On a bright late summers day, one of the largest contemporary arts events in the Asia-Pacific region opened its doors, the 19th Biennale of Sydney, You Imagine What You Desire. It must have been a welcome change from the dark clouds that had been haunting the Artistic Director Juliana Engberg over the last couple of months. Leading up to the opening, 51 of the 94 invited artists threatened to withdraw from the event unless the founding sponsor, Transfield, ended their sponsorship and the company’s representative stepped down as the chairman of the board. This subsequently happened two weeks before the opening, however, at that stage the treat of boycott had already made the headlines internationally.
Established over 40 years ago, the biennale in Sydney is the world’s longest running event of this kind after Venice and São Paulo. It is too soon to say if this will be the last edition, a fear that was expressed by many in the field during the opening week. Regardless, the impacts promise to be considerable to art in the region both in the sense that an uncommon politicization has ignited amongst artists and because there are many financial and public policy changes that may be initiated in the coming months. Before we delve into Engberg’s expansive, affective and playful exhibition, it is essential that we understand the background to the turmoil as it played a role in how the biennale was read by many.
Transfield Holdings is an Australian company headed by patrons of the arts, the Belgiorno-Nettis family. The holding company has a minority interest in Transfield Services, a corporation which landed a $1.2 billion government contract in February, to build and manage the country’s contentious offshore processing facilities for asylum-seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. Deeply troubled by the fact that their work, artist fees, production budgets, travel expenses, etcetera, would be funding by profits made by a company carrying out a government contract which breaks the UN’s Refugee Convention, half the artists signed a letter addressed to the biennale’s board on February 19th, asking that they terminate their relationship with Transfield, the following week a letter of withdrawal signed by nine artists was released. The demands made by those 51 artists in their letter were ultimately met..After Luca Belgiorno-Nettis resigned and Transfield terminated their sponsorship of future biennials, seven of the nine artists who withdrew, decided to re-enter the exhibition on the conditions that there participation were not paid for by Transfield’s contribution to the biennial. However, by the time the preview week of the Biennale of Sydney had arrived, fear of the fallout from breaking ties and blackening the reputation of a private sponsor were circulating widely.
The boycott may seem like lightening struck from a clear blue sky but this was not the case. For the previous edition of the Biennale of Sydney in 2012, Melbourne-based artist Van Thanh Rudd protested Transfield’s sponsorship, since they had just signed the first government contract for the detention centres on Nauru. By the time Juliana Engberg was appointed to lead the next biennial, Transfield had not signed the second contract, however, she was no doubt aware of the potentially controversial sponsorship. Coincidence or not, at the heart of Engberg’s biennial lies a call for other ways of being in this world, and ultimately for imagining new ones altogether. The title is borrowed from the Irish author George Bernard Shaw: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will”. In one of the five venues, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the visitors are confronted by neon sign, spelling out a quote by Palestinian theorist Edward Said: “Modern western culture is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés, refugees.” Established in 1871, the Art Gallery of New South Wales embodies the on-going colonial narratives that endure in modern day Australia. Credited as an artwork made by ‘Anonymous’, the neon sign here makes for an effective a framing devise for the venue, and its message resonates throughout the biennial as a whole. It still remains unclear if this work was made by artists who had withdrawn or possibly the biennial’s curator.
As Artistic Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, Engberg is well known for her romantic, affective and sometimes sexually charged exhibitions. You Imagine What You Desire is an emotionally evocative and visually striking exhibition, featuring over 90 artists in a multitude of venues. Many works – possibly too many – are moving image, including pieces by well-known artists Yael Bartana, Douglas Gordon, and Pippilotti Rist. The number of durational pieces means that the show takes several days to see. The richly illustrated 300-page catalogue includes three shorter essays by contributors under the heading of ‘thoughts’ by Australia’s Edward Colless, Elizabeth Grosz, and Daniel Palmer. They provide just that, expansive thoughts on art, philosophy, and politics, more or less related to themes explored in the biennial. Engberg’s text is an introduction that leaves desiring more, wishing for the author to tease-out some of the complex relationships between affect, desire, the sublime, and address more specifically the multitude of artworks and events that make up the biennial.
