Visual Art

Overwhelming and sometimes strange, sprawling but also magical, the Sydney Biennale engages on many levels. By Patrick Hartigan.

Imagining desire at Sydney’s 19th Biennale

Mikala Dwyer’s collection of plastic and air sculptures, The Hollows (2014), hang at Cockatoo Island.
Late on the night of the Sydney Biennale media preview I was walking home, processing various impressions from my long day of art viewing, when I came upon a heavily built tattooed man lying across the footpath. Something about the resigned expression in those very shut waxy eyelids gave me the feeling that he might be dead. After asking if he was okay, then giving him a little prod and shake, the man was suddenly awake. His eyes were now incredibly open, saying to me: “Sorry. Don’t worry about me, mate. I’m only in town for the day … I’m here with the circus.”

It was a fitting end to a strange day. Aboard buses and ferries full of art critics and media personnel, I had been taken around the sprawling 19th Biennale of Sydney. On Cockatoo Island, our first port of call, I responded to an instinct to walk away from the turbine halls, towards the dockyards, where I found a meditative work by Ulla von Brandenburg – Street, Play, Way (2014) – that recalled the grandeur of epic poetry. The work involved a physical experience, in the form of walking through worn sails along an undulating ramp, towards a video of curious ritualistic interactions. The idea of having to make a journey towards a video, thereby delaying visual gratification, hinted at a noteworthy dynamic for video art and a running theme for this biennale.

In the shed directly next door hung a collection of air sculptures, The Hollows (2014), by Mikala Dwyer. Even this early in my day it was something of a relief and joy to be detained by things so physical, evidently wrestled into their existence, and yet empty, at the same time undoing and directly facing the grand history of human-made things. The struggle and paradox arrested by these objects only gained power with the hours of evaporating physicality that were to follow.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, I was tackled by colour before finding and enjoying the company of quieter things that collectively picked away at the fabric and ready-made qualities of the moving image. This is ultimately what is most engaging about Juliana Engberg’s biennale: having arrived at, or being born into, a world so very digital it seems only natural that artists would feel the need to engage with the still-living tissue of possibilities that led us here and consider something of the “staging” of video. However, while I find this emphasis – innovative Gesamtkunstwerk (total artworks) with a backward glance – to be a worthy one, it was a struggle to experience the “immersive” and “expansive” dimensions amid such a density of works, many of which felt like film trailers. 

Corin Sworn’s video The Rag Papers (2013) titillated with its fragments, holding my attention, in line with what Robert Bresson described in his Notes on Cinematography as the dynamic of “impatience” needed in films between our eyes and ears. That is, rather than simply being faced with visuals paralleled by a soundtrack, my senses were clued along and kept alert by a series of unstraightforward, inconclusive twists and turns.

The power of restraint was likewise to be witnessed in David Claerbout’s The Quiet Shore (2011). In a room with a semi-reflective floor, a silent black-and-white slideshow drew me into its multiple views of a shoreline. Sitting in the shallows of the reflection I wasn’t watching photography so much as succumbing to its tide. Technically this might be the simplest work in the biennale, but its whispering presence at the confluence of photography and film, between stillness and movement, has left it lingering in my mind with the potency of a childhood memory.

Along with John Stezaker’s collages and Douglas Gordon’s Phantom (2011), I suddenly found myself  at a clearing within the jungle, involved in the sort of intimate conversation one hopes for but doesn’t always get at such unwieldy spectacles. The latter work, with its strangely compelling brew of visual and aural elements – video-collaged eyes brimming with tears, opening and closing to the phantom, melancholy refrains of Rufus Wainwright – lateralised, as von Brandenburg’s work had, my experience of videos and images via the infrastructure of the stage. 

On the bus heading towards our next destination, a conversation about the “abstraction” or “obstruction” (I couldn’t work out which) of narrative rose above the art hullabaloo. Who cares, I told myself, wearily trying to switch off. Arriving at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I was reminded once more of how these events could do better to hold back a little in order to make our senses hungrier. Beside the soothing whir of a 35mm projector, I was transported above a desert of oil pumps in Rosa Barba’s Time as Perspective (2012). By this stage, tired and a bit overwhelmed, I enjoyed being airborne and dreamily conveyed back into the jungle clearing where Engberg’s biennale makes us more aware of the often overlooked co-operation between time and images.

Exiting the gallery, I found the tribe of journalists and art critics huddled on a grassy knoll. I briefly wondered why they would be waiting for the bus there before realising that we, me now among them, were waiting for a performance titled Choreography for the Running Male by Eglė Budvytytė. The idle chatter ceased as a small convoy of men in grey tracksuits jogged past with theatrical uniformity. Within seconds they were gone into a distance from which, we were informed by someone in the know, they would not be returning. In moments like these, witnessing the spectacle of art has a surrealism that art objects should aspire to. Merely being there, with other people and nothing to watch, was to be given a timely booster of empathy.

At Carriageworks in Redfern I found myself in another room of compelling sculptures. Like an ibis I furtively stalked the spooky Manners, Habits, and Other Received Ideas (2014) of Hadley+Maxwell, before losing my bearings in a series of dark video booths – an economy of space at once like art fairs and sex shops. Too much narrative, not enough obstruction, I concluded. By the time I’d made my way through this shed of sound-conflicting video works, “narrative”, or at least “duration”, was feeling like something of an enemy.  

At Artspace in Woolloomooloo the following morning, Sol Archer’s variations on the “nature video” amid Ugo Rondinone’s bronze birds gave me a few minutes of pleasure. But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, returning to Carriageworks to watch a separate but highly recommended long program of films and videos, that something of a climax was reached. Renzo Martens’s Episode III (2008), set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, cuts through the entertainment factor of this biennale like a machete through undergrowth. As a work of video art it brings audacity to a form that seems increasingly apathetic to its unique powers. It unravels the relationship between the West’s craving for predictable depictions of the developing world and the realities of living there. The work becomes an investigation of the sinister power structures of imagery. 

The 19th Biennale of Sydney, You Imagine What You Desire, is everything it can and declares itself to be. This much art all at once can feel like a circus, but at its best the magic show might include the experience of multiple deaths and rebirths, something like that of the man on the footpath. To experience it is to be entertained, enchanted, confused, saddened and, hopefully, if you’re as lucky as I was, moved by a few things.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "Imagining desire".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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