The Strange Sameness of the Biennale


Wrong Way Time, Fiona Hall, Australian Pavilion Giardini Venice Art Biennale, 2015

by Robyn Ferrell

‘The Future is Here – it is just not evenly distributed’ was the catch phrase for the Sydney Biennale, which closed this month. But the experience on offer forecasted an uneven future for a widely distributed art product.

There was the uncanny repetition of themes about the future from this and the Venice Biennale six months ago – Venice’s theme promised ‘All The World’s Futures’. The critical reception for both Sydney and Venice was mixed, attesting to the events as underwhelming despite some good art.

Although Venice and Sydney are in opposite hemispheres, promising contrasts of old world and new world, plus the view from Asia and the Pacific offered in counterpoint to the view from around the Atlantic, the leading experience appeared to be fatigue.

The overlap in the themes and styles may point to a broader exhaustion – there are now 98 biennales in 46 different countries. Is the international art world being suffocated by an algal bloom of sameness?

The idea of an art biennale grew out of the trade fair and is shading into the theme park. Its brief has been to bring to the spectator an ‘experience’ larger than the particular art works, displayed in a cornucopia of curation that extends to the city itself.

Open Phone Booth, Nilbar Güres, Cockatoo Island Sydney Biennale, 2016

As water cities with layered industrial histories, Sydney and Venice had wonderful natural spectacle to work with. The biennale formula has cashed-up cultural tourists moving through exotic urban landscapes that come supplied with an abundance of good food, nice wine and good coffee.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that contemporary art is now a creature of global commerce. ‘All the world’ is united as a marketing opportunity to bring first-worlders to tourist venues.

The biennale creates a style of art whose parameters are highly specific. Judging by the work that made the cut in Venice and Sydney, the ‘rules’ for getting into a biennale include having a motif that is instantly grasped, that is highly visual with high colour/high impact/ high tech, and that photographs well on a smartphone. It needs to accommodate the photobomb at the same time as a theoretical narrative involving (pick one) Baudrillard/ Foucault/ Žižek/ Taussig.

Part of what constrains the biennale as a form is the kind of art needed to fit these parameters – it demands a portable concept, spectacular but generic and inoffensive to first world sensibilities (including sponsors), public, secular, intelligible in several languages and politically correct.

Abstraction of Confusion, Faro Shinoda, Art Gallery of New South Wales Sydney Biennale, 2016

Several works shown were arguably classics of the genre: in the Russian pavilion in Venice, Irina Nakhova’s installation featured an oversized aviator’s mask as a gesture to geopolitics; at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Faro Shinoda’s Abstraction of Confusion created an undifferentiated spiritual space with near-white walls of dried clay.

Camille Norment produced a haunting sound installation in the Nordic Pavilion using the glass armonica, a legendary 18th Century instrument that creates ethereal music from glass and water; a version of Céline Condorelli’s gold foil curtain, Structure for Communicating with Wind, made from lightweight space blankets was devised for Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Chiaru Shiota’s work appeared both in Venice and Sydney and produced rare site-specific works. For the Japanese pavilion, she rendered fishermen’s boats in a sea of red threads that spoke of cultural ties without nationalism. A very different tone was constructed in the dark threading of a nightmare around institutional beds in the convict barracks on Cockatoo Island.

Structure for Communicating with Wind, Céline Condorelli, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney Biennale, 2016

Fiona Hall’s installations for the new Australian pavilion at Venice, Wrong Way Time, could serve as a template for the whole biennale form, while also offering its critique. Over 1000 small sculptural objects in a stream of consciousness wunderkammer, a perverse cabinet of curiosities, allowing for ‘the random conjunction of things’ that could withstand a wealth of interpretations.

All of which leads to the suspicion that the major part of the sameness of the biennales lies with the curation that accompanies these events.

There was really only one work at the Sydney biennale that seemed to fit the idea of an uneven distribution of the future directly, and that was the immersive video of Nilbar Güres Open Phone Booth. The issue was immediately visible from the work – a woman sits atop arid mountains in Turkey trying to get a signal on her mobile phone.

But Turkey was an uncanny resonance: the curator Stephanie Rosenthal noted that the ‘conditions of uneven distribution’ are dictated by geopolitics and global economics. The invocation of the rhetoric of immigration and the refugee revived indirectly the ghost of the 2014 Sydney Biennale. Longstanding patron Belgiorno-Nettis was forced to withdraw when artists objected to his involvement in Transfield, the company that runs the controversial Australian offshore refugee camps.

Conscious Sleep, Chiaru Shiota, Cockatoo Island Sydney Biennale, 2016

Meanwhile, as the Venice Biennale progressed, large numbers of Syrian refugees were flooding out of Turkey and Greece and into the European Union. Trains from Venice to Munich were cancelled as the city was overwhelmed by the response to Merkel’s welcome.

The buzzword of the ‘refugee’ allowed the ‘uneven futures’ rhetoric to segue onto the structure of the exhibition in clusters conceived of as ‘Embassies of thought’. But, reading on, it was not really ‘embassy’ that was meant because it was not a state within a state – ‘they are explicitly not related to colonial or imperial history, diplomatic missions, cultural and linguistic boundaries, or capitalistic power structures. Instead, they provide safe spaces for thinking.’ Which begs a big question: does art think?

The Embassy of the Real, of Disappearance, of Translation, and so on, had emerged it transpired in conversations with artists, and were described in the curation as themes, topics, methodologies, ‘contemporary sets of interests or urgencies’ and even ‘ideas’. Strangely, they were not described as images. The Sydney catalogue fine print advised that its texts were ‘integral to the exhibition concept and an important educational aspect of the exhibition’. This schematising, interrupting the art and speaking for it – even over the top of it– threatened to drown it out.

The key in the hand, Chiaru Shiota, Japanese Pavilion Giardini Venice Art Biennale, 2015

Venice, too, was divided into over-elaborate but obscure ideas; ‘All the world’s futures’ was not meant as ‘one over-arching theme that gathers and encapsulates diverse forms into one unified field of vision’ but as the intersection of three filters, ‘garden of lively disorders’, ‘of epic duration’ and ‘reading capital’.

In a field of metaphors, this last was literally meant –  a reading of Marx’s tome took place at the Giardini daily. The secret of the biennale form (art captured as commodity fetish) was hidden in plain sight.

The Biennale formula gets art the wrong way round, as though it’s all about the viewer. When, in an important sense, art has never been about gratifying the viewer even when artists were indentured to wealthy princes and where churches and palaces dictated their visual terms. Creatively, art went somewhere else even under these constraints.

Now, in the era of the artist-entrepreneur, art can give us something we didn’t know we were looking for – a satisfaction we don’t master and can’t purchase. Art gives something away and for free.

There was plenty of ‘free’ on show in Venice and in Sydney, despite everything – for example, in the Arsenale, there was the astounding bookwork vitrines of Ricardo Brey and the witty sculptures of Qiu Zhijie. On Cockatoo Island, Emma McNally’s enormous drawings; large in scale and at the same time minute in execution, and Bharti Kher’s body casts of working women.

But the thing is, this art could have been shown anywhere. If the biennale applies the same formula for spectacle to the different locations it colonises, is it any wonder that the event is beginning to look the same? The veneer of research doesn’t curate a convincing view of the future. Meanwhile, the formula itself is engineering a future more daunting than bears contemplation – a monotony unrelieved by anything really different.

About the Author:

Robyn Ferrell is a research fellow in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney and has taught at the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University and the University of Tasmania. She has also held visiting research positions at the London School of Economics and the University of Western Sydney, and is the author of Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers, Genres of Philosophy and Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan. Her most recent book is Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context.