The manifesto-like curatorial statement of the 18th Biennale of Sydney, ‘all our relations’, promised much. In it, curators Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster declared their intention to represent ‘a changing reality’ and propose that by exploring the ‘intersubjective’ they would accomplish the momentous task of encapsulating a ‘collective composition or new Gesamtkunstwerk’.
Presented across five venues and including more than 100 works by 88 artists and collaborative groups, the curators suggested that ‘all our relations’ should be navigated as if it were a Möbius strip along which conversations evolve from one venue to another. However, with four of the five venues thematically paraphrased into subsets, including ‘In Finite Blue Planet’ at Art Gallery New South Wales (AGNSW), ‘Possible Composition’ at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCAA), ‘As above, as below’ at Pier 2/3 and ‘Stories, Senses and Spheres’ on Cockatoo Island, the Möbius strip’s ‘manifold combinations’ seemed to be striated by institutional parameters rather than fluidly interlinked.
The MCAA’s thematic grouping featured works that focused on the materiality of painting and the mechanics of composition in both Western and indigenous art making. Hung at the exhibition’s entrance were three works – Golden Glow (1973), Nebula (1972) and Zahir (1971) – by the late Australian painter David Aspden, whose experiments with colour and composition were inspired by jazz. Adjacent to these was an installation by Thai artist Mit Jai Inn, NO 112 (2002–12), comprising large stacks of rolled unframed abstract paintings which the public were invited to interact with to create what the artist refers to as ‘co-compositions’. This literal interpretation of the theme ‘Possible Compositions’ loosened a little, becoming more playful in works such as Australian artists Gabrielle and Silvana Mangano’s video Neon (2010). In this work, the sisters tussle with a sheet of geometric neon patchwork, creating new shapes in an examination of the relationship between geometric abstraction and the female body in a way that is both evocative and dynamic.
In ‘Stories, Senses and Spheres’ at Cockatoo Island, the curators stated their focus as ‘water, wind and earth…[and] projects that have storytelling and caring at their core’. Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya’s ‘parked cloud’, Living Chasm – Cockatoo Island (2012), greeted visitors with a mist installation that limited visibility to one metre. A former convict prison and boat-building facility, Cockatoo Island is heritage-protected, which provided numerous challenges for artists and curators. New Zealand artist Peter Robinson’s huge sculptural installation Gravitas Lite (2012) accentuated the scale of the industrial spaces, filling one section of the main saw-tooth warehouse with a combination of rough-hewn chunks and meticulously formed chainlink wreaths of polystyrene.
It was often difficult to trace the curatorial logic at Cockatoo Island, particularly given that many works – such as Canadian artists Ed Pien and Tanya Tagaq’s Mylar maze (Source, 2012); and a collaborative paper-and-leaf installation by German artist Monika Grzymala and the Australian collective Euraba Artists and Papermakers (The River, 2012) – seemed more decorative than conceptually driven. Works such as New Zealand artist Sriwhana Spong’s elegant film and fabric installation Learning Duets (2012) did, however, offera lateral take on storytelling. Drawing on the creative interplay between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Spong’s installation includes two films of dancers whose bodies evoke the relationships between men and women, the ocean and the land, and internal and external worlds.
The AGNSW’s ‘In Finite Blue Planet’ focused on ‘a new consciousness of the finite – rather than infinite – nature of our blue planet and its resources’, featuring 26 artists across two floors of the state gallery. Guido van der Werve’s short film Nummer Acht, everything is going to be alright (2007) was an apt opener to this section: a lone figure is seen walking across vast Arctic plains followed by an enormous icebreaker crashing a path behind him. Here, the curators also introduced works that focused on the more overtly political aspects of ‘all our relations’ exploring the moments when we don’t ‘relate’ so well, which had been conspicuously absent elsewhere. Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–ongoing), for example, comprises video interviews with refugees who chart their devastating journeys on a map, revealing their meandering routes across countries and continents in search of a home.
At the AGNSW, several of the curators’conceptual threads came together: the emphasis on themes of nurture tempered by the volatility of our violent planet, the intricacies of our relationships with all that surrounds us, and the collaborative nature of story telling. However, apart from three or four notable exceptions, the Biennale lacked works that dealt with dissent or difficulty, and those that did were somehow muted or softened by their context. The exhibition favoured the feel-good and the decorative; a wishful take on a ‘new Gesamtkunstwerk’. It was a perspective that struggled to find conceptual footing in the face of the turbulent reality of our global relations.