2.2 / Entertaining Wonder When Rationality Seems to Fail

The 17th Biennale of Sydney

By Laura Cassidy September 27, 2010

Image: Brodie Ellis. Umbra:Penumbra:Antumbra, 2010 (video still); two-channel video installation, steel; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist. Photograph: Brodie Ellis and Ocea Sellar.

This year Sydney staged THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age. Curated by David Elliott, the city’s seventeenth biennale of contemporary art presented more than 440 works by 166 participants dispersed across seven venues.

Artworks located at the Sydney Opera House, Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Royal Botanic Gardens, and Art Gallery of New South Wales absorbed the prestige of well-established public institutions, while those mounted at Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3, and Artspace radiated the histories of imprisonment, transportation, and artistic experimentation surrounding the city’s iconic harbor. The inclusion of these alternative urban spaces helps to validate Elliott’s statement that “within the newly recast, non-hierarchical world of this exhibition, there is an acknowledgement of the capacity for wonder—a form of enlightenment rather than knowledge, based on the realization that reason is no more than an illusion when faced with the immense, uncontrollable beauty of life.” 1

The songs of survival referenced in the exhibition title speak to those narratives that have persevered, emerging from the political margins and out of the shadow of the dominant historical framework perpetrated by Western culture. Cockatoo Island—a former prison and shipyard accessible by ferry and reminiscent of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, although with a larger footprint—was the most compelling exhibition site in conveying these narratives. Long tunnels, hallways, and staircases led visitors between darkened rooms predominantly installed with film and video works. The industrial conditions on Cockatoo Island brilliantly suited the display of these media: the surplus of empty chambers magnified sound and the interior darkness sharpened the nuanced moving images. Two monumental works stood out among the pleasurable profusion of works on view: The Feast of Trimalchio (2009), a panoramic animation of over seventy-five thousand photographs by the Russian collective AES+F, and Ten Thousand Waves (2010), a nine-screen video installation combining documentary and studio footage by the renowned British artist Isaac Julien. The expansive opulence of The Feast was remarkably different from the fragmented tragedy of Ten Thousand Waves, though both immersive environments utilized state-of-the-art technology and both fiercely commented on the effects of global capitalism on contemporary culture.

AES+F (Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes). The Feast of Trimalchio, 2009 (video still); nine-channel video installation; 19 minutes. Courtesy of the Artists; Triumph Gallery, Moscow; and Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow.

Immersion in The Feast of Trimalchio was a mesmerizing, symphonic, but ultimately vacuous experience. AES+F stitched their panoramic animation together via a nine-channel projection that stretched continuously around a large circular room with a virtually unbroken, 360-degree projection screen. A pantheon of regal masters and servants cast from all corners of the globe appeared in a world made surreal by its slowness and scale. The actors were exquisitely poised in their movements—eating, sunbathing, and running on treadmills, together and apart—channeling the grace of ballet dancers and the automation of robots. As the animation progresses, the synchronized, larger-than-life fantasy begins to reveal its critique of consumer culture with blatant brand placements, hyperbolic modes of fashion photography, and the reversal of master-servant roles. Surrounded by the virtually unbroken screen, my eyes widened with wonder, though when exiting the panorama, I questioned the depth of visual critique and noted a lack of fulfillment. If AES+F intended for viewers to sense the superficial nature of their subjects as a calculated layer of their critique, I desired more resolution from such an intense display of mythic indulgence.

In comparison, Ten Thousand Waves was a haunting hybrid of document and fantasy in which Isaac Julien grounded his poetic visual journey in the reality of Chinese migrant labor. The video was spurred by the tragic deaths of over twenty illegal migrant workers who left China to gain better lives picking cockles in England’s Morecambe Bay. Julien parsed the documentary footage from this tragedy, drawing out the sensory experience of dark water as a portal to the past, wherein he eloquently explored the cultural origins of the Chinese diaspora.

Equally intriguing was the video installation Umbra: Penumbra: Antumbra (2010), by the Australian artist Brodie Ellis. I reluctantly stepped through a large rain puddle at the entrance into the ominous, pitch-black space of the installation, and was pleasantly surprised when my eyes adjusted to the encompassing darkness. For Ellis, light and sculpture are significant accoutrements to her video work. For this installation, she elongated the exhibition chamber by placing two elliptical frames on the floor in the foreground and middle ground, and placing a third frame on the wall in the background. She created the first and last frames using the light of video projections, while she fabricated the middle frame by welding thick steel rods to create a heavy conical sculpture that anchored the optical experience. Resting on its side and illuminated by an overhead spotlight, Ellis’s sculpture mimicked the anatomy of an eye, referencing the mechanics of vision and depth of perception.