A significant thread that runs through the biennial is a selection of works made by Henry Coombes, Mikela Dwyer, and Callum Morton that speculate on realities out of reach and the project as a whole is driven by desires not articulable in mere words. Engberg conceives of these evocations and incantations as “active philosophy” practised by artists to push the realm of what is possible and imaginable. This elusive Engbergian idea best comes to life on Cockatoo Island located in Sydney Harbour. Through the weighty works of Mel O’Callaghan, a sculptural installation where performers clad in black exercise clothes work using fitness-inspired gestures in a drone-like manner to lift weights highly reminiscent of modernist sculpture and Ulla Von Brandenburg, whose undulating wooden platform in a disused boat shed was theatrically broken up by colourful worn and weathered sails, ultimately leading to a video work which explores the disruptive idea of a stranger in the midst of a familiar place a sense of mystery is established. While contributions by artists like the Fine Art Union, Marko Lulić, and Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger transform this former industrial hub into to an adventure playground, with dark and subversive undertones.
There is a strong Nordic, especially Norwegian, presence in the biennial. Engberg is of Danish decent and has always had a particular interest in Northern European art. During the preview week, she described Danish-duo Randi & Katrine’s installation The Village on Cockatoo Island somewhat jokingly as her ‘heritage’. The installation meant to be is a scaled down version of a Danish village but feels more like Legoland has been uncannily displaced in an industrial setting. Nordic and Baltic artists whose work captivated our attention include Eva Koch’s giant video of a waterfall, I Am the River which is the first work in the main building on Cockatoo Island and serves as a kind of introduction to the site – a sublime natural phenomenon recreated on film and dislocated to create a sense that something wondrous has been established here, and Ignas Krunglevicius text-based video, Interrogation, leaves its audience to play and intense game of catch-up and speculation as words and flashes of colour give a window into a dark occurrence – a murder – about which which we have very little information. Søren Thilo Funder who participates with no less than three video works, First Citizen (House of the Deaf Man), The Cosmonaut (I don’t see any God up here),, and Sal Paradise, depicts narratives that draw on superstition, therapeutic techniques such as hypnotism, or rumours to create captivating and poetic encounters.
Cockatoo Island is also the site where a number of the artists, such as Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson and Ahmet Öğüt – who withdrew from the biennial and subsequently re-entered when Transfield pulled out – can be found. Öğüt’s conceptual work Stones to Throw is an installation featuring ten stones painted with imagery inspired by nose art on the fuselage of military aircrafts, each placed on a delicate, velvet-topped black plinth. Originally conceived for an exhibition in Lisbon, these painted stones are to be sent using FedEx to Öğüt’s in the Kurd dominated Turkish hometown of Diyarbakir, which has recently again suffered from violent clashes between military and local youth. Left in the space are nine empty plinths with accompanying FedEx receipts and one were the stone remains. This poignant work feels pertinent in the wake of the Transfield debate, inserting itself into a conflict between relatively powerless children and a repressive state, which they seek to disrupt. There exists on Cockatoo Island a palpable and productive tension between irreverent play and playful activity with subversive ambition.
