For the 16th Biennale of Sydney the Artistic Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, developed the critically ambitious ‘Revolutions – Forms that Turn’, a trans-historical project that surveyed ‘the impulse to revolt’, focusing on ‘the relationships and distance between “revolutionary art” and “art for the revolution”’. It was a tour de force, comprising dizzying discursive loops and spiralling trajectories of avant-garde aesthetics and political reprisals. Christov-Bakargiev’s thesis neatly entwined poetics and pragmatism, rethinking the semantics of revolution in relation to ‘forms that turn, and turns that form’.
The exhibition encompassed an incisive retrospective component, tracing avant-garde genealogies from Suprematism, Constructivism, Futurism and the ready-made to postwar movements including Gutai, Arte Povera, Op, Concrete and kinetic art. Practices that provoked outwardly political manifestations appear in works by artists associated with the Lettristes and Situationist International, and the posters and publications Emory Douglas made for the Black Panther Party. Figures involved in the historical moments of Conceptual art, Feminism, performance and experimental cinema, who opened art up to wider discursive contexts – such as Chris Burden, Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham, Hélio Oiticica, Joan Jonas, VALIE EXPORT, Mary Kelly, Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneemann and Michael Snow – were among more than 150 artists presented in the Biennale, not to mention many others in the catalogue and online.
Drawing on the political implications of Constructivist assemblage, ‘Revolutions – Forms that Turn’ explored the movement of movements, composed as a montage of kinetic forms and moments of aesthetic and social change. Works were characterized by dynamic formal strategies of ‘revolving, rotating, mirroring, repeating, reversing, turning upside-down or inside-out’: Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Hanging Spatial Constructions (1920–21); the Elastic Space (1967) of Gianni Colombo; the montages of William Kentridge; the mesmerizing topography of Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s painting Untitled (2008); Nalini Malani’s proto-cinematic light and shadow projections; Jean Tinguely’s anarchic kinetic machines; the reflective gaze of Giuseppe Penone’s To Turn One’s Eyes Inside Out (1970); and Piero Manzoni’s Socle du monde (Base of the World, 1961), which underlined the antipodean location of the Biennale as much as it amplified the curatorial rationale of reversals, returns and changing perspectives.
The format of the exhibition was kaleidoscopically structured and subject to acts of disruption and détournement. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Nedko Solakov’s painting of the main foyer walls from white to black and black to white (A Life (Black & White), 1998) suggested an exhibition in perpetual motion, amplified by the recurring displacement and relocation of suspended gallery walls in Renata Lucas’ Sistema de falta (System of Lack, 2008). Solakov’s work could also be read in relation to the whitewash politics prevalent in recent debates around Australian history, underscored by Gordon Bennett’s unexecuted proposal – presented instead as a model – to re-hang the European and Aboriginal collections, and Sam Durant’s ironic but still incendiary civil rights slogans adorning the façades of other Biennale venues. Atsuko Tanaka’s Work (Bell) (1955/2000), a plinth-mounted button which unleashed the ringing of work bells throughout the exhibition galleries, served as an anarchic, disruptive irritant to viewers, invigilators and passers-by.
Christov-Bakargiev largely treated the museums as museums, with the majority of canonical pieces presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art. This had the effect of establishing historical precedents and counterpoints to contemporary works, such as Joseph Beuys’ Blackboard from the Office for Direct Democracy (1971) and Raquel Ormella’s feral animal office (2008), an assemblage of revolving illustrated whiteboards suggesting an office of grassroots activism yet ironically pointing to ways in which activists have adopted forms of strategic planning and communication from business and government.
The correspondence between apparently formally similar works, remembered from one place to another, underscored the radical difference and cultural specificity of respective practices, for example the disorienting slippage between image and sound of Bruce Nauman’s Lip Sync (1969), in relation to the sucking, swallowing, silencing and disgorging of mouths in Anna Maria Maiolino’s Super-8 film In-Out (Anthropophagy) (1973), a critique of American cultural imperialism. At Pier 2/3, Luigi Russolo’s sound machines Intonarumori (1913) conflated sculpture, orchestra and noise of everyday life, while The Murder of Crows (2008), a newly commissioned 100-speaker installation by Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller, shook the foundations of the wharf with a revolving choreography of experimental, ecstatic and elemental sounds and a nightmarish narrative of dismemberment and terror.
In the decommissioned Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour – a former prison, naval barracks and shipbuilding island – Susan Philipsz installed a lone megaphone broadcasting the artist’s fragile rendition of The Internationale (The Internationale 1999), a rallying-call turned lament. However, if a certain romance prevailed in the elegy for failed Utopian projects, in the remembrance of repressed and forgotten histories, there was an equally committed engagement with politics of the day, such as Michael Rakowitz’ visual discourse on visionary architecture and liberation politics, culminating in his reprise of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, developed in collaboration with members of the indigenous community of ‘The Block’ in Sydney’s Redfern suburb (White man got no dreaming 2008).
As a flipside to emancipatory ideals, the instrumental power, violence and abuse of revolutionary events were forcefully explored in Mike Parr’s abject bodily performance works of 1971–2008, in Vernon Ah Kee’s found texts on the walls of derelict latrines with their contradictory politics of solidarity and racist abuse (Born in this skin 2008) and in Mark Boulos’ confrontational video installation documenting the opposing transactions of Nigerian guerrillas and Western oil traders in extremis (All That is Solid Melts into Air, 2008). By looking at radical formal gestures that led to shifts in the language of art itself, and works choreographed for their liberating or disorienting effect on sense and perception, Christov-Bakargiev brilliantly marshalled artists and theorists to rethink the terms of ‘revolution’, agency and effect, and ways that contemporary art might activate new modes of critical understanding and revolutionary potential.