Stephanie Rosenthal's sprawling 20th Biennale of Sydney references Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. By Patrick Hartigan.
The 20th Sydney Biennale
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Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” is recounted by Socrates as follows: “Imagine this: people live under the earth in a cave-like dwelling … The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck … because they are shackled they are unable to turn their heads … From the beginning people like this have never managed, whether on their own or with the help of others, to see anything besides the shadows that are continually projected on the wall opposite them by the glow of the fire.”
It’s easy to feel shackled in our screen-filled culture: devices sneak into our lives, as bearers of reason and happiness, before holding us captive to their play of illuminations, shadows and software updates. Of late, I have been using a relatively dumb smartphone – its sluggish capacities and arching shell reminding me of a turtle – donated to me by a friend. Initially I couldn’t work out how to hang up calls and, on two occasions, when confronted with a voicemail at the other end, was reduced to a vexed monologue that eventually gave way to a slightly disturbed giggle. This reaction was in response to the strange thrill of hearing myself negotiate the sense of being trapped inside before escaping: a moment – a dark void – in which modern life and my participation in it flashed something of its essence.
Plato’s cave, along with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a television series exploring our relationships with technology through a refreshingly unoptimistic lens, is brought to our attention in the catalogue of the 20th Biennale of Sydney: The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. The title quotes the science-fiction author William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace”. It refers, in part, to the inequalities around information in the information age. According to the artistic director, Stephanie Rosenthal, her biennale attempts to reflect back to us something of our current “view of reality”. It’s being held in the usual venues, referred to as “embassies of thought”, as well as various “in-between” spaces across the city.
Black Mirror is important for Rosenthal: she draws a parallel between the ubiquitous devices we spend our lives looking into – each a black mirror when powered down – and Kazimir Malevich’s famous painting Black Square (1915). Both painting and device tie into notions of progress and purity – the utopias we construct, as artists, thinkers and innovators, when trying to understand the present and imagine the future.
With Black Square, Malevich intended to get back to zero, to give painting – art’s “rubbish-filled pool” – a good cleanout. Interestingly, some recent explorations revealed a racist joke beneath the topcoat of this painting. It’s a whetting titbit while taking in an exhibition concerning screens, layers, in-between spaces and various inequalities. Looking at Malevich’s painting under microscopes, researchers from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery found what appear to be the words “Battle of negroes in a dark cave” under the final layer of paint. The joke is a reference to what is largely regarded as the first modern monochromatic artwork, Alphonse Allais’s 1897 picture Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit (“Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”).
Malevich hung his painting high on the wall where religious icons usually appear in cathedrals. A century later, we have the Apple Store: in city centres throughout the world these pristine altars have effectively replaced cathedrals, or the like, as our spaces of devotion. According to Rosenthal, The future is already here… hinges on the “increasingly overlapping” digital and physical worlds between which we live. The point at which our virtual and physical selves “fold into” each other seems an excellent point of departure for an event such as this, the catalogue offering some rich material through which to filter it, and yet like most biennales the focus quickly gives way to a tsunami of other concerns and subthemes that leave one, at the end of the day, suffering from serious issue exhaustion. But evident in this hydra of an exhibition is Rosenthal’s skill as a custodian of artworks, namely in the disciplined and sensitive way she has organised and filled her stage, particularly outside of the traditional museum spaces. Such discipline at least allows us to see things, if not understand exactly why they are being brought together and put before us.
A high point in this biennale occurred for me on the “embassy of the real”, which is the title given to Cockatoo Island. The collating and collaging of computer files with museological classification in Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue (2013), amid the historical patina of these industrial sheds, dovetailed engagingly with a field of pendulums in William Forsythe’s Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, no. 2 (2013). Together they made me curiously aware of the separate but also very similar ways we get pushed and coerced through our physical and virtual realities. The colloquy continued outside while taking in Agatha Gothe-Snape’s humbly designed billboards, Physical Doorway (Three Ways) (2016), before climaxing – perhaps inappropriately, having taken a wrong turn – with “a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken”. The cumulative impact spoke directly to the matrix of layers constituting present-day reality.
