; two research tables with attached ‘monitor mirrors’, 4K/HD; 2:08 mins and 3:06 mins, looped; vertical single-channel projection, 4K/HD, 2:35 mins, looped. Cast: Jenny and Matleena Kuusniemi. Written and directed by Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Cinematography: Jussi Eerola. Wire FX: Reijo Kontio. 3D VFX: Jari Hakala. Editing: Heikki Kotsalo. Produced by Ilppo Pohjola. Commissioned by Serlachius Museums, Mänttä with support from AVEK; the Biennale of Sydney; Frame Contemporary Art Finland; Alfred Kordelin Foundation; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London; M-Museum; SES; and SKR. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. © Crystal Eye – Kristallisilmä Oy, Helsinki. Image courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London.

silversalt photography

21_Ahtila, Eija-Liisa_POTENTIALITY FOR LOVE – MAHDOLLINEN RAKKAUS_2018_(silversalt).jpg

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, POTENTIALITY FOR LOVE—MAHDOLLINEN RAKKAUS, 2018, detail. Angular video sculpture of 22 DIP LED modules, 4K/HD, 7:54 mins, looped; two research tables with attached ‘monitor mirrors’, 4K/HD; 2:08 mins and 3:06 mins, looped; vertical single-channel projection, 4K/HD, 2:35 mins, looped. Cast: Jenny and Matleena Kuusniemi. Written and directed by Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Cinematography: Jussi Eerola. Wire FX: Reijo Kontio. 3D VFX: Jari Hakala. Editing: Heikki Kotsalo. Produced by Ilppo Pohjola. Commissioned by Serlachius Museums, Mänttä with support from AVEK; the Biennale of Sydney; Frame Contemporary Art Finland; Alfred Kordelin Foundation; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London; M-Museum; SES; and SKR. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. © Crystal Eye – Kristallisilmä Oy, Helsinki. Image courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London.

silversalt photography

8_Ahtila, Eija-Liisa_POTENTIALITY FOR LOVE – MAHDOLLINEN RAKKAUS_2018_(silversalt).jpg

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Eija-Liisa Ahtila, POTENTIALITY FOR LOVE—MAHDOLLINEN RAKKAUS, 2018, detail. Angular video sculpture of 22 DIP LED modules, 4K/HD, 7:54 mins, looped; two research tables with attached ‘monitor mirrors’, 4K/HD; 2:08 mins and 3:06 mins, looped; vertical single-channel projection, 4K/HD, 2:35 mins, looped. Cast: Jenny and Matleena Kuusniemi. Written and directed by Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Cinematography: Jussi Eerola. Wire FX: Reijo Kontio. 3D VFX: Jari Hakala. Editing: Heikki Kotsalo. Produced by Ilppo Pohjola. Commissioned by Serlachius Museums, Mänttä with support from AVEK; the Biennale of Sydney; Frame Contemporary Art Finland; Alfred Kordelin Foundation; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London; M-Museum; SES; and SKR. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. © Crystal Eye – Kristallisilmä Oy, Helsinki. Image courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris and London.

silversalt photography

6_CATPC with Baloji and Renzo Martens_CATPC – the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji_2018_(silversalt).jpg

Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) with Baloji and Renzo Martens, CATPC – the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji, 2018, video, 9 mins. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from the Mondriaan Fund. Image courtesy of the artists.

silversalt photography

1_CATPC with Baloji and Renzo Martens_CATPC – the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji_2018_(silversalt).jpg

Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) with Baloji and Renzo Martens, CATPC – the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji, 2018, video, 9 mins. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from the Mondriaan Fund. Image courtesy of the artists.

silversalt photography

2_CATPC with Baloji and Renzo Martens_CATPC – the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji_2018_(silversalt).jpg

Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) with Baloji and Renzo Martens, CATPC – the artists from the plantation. A portrait by Baloji, 2018, video, 9 mins. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from the Mondriaan Fund. Image courtesy of the artists.

silversalt photography

5_Takayama, Akira_Our Songs - Sydney Kabuki Project_2018 (detail)_(silversalt).jpg

Akira Takayama, Our Songs - Sydney Kabuki Project, 2018, video documentation of performances that took place on 28 January 2018, 250 mins. Filmmaker: Hikaru Fujii. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at 4A Center for Contemporary Asian Art. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Neilson Foundation and generous assistance from the Japan Foundation; the Australia-Japan Foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and Mami Kataoka. Image courtesy of the artist.

silversalt photography

26_Takayama, Akira_Our Songs - Sydney Kabuki Project_2018 (detail)_(silversalt).jpg

Akira Takayama, Our Songs - Sydney Kabuki Project, 2018, video documentation of performances that took place on 28 January 2018, 250 mins. Filmmaker: Hikaru Fujii. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at 4A Center for Contemporary Asian Art. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Neilson Foundation and generous assistance from the Japan Foundation; the Australia-Japan Foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and Mami Kataoka. Image courtesy of the artist.

silversalt photography

3_Ai Weiwei_Law of the Journey_2017_(silversalt).jpg

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, 2017, reinforced PVC with aluminium frame, 60x6x3 m. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at Cockatoo Island. Image courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Sherman Foundation.

Document Photography

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Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, 2017, reinforced PVC with aluminium frame, 60x6x3 m. Installation view of the 21st Biennale of Sydney (2018) at Cockatoo Island. Image courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Sherman Foundation.

Document Photography

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is an art critic based in Sydney. His writing has featured in both print and online publications such as Art Collector Magazine and The Saturday Paper. Eugene currently works as a gallery manager whilst completing his Bachelor of Laws at The University of Sydney.

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