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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008

Historical turn at Sydney biennale

Special to The Japan Times

The opening of the 16th Biennale of Sydney in June arrived on the heels of a national controversy in Australia, after police had removed works from an exhibition of renowned photographer Bill Henson in late May. Police deemed Henson's photographs of naked adolescent children to be indecent, although criminal charges were eventually dropped.

Breakthroughs: Saburo Murakami in 1956
Breakthroughs: Saburo Murakami in 1956 ASHIYA CITY MUSEUM OF ART AND HISTORY

The incident sparked debate over the limits of artistic expression, with newly-elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a devout Christian, decrying the works as revolting and without artistic merit. In July, a government-sponsored art magazine, Art Monthly Australia, took a stand on the issue by publishing a portrait of a nude 6-year-old girl on its cover. Rudd again spoke critically of what he perceived to be an abuse of innocence, and officials threatened to revoke the magazine's funding.

Given the high-profile feud between the government and the arts, it is perhaps appropriate that this year's biennale, with the theme "Revolutions: Forms That Turn," has been among the most popular ever. The exhibition spans several venues, including Sydney's two flagship art institutions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Also in use for the first time are the derelict facilities of Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor, which once served as a prison and shipyards. Organizers expect 400,000 visitors by the time the event closes Sept. 7.

The Biennale's artistic director, Turin-based Carolyn Christov- Bakargiev, views the "Revolutions" theme as an investigation of art's ability to foment social and political change, as well as a formal device for grouping together works that involve rotation and motion. However, she has curated an unapologetically historically-rooted exhibition, underpinned by seminal European and American avant-garde figures such as Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Kasimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko.

But what is the way forward?

With Asia gearing up for an unprecedented concurrence of biennale and triennale events across the region this September, including the Yokohama Triennale, opening Sept. 13, Christov- Bakargiev's Biennale of Sydney is a tightly-measured antidote to recent trends that privilege the new and the exotic.

Admirably, the curator borrowed many of the historical works on exhibit from Australian collections and brought together a strong contingent of local talent. Her inclusion of Italian kinetic and Arte Povera artists such as Gianni Colombo, represented by "Elastic Space" (1967), a dark room gridded with glowing wires that subtly shift through the motion of a hidden mechanism, is revelatory. However, her consideration of the past — in particular of a strain of conceptual art rooted in the European avant garde — leaves little room for the future. Rather than evoking an ever-expanding sphere of engagement, "Revolutions" suggests a closed circuit: Christov-Bakargiev never escapes the confines of the museum, when a more exploratory approach could have augmented the dynamism of the works that inspired her. (Andrew Maerkle)

By presenting such artists alongside their living peers, Christov-Bakargiev rehabilitates them from moldering textbook status. In the Museum of Contemporary Art, one gallery features two Alexander Calder mobiles that turn lazily next to an imposing contemporary interpretation by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, "Light Ventilator Mobile" (2002), which consists of a fan and a searchlight suspended on either end of a metal pole. Propelled by the fan, Eliasson's mobile casts a beam of light around the gallery, hinting at some kind of ominous presence. Overlooking this scene is Man Ray's tightly-cropped black-and-white photograph of a stylish woman against a white background. Her eyes are closed, but tension in her facial features suggests she has been caught at a moment between repose and action.

The few Japanese artists included in exhibition mainly appear in Christov- Bakargiev's historical review and are grouped together at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Atsuko Tanaka's "Work (Bell)" (1955/2000) is a simple button connected to a row of bells that extends throughout the exhibition space. The piece invites visitors to disrupt the austere "white cube" space with an alarming shock of sound. Despite it being sanctioned by the artist, pushing the button requires one to consider the social consequences of disturbing other visitors or even attracting the attention of security staff, testing the limits of an individual's inhibitions. [A version of the same work can be found at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.]

Further along are photos documenting an "action" by Saburo Murakami, first performed at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition in Ohara Hall, Tokyo in 1956. The photos, shot in sequence, show Murakami running through a row of frames stretched with paper sheets, an almost euphoric expression on his face as he breaks through the last frame. They are hung around the corner from American artist Carolee Schneeman's "Meat Joy" (1964), a filmed performance in which half-naked male and female participants writhe together amid a mix of raw chickens, fish, paint and transparent plastic. Both works speak to a bygone era of liberation through experimentation, and certainly, in the case of Schneeman, a time before AIDS and Salmonella fears.

Offering a counterpoint to Tanaka's "Work (Bell)," Yoko Ono's "Telephone Piece" (1997/2008) presents a rotator telephone and a wall text informing visitors that the artist will call the telephone at random intervals throughout the duration of the biennale.

No pain: Video still of Mike Parr's Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi
No pain: Video still of Mike Parr's 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi' (2003) MIKE PARR

Christov-Bakargiev installs such works with a distinctive, sparse aesthetic, often devoting one wall or entire rooms to each artist. The emphasis is on contemplation, rather than spectacle. However, at Cockatoo Island, which has proven to be the centerpiece attraction of the Biennale, the art struggles to compete with the environment. The bulk of the work there consists of videos by living artists, but the spooky, cavernous warehouses, sheds and colonial buildings create a theme- park atmosphere that few can transcend.

Yet Cockatoo Island is also home to the biennale's crowning triumph, a survey of works by Australian performance artist Mike Parr, grouped together under the title "MIRROR/ARSE" and given their own building, a former sailors' quarters and naval academy. Parr is known for exploring the psychology of human brutality through endurance performances. Presented as videos screened within a warren of rooms in the sailors' quarters, these works from the '70s to the present are masterfully installed to draw out every second of attenuated horror they contain.

At the entrance of the building are two relatively innocuous early actions that show Parr holding his breath for as long as possible and holding his finger in a candle flame for as long as possible. Progressing deeper into the building, with its peeling walls or piles of uniforms on the floor, one finds more extreme examples of self-mutilation: the artist cutting himself with a scalpel, having his lips stitched together or having his entire face threaded. Emitted from the video soundtracks, cries of pain echo through the dark hallways. In some cases, these actions respond to specific political situations, as suggested by titles such as "Close the Concentration Camps" (2002) or "Kruschev Murders Beria" (2004-08).

Regardless of their intent, it is difficult to watch any to completion, with some visitors running frantically through rooms. In the context of post-9/11 discussions of torture, Parr's work as a whole is a compelling, relentless statement against violence that few exhibitions are capable of delivering.

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