The fourth elliptical layer of this installation was the subject of the video itself, a solar eclipse that she captured on July 22, 2009, in Japan’s Yakusugi Forest. The morphing imagery displayed on two channels—on the ground immediately at my feet and on the wall in the distance—explored the core aesthetics of perception: horizon lines, color intensity, and soft- versus hard-edged shapes. Umbra: Penumbra: Antumbra was deeply affective and impressionistic, and in its entirety, a personal favorite of mine on Cockatoo Island.

Back at the harbor on the Circular Quay, a central hub for tourism, the MCA hosted the largest number of artworks, devoting almost the entire museum to THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE, with superb displays of sculpture made from everyday materials. Jake and Dinos Chapman transformed cardboard into miniature parodies of global culture in Shitrospective (2009), while Folkert De Jong transformed Styrofoam into a tableaux of colonial and capital exploitation in The Balance (2000). The deft and beautiful transformation of materials into works weighted with symbolism and cultural significance continued with five provocative porcelain works by Rachel Kneebone, including I think of death it calms me down (2009), and Gonkar Gyatso’s shimmering collage of stickers that formed the Tibetan mandala, Wheel of Modern Life (2010). Nandipha Mntambo embedded cross-cultural references into two cowhide dresses, one titled Nandikeshvara (2009), which calls out her own Swazi name, Nandipha, as well as Nandi, the bull steed of the Hindu god Shiva. Meanwhile, Angela Ellsworth created Seer Bonnets: A Continuing Offense (2009–10), an assembly of Mormon pioneer bonnets constructed from thousands of pearl-tipped corsage pins. And Brett Graham appropriated the powerful symbolic forms of military weapons into Te Hokioi (2008) and Mihaia (2010), two rubber works he inscribed with Maori carvings.

Folkert de Jong. The Balance, 2010; Styrofoam and pigmented polyurethane foam; dimensions variable. Copyright © 2010 OFFICE For Contemporary Art, Amsterdam. Photograph: Aatjan Renders. This work was made possible with the support of the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, Amsterdam.

A short walk led from the Sydney Opera House through the Royal Botanic Gardens to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with a handful of installations at each venue. I expected more from the works by Fiona Hall and Janet Laurence in the Gardens. Though the beehives in Hall’s The Barbarians at the Gate (2010) were nicely scaled for bees, they became visually muddled for people, who needed to crouch down in order to inspect her detailed, culturally specific rooftops painstakingly camouflaged in military paint patterns. Meanwhile, Laurence intended her greenhouse, entitled WAITING – A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants (2010), to be a space of revival and resuscitation for plants, but it became dreadfully sun-drenched and dreary in the exhibition’s final stages, which was when I toured THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales exclusively displayed work by artists from Asia in its main entrance hallway. I was fascinated by the incredible level of detail in Tokei (Tokyo): Hiroo and Roppongi (2002); Construction of Shiba Tower (2005); and Tokei (Tokyo) Shiba Tower (2005), Yamaguchi Akira’s carefully rendered pen-and-ink drawings inspired by yamato-e, traditional Japanese landscape paintings with multiple narrative panels, and ukiyo-e, traditional Japanese woodblock prints, literally translated as “pictures of the floating world.” Akira subtly infused these traditional genres with contemporary urban imagery such as smog and skyscrapers, enhancing the ironic compositions with pale watercolor accents and washes of gold leaf.

Wang Qingsong. Competition, 2004; C-print; 170 x 300 cm. Courtesy of the Artist.

It was on my second viewing of Wang Qingsong’s comparatively bold photographic diptych, Competition (2004) and Debacle (2009), hung at the far end of the entrance hall, that I began to appreciate his ability to highlight the reverberating impact of the global economy in China, its sweeping successes and failures. He juxtaposed two large-scale photographs of the same towering urban walls at different moments in time: formerly plastered in a bright patchwork of advertisements during an economic boom, now abandoned and faded during the current economic recession.

The precariousness of the global market economy was pronounced in the 17th Biennale of Sydney. However, Elliott’s curatorial vision refreshingly elaborated on the opportunity for reconstituting its balance, both culturally and economically, rather than heightening the fear of its collapse. By focusing on “songs of survival,” he created a pluralistic platform for emerging narratives and value systems that persevere in the shifting conditions of the twenty-first century. Entertaining wonder is a strategy that we can embrace when rationality seems to fail, yet Elliott never lingers on the idea of failure. Instead, he sustains our forward momentum, our survival instinct, and reflects on the past. He writes, “Although we are not sure what will come in its place, with the distance of hindsight we are better able to understand the dark as well as the good ideas of the European Enlightenment.”2 Distance was the key concept provided in this biennale, one that asserted the authority of beauty, wonder, and optimism in art and life.

1. From the wall text for MCA's exhibition, “We Call Them Pirates Out Here: MCA Collection selected by David Elliott,” 17 February - 21 November 2010, coinciding with the 17th Biennale of Sydney.
2. From the 17th Biennale of Sydney exhibition guide, 2010: p. 2. 


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