'Signs of Life', the inaugural Melbourne International Biennial, centred on a monumental exhibition of nearly 60 artists housed in an eight story ex-telephone exchange in the city centre. Together with a series of eleven national pavilions in existing public and private galleries, it amounted to the largest visual arts event staged in Melbourne since the colonial World Fairs of the 19th century.
The Biennial only gave an inkling of Australia's location in the Asia-Pacific. The pavilions, dubbed 'Collaborating Country Projects', showed some vibrant work. The spatial constructions of Norwegian UKS member Knut Åsdam, the visual sound installation of Swiss artist Sidney Stucki and the Danish Info Centre project leap to mind. While several pavilions - the Italian, Canadian and Philippine - explored migration and the globalisation of popular culture, the idea of 'Nations' was eclipsed by a more general sense of metropolitanism.
Artistic director Juliana Engberg's ambitious aim was to reflect on the state of humanity at the end of the millennium. Supported by a substantial catalogue (also written by Engberg), the show was Existential and Humanist while much of the work was future-directed and evoked a nuanced politics of longing. Sincerity was significant, yet not all of it was serious. It was a cleverly multi-layered, audience-focused set of works designed to invite wonderment. If this sounds quasi-religious, well, in a sense it was. Part of the aim was to restore a broader public's faith in the relevance and accessibility of contemporary art.
Semi-gutted, the nooks and crannies of the main building were perfect for guerrilla tactics (some local artists added their own drawings) and views of the city. Old lounges became rest stations. While the architectural interventions were hardly site-specific - Dan Shipsides' wall climbing, OLO's plywood ramp, John Frankland's minimalist bench and Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset's paper flying out the window in trompe l'oeil - the building developed common themes, without levelling individual pieces. Multiple visits could reveal quite distinct experiences and connections.
Nature dominated the first floor. Mariele Neudecker's alpine ranges, modelled in a huge tank of reflective milky water, Unrecallable Now (1999), like her miniature forest aquarium landscape I Don't Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run (1997), recall the Romantic sublime and offered a stirring contrast to Patricia Piccinini's Plasticology (1997) - 51 television monitors which digitally simulate a lush, green rain forest. Francisco Tropa's inane suspended snail dominated local media response; Nikolaj Recke's upstairs clover field appealed to the child in us (and children specifically); and Cornelia Parker's frozen hail of chalk rocks, sourced from a collapsed English cliff, evoked a historical meshing of nature with culture.
It was difficult to miss the Nordic bias, which was self-consciously explored in Tørbjørn Rødland's ambiguous photographic clichés of Norwegian nature. Andrea Lange's Refugee Talks (1998) is a half hour, life-sized video portrait of refugees awaiting residency status at a Norwegian reception house, singing hopeful songs of home, love and war. Two sassy young girls effusively imitate the Spice Girls. We're not told their histories. Rather, the migrant - a recurring Biennial figure - seemed to embody the singular figure of Modernity, the one whose displaced destiny anticipates a more generalised condition.
An abundance of video monitors and projections filled the floors. Robert Gligorov's extraordinary series of live birds emerging from his mouth was wistfully simple; Aernout Mik's slow, panning screens of a collapsing house and brutalised body were silently forceful; and Smith/Stewart's magnified nape of a neck Static (1999) was marvellously repellent.
There was very little painting. However, scale models revising natural history proliferated, inspired by the guest writer Susan Stewart. Doll houses by ART ORIENTÉ Objet offered a sardonic retake of 'natural history', supported by Maurizio Cattelan's surreal piggy-backed stuffed animals. Ricky Swallow's intricate series of dystopic cardboard miniatures made from old turntables were an audience favourite. One of 13 Australians, Swallow's witty series of rotating figures - which, among other things, reference prisons and video parlours - were ideally positioned on the top floor overlooking the city below. Other memorable utopian or dystopian images included Miwa Yanagi's elegant digi-print panoramas of generic supermodernity ('non-places' inhabited only by identically dressed elevator girls); Chad McCail's delicate and humorous social mappings; and David Noonan's doomed astronaut hero, a great 20th century anticlimax.
Other work was harder to categorise. Catherine Opie's beautiful photographs of lesbian couples suggest a hopeful, if class-riven, image of community politics. Callum Morton replays architectural Modernism and gives it a colourful twist: inside a Mies van de Rohe scale model a party is interrupted by gun shots and screaming. Aside from some wearable CD poetry-equipped flak jackets, the lack of interactive or networked digital art in the show was odd, but not surprising. The 'curatorial vanities' - Robert Gober's drain in a suitcase and Louise Bourgeois' elegant marble sculpture Give or Take (1995) - symbolised the untouchable, violent maternity of the show. Side-stepping mastery and cutting the loop of cynical self-referentiality, the core of the Melbourne Biennial achieved a great thing: presenting art as more than either a symptom or an ideal.