“The European Enlightenment is over,” says Sydney Biennale director David Elliott
Indigenous peoples and marginalised art from beyond the West is emphasised in a coherent and thoughtful show
By Cristina Ruiz. News, Issue 214, June 2010
Published online: 20 May 2010
Sydney. Indigenous peoples, economic migrants, the vanquished, dispossessed and marginalised take centre stage at the latest edition of the Sydney Biennale (until 1 August). “The aim of this biennale…is to bring work from diverse cultures together…on the equal playing field of contemporary art, where no culture can assume superiority over any other,” said artistic director David Elliott at the inauguration of the show.
Elliott has chosen more than 440 works by 166 artists predominantly from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Scandinavia and Britain, many of them newcomers to the international exhibition circuit. Seven African artists have been included thanks to funding from Puma Creative, which runs the cultural programme of the international sportswear brand. “The European Enlightenment is over,” said Elliott. “Now we are entering another political era where power is more equally distributed. This is my end of Enlightenment show.”
Elliott’s biennale, “The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age”, has a number of discernible themes and includes works that relate well to one another—a welcome departure from many biennials that are sprawling and confused and make sense only in the mind of the artistic director. Stories of peoples on the edges of history whose culture, language and customs have been almost obliterated by colonialism and the advance of the white man run throughout the show.
In the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), one of seven biennale venues, a four-screen video installation by Canadian artist Dana Claxton relates the history of her own Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux tribe, who followed their chief Sitting Bull to Canada in search of new land in 1877 after victory against General Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Claxton interviews descendants of the original inhabitants of the encampment they set up when they got there. They recall a time when they could live off the land in communion with nature. “I miss the old days when we could hunt elk and buffalo,” says one. Annie Pootoogook, an Inuit artist from Cape Dorset, Canada, charts the struggles of daily life in her community with cartoon-like watercolours that describe domestic violence and alcoholism, but also capture intimate family moments.
The Last Silent Movie by Susan Hiller, one of only a handful of artists from the US, is a recording of 24 nearly extinct dialects from around the world, including Silbo Gomero, a whistling language once used by shepherds in the Canary Islands to communicate across vast distances. The dialect, today remembered by very few, is also the subject of the video piece La Gomera by British artist Joy Gregory, which has been installed on Cockatoo Island, another major venue.
The problem, of course, is that just because a story is worth telling, it may not necessarily make good art. Some of the biennale works by Australian artists dealing with history are disappointing in their simplicity and execution. The most beautiful Australian work here is the art produced by indigenous artists: a striking installation at the MCA of intricately decorated burial poles by Yolngu artists from North East Arnhem Land. It says much about prevailing hierarchies in the art world that Elliott felt it necessary to justify the inclusion of the burial poles at the biennale press conference. “You can’t help showing indigenous art in Australia,” he said, adding: “It’s good. It measures up.” The poles, once an integral part of Aboriginal funerary rites, are now produced as sculptures; the examples on display at the biennale are on loan from the broadcasting billionaire Kerry Stokes in Perth.
The failure of capitalism is another biennale theme. British artist Isaac Julien takes the deaths of more than 20 Chinese illegal migrants who drowned in England in 2004 while picking cockles in Morecambe Bay as the starting point for Ten Thousand Waves, a nine-screen video installation. Weaving realism with poetic interpretations of the workers’ imaginative lives, Julien examines the motivations that drive people to cross the world in search of a better life.
French-Algerian artist Kader Attia has made Kasbah, an installation of shanty town roofs collected by the artist. The field of corrugated iron, satellite dishes and other scrap material that visitors are encouraged to walk across reflects the condition of how the majority of the world’s population lives. The work is conceptually interesting and crowd pleasing, and is one of the biennale’s runaway successes.
Another is the inflatable red lotus blossom by the Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa which floats in a pond in the city's Royal Botanic Gardens. The artist uses a hydraulic system to create the illusion that the giant flower is breathing, inflating and deflating with each breath, emphasising the fragility of the natural world which surrounds us. The theme continues in the gardens with Australian artist Janet Laurence's sickbed for fragile plants, a white mesh tent inside which visitors can glimpse a laboratory fully equipped to resuscitate sick flora. At the MCA Chinese artist Shen Shaomin takes the theme of man's despoliation of nature one step further. He is displaying a group of Bonsai trees, each one manipulated into contorted positions by metal instruments of torture.
Remarkably coherent and thoughtful, Elliott’s biennale mostly avoids the pitfalls of political correctness by including art that is thought-provoking, engaging and, in some instances, even beautiful.
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