The Biennale of Sydney – which, inaugurated in 1973, is the third oldest international biennale in the world – has a pedigree and an infrastructure lacking in many of the other biennales that have appeared over the past decade. Previous directors have included Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (currently assembling documenta 13), Lynne Cooke and Charles Merewether; for its 17th edition, the veteran British curator and museum director David Elliott took the helm, bringing to the event his extensive experience and unflagging curiosity. The paramount question in Elliott’s mind when he was preparing for the exhibition was: ‘Is the art any good?’ – a question he was happy to let override what he saw as stereotypical oppositions such as ‘power and periphery, developed and undeveloped, rich and poor, first people and colonisers, fine art and folk art’. The Biennale’s title, ‘The Beauty of Distance’, pays homage to The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey’s well-known 1966 study of the British colonization of Australia, yet at the same time stands his thesis on its head.
This edition of the Biennale was dedicated to the memory of Nick Waterlow, three-time director and once chair of selectors, who was murdered with his daughter last year. The opening keynote address for this and future biennales was also dedicated to Waterlow. The first of these was delivered by Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose installation, Faraday Cage (2010), a meditation on lightning fields, was installed on Cockatoo Island, one of the Biennale’s seven major venues. The other artists who were showing there had to work hard to compete with this formidable former prison and shipyard in the harbour. Generally they succeeded, and there was a lot to like here, from Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo’s The Wet Umbrella (2004–10) to Australian artist Jemima Wyman’s Combat Drag (2008), which explores what she calls ‘communal skins’ depicting female fighters in a jungle setting wearing masks and uniforms made from flannelette shirts, an iconic Australian material.
The Biennale included 440 major works by 67 artists from 36 countries. What could possibly link them? (This question could be asked of the hundreds of biennale directors currently trawling the world for ‘themes’.) In his catalogue essay, Elliott turns frequently to the world of music. ‘All music is folk music,’ he argues, quoting Louis Armstrong: ‘Cuz I ain’t never heard no horse sing no song.’ By the same token, Elliott claims, all art is folk art, and ‘The Beauty of Distance’ went a long way to bringing home this point in ways that stretched from high-tech sophistication to the ironically rustic. For example, Seer Bonnets: A Continuing Offence (2009–10), by American artist Angela Ellsworth, focuses on the artist’s rejection of her Mormon heritage and comprises bonnets constructed from thousands of pearl-tipped corsage pins, each pointing inwards towards the skull. This deliberate, and quite chilling, homespun quality could not have been more different from the sleek, nine-channel video installation The Feast of Trimalchio (2009) by the Russian collective AES+F.
Things might have been clearer, however, if Elliot had left us with his individual passions for a large group of very disparate artists. Instead, he introduced a subtitle: ‘Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’. The musical analogy – with its suggestions of sea shanties, pirates or contemporary versions of The Raft of the Medusa – was perfectly in keeping with Elliot’s curatorial temperament. Yet it led to a sometimes painful exegesis on ‘the death of the Enlightenment’ which Elliot claims is occurring in 2010 – a proposition many would disagree with. On the whole, though, this Biennale was a success, and the musical sub-themes grew on me as different strands were developed between venues. Peruvian-born Jota Castro’s short video, Presidenzia Italiana 2/07/03 (2003), sets Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s rant at the German socialist Martin Schulz to a score (sung by French soprano Maud Gnidzaz) reminiscent of an 18th-century comic opera. In it he tells the European parliamentarian that he would be ‘perfectly cast as a Nazi concentration camp guard in a forthcoming film’.
Yet the work that stuck with me most was Richard Grayson’s video The Messiah (2004), which was installed in a quarter-mile-long tunnel, lit by weak light bulbs, that snakes through the heart of Cockatoo Island. Where Castro takes inspiration from Berlusconi, Grayson (who was Artistic Director of the 2002 Biennale) looks to the Christian fundamentalism of George W. Bush. If any works support and reflect Elliott’s musical/visual premises it is certainly these. Grayson makes full use of the Australian country and western band, The Midnight Amblers, who for this project sing in American accents and sample Handel’s Messiah (1742) in a mash-up that brings back memories of Bush, Christian fundamentalism and the sort of faith that the Enlightenment has never been able to deal with properly because it is armed with superstition and a limitless supply of baked beans.