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Issue 128

Auckland & Sydney 2010

Two antipodean exhibitions will explore ideas ranging from the role of risk-taking to the complexities of geo-politics in making art

BY Nicola Harvey in Critic's Guides | 01 JAN 10

To the west of the Sydney Harbour Bridge lies a small drop of land known as Cockatoo Island. It has been home to, in turn, a colonial-era prison, a reformatory, the odd screeching cockatoo and two dry shipping docks, the first of which was built by convicts in 1857. Now the site consists mostly of derelict buildings sagging slightly from mould and mildew, but in recent years these empty spaces have been taken over by temporary cultural happenings.

Auckland City Art Gallery, Principal Venue for the 4th Auckland Triennial

In January 2009 the Nick Cave-curated Sydney incarnation of the music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties was held on the grounds, and before that the site was opened up to the 16th Biennale of Sydney in 2008 when the curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, exhibited a group of works including William Kentridge’s wondrous, multi-channel projection I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine (2008). Laden with vestiges of Australia’s colonial past and social unrest, the site adds a certain gravitas to the art shown there. This is aided by the ferry journey to the island across the harbour from Circular Quay; it’s a location you can’t exactly stumble across. David Elliott, the well-travelled British curator of the 17th Biennale of Sydney (which opens 12 May 2010) will, like his predecessor, use Cockatoo Island along with other locations in Sydney – the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Artspace and the Opera House – for the exhibition ‘The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’. Speaking from London, Elliott – the former director of Modern Art Oxford, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo – told me he is aware of the historical baggage that accompanies public sites such as Cockatoo Island but has ‘tried to make an exhibition about this time […] using the harbour area of Sydney, an iconic modern city and the site of the first encounters with British explorers as a stage’.

Since the Biennale was first launched in 1973, organizers have shown Australian artists alongside their international peers. ‘What or who is peripheral in the art world?’ is a question that has often been implicit in the curating of the show, and this year is no different. ‘Distance from where, from what, from whom?’ is one that has already been asked in the Australian arts magazine Broadsheet and will doubtless be asked again. It’s a tired line of enquiry from the local media and Elliott is eloquent in realigning the discussion: ‘“Beauty of Distance” is about mental, physical and geographical positions and, perhaps most importantly, refers to the necessary distance that develops between the art work and the artist, allowing for a space to engage and elaborate various readings and critical musings (the process of aesthetics, if you will).’ As a subtext to this, Elliott suggests that, despite the emergence of an international art world, we need to be asking what politics are at play and whose system of knowledge is being applied when developing a dialogue around an art work. ‘Working and living in different cultures’, Elliott says, ‘helps you understand that there are always many equally valid perspectives on any issue.’

Christian Thompson, I'm Not Going Anywhere Without You, 2008. Courtesy: Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne and the artist

Elliott has declared the late US ethnomusicologist and experimental filmmaker Harry Everett Smith as a ‘patron saint’ of the Biennale. Smith’s early-20th-century research and recording of community-based music, including delta blues, bluegrass, gospel and jazz, which was released as an anthology in 1952 during an age of extreme conservatism in the USA (at the time of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt) offered, in Elliott’s view, an alternative set of values to the rapidly proliferating mass consumer culture of the time. Elliott is using the project as a paradigm for the Biennale, selecting artists whose work has been ‘previously marginalized or discounted by modernity’. Shamanism, ‘gods and ghosts’ and the role of the ‘trickster’ are all referenced in Elliott’s curatorial brief, and it’s easy to anticipate the importance he will bestow on the knowledge systems that existed long before British colonialism and capitalist globalization dominated. Of the 17 artists announced to date (further names will be made public in February), Canadians Dana Claxton and Kent Monkman, and Australians Fiona Foley, Christian Thompson and Lorraine Connelly-Northey are all making work that speaks of the conflict and flux between Western urbanism and ways of life for first nation people, alluding to a trend that will run through the exhibition.

Tom Nicholson, Monument for the Flooding of the Royal Park, 2008. Courtesy: Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and the artist

Across the Tasman Sea, Natasha Conland, the New Zealand curator directing the 4th Auckland Triennial, ‘Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon’, has moved away from questions regarding geographical positioning – the show has a marked absence of Pacific Islanders and well-known artists from the northern hemisphere who dominated its previous incarnations. It comprises mostly a selection of the curator’s peers: predominantly mid-career artists from the Middle East, UK and the antipodes willing to make new commissions in response to the curatorial brief. Taking her lead from the economic crash, Conland is interested in the psychology of risk-taking and adventure, asking if there is a residual impulse towards adventure following the ‘collapse of the modern era’, and what level of risk we now find tolerable. The metaphor of the balloon suggests a degree of whimsy and Conland hopes some of the artists – including Australians Tom Nicholson and Laresa Kosloff, New Zealanders Nick Austin, Robert Hood, Alicia Frankovich and Michael Stevenson, and Europeans Johanna Billing and Olivia Plender – will respond to the invitation to explore new world perspectives from aloft.

17th Biennale of Sydney, ‘The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’, 12 May – 1 August 2010; 4th Auckland Triennial, ‘Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon’, 12 March – 20 June 2010