The 18th Biennale of Sydney, curated by Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, runs under the umbrella concept of ‘all our relations’ (lowercase intended). From June through September this year five Sydney city spaces – The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay, Cockatoo Island and, for the first time, Redfern’s Carriageworks – are hosting the works of more than 100 artists from over 40 countries. With such a glut of astonishing Art (and to pay the artists the respect of more than a cursory line or two for all their blood, sweat and tears), my review will be divided into three parts – the MCA (see here), the AGNSW and The Rest.

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The Art Gallery of New South Wales for years seemed to lag behind in its embracing of avant-garde Art. The arrival of Circular Quay’s piquant MCA in 1991 made much of the AGNSW’s agenda often appear fusty and conservative. The opening of its new contemporary galleries in 2011 – boasting the astonishing works gifted by the Kaldor family – positions the gallery well to host the works of this year’s 18th Biennale of Sydney.

In keeping with the curators’ umbrella idea of collaboration, conversation and compassion, the AGNSW’s house theme for 18BOS is ‘in finite blue planet’ –  the artists featured looking at our world and it’s finite resources from multiple viewpoints.

In contrast to the radical arts’ ecological invective of the 60s and 70s – which predictably and unproductively tended to divide the issue into good guys and bad guys – this year’s Biennale works focus on our planet in macro- and microcosm. The results have, in their quiet way, more enduring and persuasive power than a phalanx of 60s eco-performance artists in full shriek.

The exhibition begins on Lower Level 1 with a tiny work, George Macchi’s 2003 collage ‘Blue Planet’. A clumsily cut-out and pasted-on picture of the Earth without any landmasses, only oceans, it is devastating in its simple inferences. Macchi’s other work here, ‘Globe’ is a childish watercolour of the globe of the Earth as a blue balloon – again: simple but affecting.

By contrast to Macchi’s man-made naïvety, overhead looms Indigenous artist Judy Watson’s ‘Freshwater Lens’ – a bronze inverted hump emitting sounds of the sea. It is oddly poetic – conjuring whales, rolling waves and the deeps.

The macro theme – our big planet seen from the outside – continues with Subhankar Banerjee’s startling aerial shots of migrating caribou across snow or snow geese with chicks on an icy river – dots of life making trails across the huge uncaring belly of the Earth. These are mirrored by Dorothy Napangardi’s black/white dot/line paintings: Indigenous art once again beautifully invoking the intersection of land and spirit.

Hovering closer to our world, the grid of a city comes into view. It is not one city but ten cities, stitched into a 20 square metre grid and all made of baby powder. Nipan Oranniswesna’s mind-blowing work ‘City of Ghost’ is so delicate that I was warned twice to not lean so close to it – my very breath would disturb the grains of baby powder held together only by gravity and humidity – a child’s sneeze could wipe out lower Manhattan. The size of a room and haloed with bare lamps, ‘City of Ghost’ staggers belief in every way – and puts a wry perspective on the illusion of permanence of our cities and, in fact , our species’ time on earth.

 

And it also brought home to me what I am enjoying greatly about so much of the Art that is here right now. Its message is plain and simple – as any important message should be – the Earth needs saving. As an observer of Art for many years it is a stone pleasure to enjoy something original, beautiful, powerful and right-on without having to strain it through a grid of Foucaultian discourse analysis (whatever that is).

Down, down we fly, now into the city. Arab artist Hassan Sharif piles rubbish and junk-ephemera into categorised piles with prosaic names such as “Jute, Cloth and Rope” and “Aluminium and Paper” to show the insidious influence of plastic consumerism on his life in the United Arab Emirates.

Gao Rong recreates an impoverished Chinese dwelling in “112, Unit 6, Building 5, Hua Jiaai Bei Li”. I walked through this room-sized room installation twice before I realised that every part of it – the rusty flue pipe and brazier, the aluminium and iron kitchen utensils, the clock face and family photos on the wall – was embroidered onto cloth. Every fleck of rust, every paint flake on the worn sideboard, even the green paint of the sideboard itself, all made from, and embroidered onto, cloth. Obsessively perfect in every detail it pushes the reality of the room’s inhabitants simultaneously backwards and forwards in one’s mind, forcing one to examine every tawdry and worn detail of their home.

And then finally into the smallest space on earth – the space taken up by a single human. Binh Danh’s chlorophyll printed jungle leaves showing wartime scenes from his home of Vietnam quietly disturb. Ricardo Lanzarini’s obsessive art scrawls across the pages of his “universe” made up of hundreds of tiny cigarette-paper booklets.

Australian John Wolseley’s crumpled ash and graphite-smeared paper works “Flight of Ventifact: Mallee” – pinned to walls, tossed into corners – lead us down to Lower Level 3 (through the excellent Yiribana Gallery of Indigenous Art, worth checking out as well: the Badger Bates pieces are knock-out). Wolseley’s huge paper work “Ventifacts from Mallee Scrub After Fire” swings the focus of this part of The AGNSW’s Biennale exhibition onto Australia, as does Postcommodity’s “Do You Remember When?”

At first, it is the audacity (not a bad post-modern tool) of “Do You Remember When?” that grabs me. The artists of Postcommodity have sawn a sizeable square hole straight through the floor of the gallery – the extracted slab, upended, sits sombrely on a plinth a few feet away. Peering into the hole, we see the red earth beneath the Gallery exposed, and hear deep and timeless Aboriginal music rising, as if from the Earth itself. A single microphone dangles into the pit, as if listening. I was alone in the room and I felt the full force of “Do You Remember When?” and I remembered something many a millennia ago.

Which sums up the AGNSW’s take on the Biennale for me: though not as spectacular and hard-hitting as the MCA’s ‘Possible Composition’, it’s ‘in finite blue planet’ got into me deeper and will sit with me longer, I am sure. Beautiful and powerful, it poses the ecological question that still needs an answer from many new and mind-stirring angles.

Published July 2012 on liveguide.com.au

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