Described as a ‘water venue’ by Engberg, the Museum of Contemporary Art overlooking the harbour and iconic opera house offers the most richly layered installation of works. Presenting pieces on two of the museums four floors, works push up against one another thematically, spatially, and sonically.The venue is home to the works by mega art stars who came to the fore in the 1990s, Douglas Gordon, Roni Horn, and Pipiloti Rist, all of whom present works the are overtly water oriented – Rist with an aquarium-like installation, Horn with her enigmatic ice-watery glass forms, and Gordon with a film of a massive crying eye set to balladeer Rufus Wainwright. However, it is in the less predicable intersections of works that this venue really comes to life. In a corridor-like space with occasional modestly scaled galleries off to either side, Aurélien Froment, Emily Roysdon, Corin Sworn, and Thilo Funder create open-ended scenarios where familiar objects and concepts breath new life. Sworn’s video installation, The Rag Papers, presents a non-linear detective scanrio in which a woman searches for something we never come to know. Just outside of this installation the fascination for obsure details continues with a completely distinct approach. Froment’s photographic suite, Tombeau de Ferdinand Cheval, runs down one side of the long corridor-like space and depict sthe highly eccentric and inexplicable carvings of Ferdinand Cheval, a rural postman who in 1879 began a 33-year process of collecting stones on his route to transform into a fantastic structure with characters as variable as Socrates and a stone puppy. Across the way, Emily Roysdon’s colourful and captivating installation, Our Short Century, departs on the artists own fascination with a sundial necklace, found in a museum shop in Prague, and expands ever outward in an attempt to decompose time, tracing its passage and derailing its steady progress with sexually charged imagery.
Engberg has also staged the vast former film-sets of the Carriageworks as a monumental black box. While a darkened space containing number of smaller theatre-like spaces is an obvious setting for film and video work, there are a number of sculptural interventions, which take strength in the liminality of darkness. Hadley+Maxwell have made casts of Sydney’s public sculptures – with special attention the omnipresence of the monarchy – which are ultimately combined into monumental monstrosities with many legs, heads, and sceptres titled Manners, Habits, and Other Received Ideas. Their medium, black Cinefoil, which is normally used to customize theatre lights, has a matt, chalky, charcoal texture that gives these large sculptures made in relatively light material an uncanny weight. Equally uncanny is the log-cottage, which stands as the centrepiece of this venue. Gabriel Lester’s work Where Spirits Dwell is frozen in time, curtains blowing out of the window frames. It is also one of the only light-sources in the venue, drawing visitors like flies to a porch light on a dark night. Sitting comfortably alongside these dark sculptures are surreal videos such as Henry Coombes’ I am the Architect, This is not Happening, This is Unacceptable (2012). Carriageworks also contains a small cinema, featuring an excellent selection but daunting amount of material by artists like, Bodil Furu, Siri Hermansen, and Ane Hjort Guttu. Unfortunately, it is an overwhelming amount of material, meaning you have to spend days at the venue to see it all.
At Artspace, the surrealist cues can be identified once more but here the show is relatively light, collaged, and whimsical: an appropriate setting for sculptural and video works by Ugo Rondinone which bring flora and fauna into the space or Henna-Riikka Halonen’s films which offer sci-fi narratives. Gathering together less tightly linked works, the Art Gallery of New South Wales does not create the exciting energy that found in other parts of this expansive project. It does, however, include a couple of the stand-alone works, for example Rosa Barba’s stunning film installation, Time as Perspective and Meriç Algün Ringborg’s ingenious The Library of Unborrowed Books, Section III: SMSA Library‚ Sydney. Something is missing here. A nerve, an edge.
The idea of artists as imagining and desiring beyond the bounds of reality and practical politics was contested by the artists themselves with their demand for a break with the biennale’s association with Transfield. It turns out that sometimes artists’ desires are concrete, and what they imagine right here and right now is a better life for asylum seekers and refugees who are presently detained processed in Australia’s off-shore facilities. In hindsight, we wonder what the result would have been if the artists would have demanded something slightly differently: Instead of requesting Transfield to end their sponsorship, could they have asked the company to stop building and managing detention centres? Private sponsorship was not the issue but they way in which Transfield was making their money. During the preview week, Biennale management was focused on damage-control rather than taking their cue for the spirit of the biennale and the imperative of the artists to think about potential futures for the Biennial of Sydney. Instead of wishing for Tranfield to return as a sponsor, it is time carefully consider the biennial format. A smaller and more dense event could have an equally large or even larger impact.