Saturday, July 12, 2008

Biennale of Sydney - Part I

The Sydney Biennale is full steam ahead at the moment and I travelled the 570 kms to see it. I’ve seen some past Biennales and found them largely inaccessible with only the odd beacon of light to show my brain, eyes and heart the way. I’m not sure if this years Biennale just seems better to me or if it actually is. I’ve got a few more years stored below deck and my studies are drawing maps in my thinking, but my companions on board were equally thrilled with our discoveries as we navigated the waters of several art galleries.

OK, even I think that’s enough with the maritime metaphors! What’s so watery about the Biennale anyway? Well, for the first time the best of the best of the Biennale are exhibited on Cockatoo Island, the largest island in Sydney Harbour which has been an imperial prison, industrial school, reformatory, gaol and shipyards and now a heritage site. The fact that the art works have been set up in several locations on the island adds to the idea that visiting is like an exploration expedition across the water and into the unknown.

If no man is an island, Australia certainly is. We are a long way from just about everywhere. In the past the artistic distance has been almost untraversable; three months on a ship meant only a small percentage of Australians viewed key works ‘in the flesh’. Air travel has meant many of us have now seen the real Mona Lisa but it is still 24 hours on a plane and many thousands of dollars to do so. Consequently most of my art education, and many other Aussie’s, has been primarily from books. So imagine how I felt seeing Duchamp’s first Ready-made Bicycle Wheel. It looks like he made it yesterday! Beautiful. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales I also saw works by other names I’d only read about before: Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Jean Tinguely and learned to love many new-to-me artists, especially Gianni Colombo and his Elastic Space. I was swimming in a sea of conceptual art ideas. I literally drowned (ok, not literally, but it seemed so) in the video work of an artist whose name I’m sorry to say I can’t recall. [Out of time. Going to Cockatoo Island tomorrow.]

[Overnight rain, cocktail party. Slow morning start.] The ferry to Cockatoo Island leaves from in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art at The Rocks which turns out to also be the venue for the Aroma Festival: Chocolate, Coffee and Spice on that day. The whole area was packed when we arrive so we retreated into the MCA first. The island could wait an hour or two.

The very first work you see as you enter is Leon Ferrari’s Western Christian Civilisation which I suspect the organisers where hoping would be controversial and drive the entrance numbers up. I was looking forward to seeing it. The thing I love most about art is its ability to communicate ideas and concepts that are either difficult to describe in words, or impossible. Ferrari’s Christ crucified on a scaled replica of a US FG 107 fighter plane had done just that to me when I viewed photos in books. Disappointingly not so when I saw it as it was hung so badly that all meaning and interest is immediately diffused.

Maurizio Cattelan’s Novecento did the reverse, with its materials list “leather, rope, horse” it is strangely affecting. It is in the same room with some hanging wooden sculptures, which I actually saw some people carelessly bump their heads into as they made their way to a wall exhibit. No one could approach the horse in this manner. I saw people determined to walk under it as it dangled at a great height. Unable to do so, they tried again with their eyes tightly closed, still unable to desecrate the life force around this powerful taxidermied body. Another great pleasure was spending time (not enough time, never enough time) with two Alexander Calder mobiles, one black, one white. I could have watched the elegantly unfolding motion of the white mobile for many, many hours but Cockatoo Island called.

Outside the Aroma festival had flourished into an odorous crush. The queue for the ferry was long and the time remaining until it closed was short. [Plenty of time for Cockatoo Island tomorrow.]

To Be Continued.


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Mallory Allsopp said...

Great post! Very... watery. hehe.

And I think the artist whose movie you loved was Tracey Moffat, unless there was someone else as well. At least, I loved her movie completely.

Love Mallory

Claire F said...

My daughter (4.5 yr old) loved the horse the most. I was underwhelmed by all of it - again, so much so that I don't think I'll bother next time (I think I said that 2 years ago!)