Centrifugal Force: The Biennale of Sydney

As an Asian in Australia I have always been aware of the fissures and cracks in the colonial project of White Australia. When one thread starts to come loose, the entire fabric of colonial Australia is untangled. My relationship to the nation-state is intertwined in the triangulation of racial affairs, simultaneously complicit in and victim to its insidious machinations and constructions. Suspended in this tension, it has always been clear to me that ideas of citizenship and racialised identity have always been a global issue. Many Australian critics have decried identity as myopic and it took a pandemic to remind us that identity and art are interlinked.

This year’s Biennale of Sydney (BoS), led by the first First Nations Director Brook Andrew, is a significant reminder that marginalised groups remain the most vulnerable in any crisis. A pandemic is not a leveller but rather exacerbates structural inequalities. Whilst a virus may not see structural oppression, a nation-state and its policies and responses certainly does. Andrew’s theme ‘Nirin’, meaning ‘edge’ in Wiradjuri, implores us to see the disparities between centre and periphery, thereby redefining the contemporary and the contemporary moment.

The ‘Contemporary’ as theorised by Terry Smith has come to be known as a condition and ideology beyond a mere synonym for ‘living’. English philosopher Peter Osborne defines the ‘Contemporary’ as the embodiment of a certain ‘mindset’, manifested in the visual arts through the ‘Biennialisation’ of art. With the genesis of biennales worldwide, this trend seeks to appeal to international audiences through the inclusion of celebrity names and large self-aggrandising installations. Ai Weiwei’s giant sixty metre long inflatable rubber life raft that occupied the entirety of the Turbine Hall at Cockatoo Island in the last BoS is an example of this phenomenon.   

Such homogenous displays have contributed to a widespread Biennale fatigue. In the search for the new cutting edge, curators have looked to marginalised communities and geographical locations for novelty and spectacle. However, these situations where artists are given little agency or control merely see that the patterns of global power are replicated in the same colonial routes of trade and commerce. BoS has often been criticised as yet another institution victim to neoliberal capital and politics. Their motives of enhancing financial gain, tourism, and prestige have been questioned as they have followed the model of Venice Biennale, their European predecessor, by inviting internationally renowned curators. In 2018, it was Chief Curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum Mami Kataoka whilst in 2016, it was Chief Curator of London’s Hayward Gallery Stephanie Rosenthal. In their themes, Kataoka looked to quantum physics, evoking the notion of ‘Superposition’ whilst Rosenthal speculated on technologies of the present and future curating various ‘embassies of thought’. The remit of both international curators were expansive, often creating confused displays of an amorphous and undefined ‘future’. In contrast Andrews’ approach is much more cohesive and thoughtful, exposing the reality that the future must be decolonial or it will be empty. Decolonisation presents different and necessary modes of governances.

It is then worth discussing the role of Andrew as director and curator. Art historians Anthony Gardner and Charles Green have observed in their research on BoS that the board saw the curator as ‘the mediator, meeter-and-greeter between the international and national art worlds.’ However, this role has often lead to the loss of meaningful local involvement as the board considered that ‘the key to the success of a gatekeeper event was to be the invited, auteur curator who owed little or nothing to the local host art museum … and in fact was probably a complete outsider to local art museums.’

In contrast Andrew brings a plethora of knowledge in various fields, thereby being the perfect mediator between local and global spheres. Andrew is a Wiradjuri (Central West of New South Wales) man and as an insider has been able to bring specialist knowledge to the Biennale, seen in his approach to NIRIN WIR the public programme curated in conjunction with the exhibitions themselves. Now online, the learning resources and talks are all made accessible. From lectures on anthropogenic soils and debates on the 250th anniversary of Cook’s Landing, to tailored playlists made by featured artists, Andrew focuses on pedagogies, thereby making room for more potentially meaningful alliances. Andrew has also included venues like Parramatta Female Factory, Campbelltown Arts Centre, and the Blacktown Native Institution Site this year. By looking to the ‘edges’ – to the suburbs of Western Sydney – Andrew presents intimate knowledge of the politics and the artistic centres of Sydney itself. Andrew himself spent his childhood in Western Sydney’s Blackett and Werrington, and was a graduate from the University of Western Sydney in the early 1990s. He has been involved with Western Sydney institutions for decades: for example in 2013 he lead ‘The Native Institute’ at Blacktown Arts Centre, which engaged with the Blacktown Native Institution Site. Such a stark difference from previous iterations provokes the essential question: who is a biennale for?

It was not until the third iteration of BoS in 1979, titled ‘European Dialogue’, that Indigenous art was included through paintings from artists from North-East Arnhem Land. British born curator and director Nick Waterlow had attempted to challenge the dominance of New York art that over-shadowed contemporary art from Europe and Australia. Waterlow’s focus was primarily on bringing art from Europe to Australia and as such the Indigenous artists included were not necessarily central. Nearly every subsequent artistic director has included an Indigenous artist, but often they have been one or two tokenistic inclusions. Forty-one years on, they are the majority of the BoS artists. Forty-one years on with ‘NIRIN’, it seems that the entire hierarchy of the artistic canon is being questioned. Andrew as an archivist and historian in his own artistic practice, nods to the complex history of Indigenous art and its reception and distribution in the international circuit. In a vitrine at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Andrew has displayed archival material covering the 1989 exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ – a landmark show at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, which was one of the first exhibitions to display Indigenous art internationally, involving works by John Mawurndjul, Jack Wunuwun, Jimmy Wululu, and artists from Yuendumu. These primary sources of newspaper clippings are placed adjacent to the installation by fourteen artists from Iltja Ntjarra / Many Hands Art Centre who have painted Australian landscapes onto ‘dollar shop’ bags. The checked laundry bags are presented at every site (except for Artspace), and they are often found unassumingly tucked behind walls, nooks and crannies. At Cockatoo Island they are huddled together in a corner of the Turbine Hall, a poignant metaphor of the displacement faced by First Nations communities in Australia. At AGNSW they stand as markers of the progress thirty-one years on from ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ but also of the continuous challenges faced by First Nations artists.

Indeed, the challenges posed by the BoS linger. Australian historian Patrick Wolfe had written in 1999 that settler colonialism is a structure and not an event. The event of the BoS will not be enough to terminate the ongoing effects of colonisation, re-colonisation and internal colonisation. The ontological, epistemic violence is not temporally enclosed in the past, but is reasserted each and every day. Nonetheless the BoS poses as disruption and rupture. It is the belated beginning of sustainable and on-going change. On one outdoor knoll of Cockatoo Island, Gina Athena Ulysses has created a sound installation in the open-roof sandstone military guardhouse. Through a recording she sings that ‘revolution is not a single event but is a process that can and must renew us.’ The BoS is the beginning of such a revolutionary process.  

NIRIN: 22nd Biennale of Sydney
Until September 2020
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Blacktown Native Institution Site, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Parramatta Female Factory

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