Sydney Biennale survives crucible of controversy

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The artistic director of the city-wide exhibition explains why the art takes the lead after sponsorship row

By Gareth Harris. Web only
Published online: 26 March 2014

Yael Bartana, Inferno (production still), 2013. Photo: Fabio Braga, courtesy the artist; Petzel Gallery, New York; Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam; and Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv

The artistic director of the Sydney Biennale (“You Imagine What You Desire”, until 9 June), says that the recent controversy over sponsorship of the 19th edition of the city-wide exhibition has made the art on show “central to the debate—and that’s exactly as it should be”.

“At the Berlin Biennial [in 2012], art was in deference to the politics. There was not really anything left for people to grapple with,” says Juliana Engberg, the artistic director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, who has organised the biennial exhibition.

She has selected works by 92 artists, including Douglas Gordon, Mircea Cantor, Ulla von Brandenburg, Emily Wardill and Nathan Coley, which are displayed across five venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and the Carriageworks centre. “Art is front and centre here, art is the leader. This will be a historical biennale because there is a shift of temperament that has come into the picture.”

That shift was prompted by a row involving a key corporate sponsor of the biennial, Transfield Services, which provides services for the Australian government’s controversial immigration detention centres. An artists’ boycott of the biennial was called off after the chairman of its board, who is a director of Transfield, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis.

Two artists, Gabrielle de Vietri and Charlie Sofo, did end up pulling out of the exhibition. “If people felt that they really had to withdraw, I wanted to make that a decision that they could cope with. I never wanted an ‘us and them’ situation,” Engberg says.

The controversy escalated when the arts minister, George Brandis, waded into the dispute, and threatened to pull funding for the biennial after it severed ties with Transfield Services. The move seriously undermines the arm’s-length principle of government funding for the arts, says Engberg, who also strikes a note of caution. “Art is always going to find itself in this financial conundrum because of high production values and the sheer dimensions of events such as this,” she says.

In the wake of the row, people are keener than ever to experience extra-sensory and extraordinary works, says Engberg. “I’ve made a more robust and more visually stimulating biennale. I hope I’ve made a hyper-visual and hyper-sensory biennale. Art does not have to be an empty spectacle. And part of its tactic is to entertain and to activate,” she says.

Her ambitious and spectacular selection of works for Cockatoo Island, a former prison and shipbuilding yard in Sydney Harbour, exemplifies this approach. Several pieces on display at this impressive and evocative site are overwhelming, such as Eva Koch’s gargantuan video installation, I Am The River, 2012, which depicts a cascading waterfall. The piece, surrounded by obsolete industrial machinery, dominates the island’s vast Turbine Hall.

“The scale [of the island] is huge; you need to work to and with that scale in some instances or it will dwarf everything,” Engberg says. In contrast, Callum Morton’s ghost-train inspired installation,The Other Side, 2014, whereby visitors are transported through the island’s Dog-Leg Tunnel, is underwhelming.

Other highlights on Cockatoo Island include a sinister scaled-down Danish village developed by the artist duo Randi and Katrine, and a rousing portrayal of destruction, hellfire and bloodshed in the video Inferno, 2013, by the Israeli artist Yael Bartana. The co-funders of the latter include the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Sydney Biennale, the Israeli Centre for Digital Art in Holon and New York’s Petzel Gallery.

Engberg’s art-for-art’s-sake ethos is proving popular, with large numbers visiting the Biennale exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia during the opening weekend. Works by Roni Horn, Pipilotti Rist, TV Moore and Douglas Gordon proved popular, and divided opinion, while the Belgian artist David Claerbout’s The Quiet Shore, 2011, a 36-minute black-and-white film capturing the personalities and places in a coastal resort in Brittany, was a biennale talking point.

“I think a conceptual project can co-exist with something that is also very vivid and material, and more narrative-based than abstract. Conceptual does not have to be vague,” says Engberg. The biennial’s open thesis, “allowed Engberg to work freely, not imposing a strict theme or concept on to the exhibition. As a result, it is an engaging show that speaks in a direct way to a large-scale audience,” says Bjorn Geldhof, the deputy artistic director of the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, who was in Australia for the opening.

At Carriageworks, there are some striking and unsettling video works, including Henry Coombes’s I am the Architect, This is not Happening, This is Unacceptable, 2012, and A Village by the Sea, 2011, by the Austrian artist Mathias Poledna. In a coup for the biennale, the UK artist Tacita Dean will present her first live performance work at the space, Event for a Stage, 2014 (1-4 May)

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