In a building on the cliff above the sheds are the outcomes and videos relating to Justene Williams’ restaging and reconceptualising of Victory Over the Sun (1913), performed by the Sydney Chamber Opera. The Futurist opera was set-designed by Malevich. Its opening lines, delivered by a pair of strongmen clad in the simple bright shapes and colours of Suprematism, declare, according to one translation: “All’s well that begins well and has no end/ the world will perish but there is no end to us!” The opera sees these Futurists capture the sun before locking it in a concrete box and giving it a funeral. According to El Lissitzky, a fellow Suprematist, the opera celebrated humanity’s technological progress and superiority over nature. Having missed the performances, I nevertheless found the room of ephemera, in the form of costumes and videos fusing sci-fi graphics with non-objective painting and scenes from the performance, to be one of the thoroughly levitating moments in this biennale. My phone was but a dead turtle in the company of these ancestral visions of quirky immoderation.
An engaging sense of continuity is one of the really difficult challenges in events as large as these. Being pulled along the conceptual thread by these and a handful of other works provided the experience that stood out from the inevitably illegible blur of so much work and what felt like a number of exhibitions rather than one. It may in part relate to their location, Cockatoo Island being a fantastically engaging stage for art when met with the force and subtlety necessary for its drama.
In something of an oasis between bigger terminals, in an “in-between” space in Redfern, Brown Council’s Making History (2016) brings together an “evolving archive” of Australian performance art. I found the act of sitting and listening to recollections of past performances oddly relaxing; as a track of remembrance it made me reflect on the way art both peels off from and feeds into everyday life. Performance is one of those physical actions that by necessity, in terms of its survival in a collective art consciousness, instantly folds into an archive that is increasingly unphysical. While listening to the recollections I dreamily watched on a nearby television monitor a performer melding with a square of scaffold, in what turned out to be a re-performance of a past performance – this gesture, flown across the headlands of generational curiosity and connectivity, suddenly finding fresh purchase and meaning.
The last work I saw in the exhibition, at Carriageworks – the “embassy of disappearance” – was A Walk in Fukushima (2016). The interactive video installation is part of a Japanese curatorial project called Don’t Follow the Wind, which deals with the fallout from the nuclear disaster. With the aid of one of a handful of endearingly humble, cardboard-constructed helmets made by members of Fukushima artist Bontaro Dokuyama’s family – all living in a devastating limbo following their forced evacuation from their homes and lives – the work takes us on a 360-degree video tour through the exclusion zone. Inside a room of the artist’s family home I became peculiarly upset, forcing me to promptly abandon the tour, after turning my head and finding a couple of paintings, including a seascape, hanging on the wall. This art spectacle had delivered me into a moment of dread, a place where human endeavour felt both frighteningly little – doomed for disappearance – and patently dodgy.
The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed suggests a present-day inequality while ushering in, as Brooker does, an important question about the too often simplified paradigm of informational wealth. The problem I find here is the lack of clarity offered by the biennale format, their bloated, scattershot realities – so much a symptom of that paradigm – undermining the possibility of any meaningful, sustained questioning. In any case, the future is here, perhaps too much so: sunny and bad, loaded with the past and surely anything but equal.
Brunswick Mechanics Institute, Melbourne, April 27-May 8
Sydney Opera House, April 26-May 16
NATURE Mount Field Fagus Festival
Mount Field National Park, Tasmania, April 23-24
VISUAL ART Michelle Nikou: a e i o u
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until August 29
THEATRE Blonde Poison
Sydney Opera House, April 28-May 12
MULTIMEDIA The Last Temptation: The Art of Ken + Julia Yonetani
NGA Contemporary, Canberra, until April 25
VISUAL ART Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei
NGV International, Melbourne, 24-hour opening, 10pm April 23-10pm April 24, exhibition closes April 25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 23, 2016 as "Black to the future".
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