BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 09 SEP 02
Featured in
Issue 69

Sydney Biennale

Various Venues, Sydney, Australia

BY Daniel Palmer in Reviews | 09 SEP 02

An artist assumed creative control of the Sydney Biennale this year, bringing to the event a certain loopy charm sometimes missing from previous efforts to survey the world from afar. Specifically, Richard Grayson came with energy and a vision: '(The World May Be) Fantastic'. Sci-fi Surrealism became the default style, but the curator's open, 'party-tape' approach allowed for a broad range of imaginative practices. The 'fantastic' theme favoured art dealing with fictional scenarios, fakeries and Borgesian mappings, while a range of archives based on bizarre classification systems, masquerades and other deliberate deceptions also filled the various venues.

Despite a virtual cult of the strange, many of the works felt curiously drab and museified - several relied on extensive texts to unravel their intense hermetic alternative worlds. In this context the most effective works hit the senses more directly. Susan Hiller's Witness (2000) was one such work: a suspended field of audio speakers that rewarded the viewer with a multilingual polyphony of UFO sightings and other paranormal experiences. An archive of culture at the margins, this work was at the conceptual heart of the show. (Hiller was on the curatorial advisory panel to Grayson, along with Ralph Rugoff and Janos Sugar.) Janet Cardiff's experience of cinema at one remove, Muriel Lake Incident (1999), also generated surprising bodily effects. Representing the various worlds created in cinema spectatorship, and utilizing her signature surround-sound headphones, Cardiff gave the theme of the fantastic a deliciously murderous twist.

The ultimate subject of this 13th Sydney Biennale was the often idiosyncratic and obsessive nature of artistic creativity - which accounted for the inclusion of the murderous watercolour fairytales by the late Henry Darger. This was also evidenced in Paul Noble's giant graphite drawings of a fictional locale, Nobson Newtown, where penises serve as bridges and sculptured letters pose as buildings, and Matthew Ritchie's deliriously confusing labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling colours and symbols centred around The Family Farm (2001). There were more ordinary transformations, such as Emma Kay's map of the world, The World From Memory I (1998), detailing the wonderfully accurate blunders of subjective geography. Room after room was filled with intelligent installations that would have been - are - worth the effort on their own (Jim Shaw's 'Thrift Store Paintings', Kim Adams' mutant vehicles, Mike Stevenson's paranoid investigations into the wackier outreaches of art history, Can Dialectics Break Bricks, 2002). But the cumulative effect was somewhat tiring, a bit like reading a lot of short stories at once. And the 'performative' emphasis - especially the excessive presence of mannequins - sometimes felt like an alternative version of the 1970s better kept repressed. Where the works became self-consciously theatrical, the fantastic slid rapidly into the silly.

Without national pavilions the nationality of the artist rarely seemed to matter, yet the exceptions to this were refreshing, perhaps because they brought the theme of the fantastic back to earth. Memorial Project, Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex - For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards (2001), Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba's video of underwater bicycle rickshaw riders, evoking the plight of Vietnamese 'boat people', repeated its success in San Paulo earlier this year. It seemed to have particular resonance for contemporary Australia, as its elected leaders work overtime to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the country's vast shores. Similarly, in Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999-2000), Simryn Gill revisited her Malaysian hometown and made photographs of people with local fruit and vegetables placed over their faces. Next door, Do-Ho Suh's sheer sheets of fine translucent nylon evoked the fragility of 'home' in 348 West 22nd St, Apt A, New York, NY 10011 USA (2001).

Australian artists James Angus and Patricia Piccinini produced exemplary new work. With Shangri-La (2002) Angus floated a full-scale hot air balloon upside down in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House. More than a spectacular stunt, this became a homage to Australia's most famous building and to upside-downness in general. It was certainly a more inspired site-specific work than Mike Nelson's much discussed, inner-city deserted reptile house, 24A Orwell Street (2002). In Still Life With Stem Cells (2002) Piccinini gave us a Superrealist model of a little girl seated on unhomely grey carpet. The child plays affectionately with chunks of what initially appears to be sausage-meat-coloured Plasticine but is in fact the latest of the artist's post-human life forms - complete with veins, hairs and a sexualized slit-like orifice.

While Piccinini's work referenced popular fears in relation to contemporary genetics, surprisingly few works engaged with popular culture's distorted fantasies. Those that did so stuck out - such as Simon Patterson's witty video Escape Routine (2002), with its kinky flight attendants referencing Houdini-like tricks. Similarly, Miwa Yanagi's luscious photographs of women acting out their fantasies as 'grandmothers', thanks to digital ageing, held an unquestionably fresh appeal. Meanwhile, Philippe Parreno's video of a cheaply purchased cartoon character in Anywhere Out of this World (1999) inventively brought to life an otherwise mute creation of Japanese manga. Finally, Eija-Liisa Ahtila's grammatically innovative five-monitor video installation depicting interruptions of the non-rational in the ordinary lives of teenagers and single mothers, Lahja/The Present (2002), imparted some of the most memorable imagery of this rather patchy but thought-provoking show.