Monday, 22 June 2020

Exhibition review: Sydney Biennale 2020

It was raining on the weekend but I went to see the Biennale. The ferry to Cockatoo Island was almost empty and the seagulls were screaming when we hit the shore. They paraded around on the grass verges or on the pavement and a sign told us they were nesting.

The signs inside were held by clipboards hung from walls and other vertical surfaces. Exhibit signs are often a bit tiresome, and the ones in this show were no exception, asking you to gulp down wads of text before looking at works that were, often, not that crash-hot. Mostly I ignored the signs.

Two themes dominated this show: the environment and colonial oppression. It was a bit oppressive, frankly, and a more levity might have added lustre to the exhibition, which threatened to become over-determined. It features artists from around the world. Most of the works are not suitable for private collections as they are too big to fit in a room at home, and only work in a space like Cockatoo Island.

Near the entrance were exhibits by Artree Nepal that were comprised of glass cases filled with gold objects. Behind them, two movies showing protesters with writing on their bare torsos confronting police behind ranks of barbed wire. In the following photo you can see both the gold objects – pills packets, medicine bottles, and lotion bottles among them – and one of the videos.

I liked the gold objects in the glass cases, the latter reminding me of a 19th century gentleman’s curiosity display cases, or else the cases you see in shops. In fact, the cases themselves were redolent with meaning in a way that evaded the gold pharmaceutical containers. Inside the enormous, industrial structure the exhibits occupied, the dainty glass cases felt odd and out-of-place, as though put there by mistake. 

The gold paint covering the objects was a bit rough and ready, as though a better alternative couldn’t be found. Ideally they would have been a bit shinier, to complement the shiny glass of the cases they were sitting in. 

Curious conjunctions were also the method used by Philippine artist Manuel Ocampo, the painter of some large paintings – also near the entrance – hung from the walls. These works combined disparate elements in a skilful manner. One painting had words painted on it: “poeme banal” or “banal poem”. It’s the kind of simple French that any English speaker would be able to understand, signalling at the artist’s target: someone from the comfortable middle class who might’ve done a few years of French at secondary school. The use of French also underscores, as does the content of the second painting below, the importance to the artist’s vision of colonialism. This theme will reappear in other works covered in my review.

The above painting has a loose style which is pleasant, and the colours are quite nice though I feel that the overall impact of the work is not overly strong. In the painting below the drawing is not perfect, though the Postmodern irony is very refined.

Near Ocampo’s paintings was an installation with a video that was, in my mind, the highlight of the exhibition. This is Latai Taumoepeau’s ‘The Last Resort’, the remnants of which were strewn around the place inside the enormous industrial setting of the Cockatoo Island shed, once a repair shop for engines of boats.

The video was made up of two separate points of view that were displayed beside each other (see photo below). In the left-hand section of the video frame you can see a man and a woman shod in strange, high-soled shoes that are used to stomp on shards of glass. They move very slowly as to fall over in this predicament might risk serious injury. The woman has a rake she uses to arrange the broken glass. The man has gloves on his hands and with his right hand he does the same. At one point he is squatting on his haunches to get closer to the object of his interest, as the woman stomps around nearby.

Just opposite this installation are some metal sculptures by Andre Eugene. These are a bit obvious – the phallic mufflers welded on motorbike frames – and I wasn’t sure about the anatomical skulls on top; perhaps some analogue for a head could have more usefully have been found. Or else the skulls were a wry comment on the artist’s own Haitian origins.

The work is titled ‘Lavie & Lanmo’ (‘Life and Death’). He is about my age or a bit older and perhaps, like me, he owned a motorbike when he was young. The message is clear with these sculptures, and echoes that of Taumoepeau’s work: the destruction of the natural world in the industrial age.

From the same part of the world is Jose Davila (though he is younger, born in 1974), whose works are next. These large assemblages of found objects sourced from Cockatoo Island (see photo below for an example) fit snugly with the space’s industrial feel. They are titled ‘The Act of Perseverance’, which echoes the colonial theme of Ocampo’s works.

The object shown above is only one of Davila’s inventions, and is a large, bare block of concrete with a fragment of concrete strapped to it with a trucker’s fastening. The yellow of the fabric is lovely when seen in contradistinction to the dull reddish grey of the fragment of concrete, buried in which you can see particles of the aggregate used to make the substance. Concrete is made by mixing cement with sand or pebbles. This mixing is done when the cement is still liquid, so that the two types of element are fused seamlessly together in a solid mass, and often the mixture is vibrated (though not too strongly) so that is blends well. 

The only thing holding this block of concrete in place is friction and the assemblages are not obviously beautiful, requiring a bit of thought to find something with which the viewer can satisfactorily engage. 

The drawings of Paolo Nazareth, which come next, are not that strong, and the skills used to make them are mediocre (see images below). These drawings remind you of how, during the colonial era, the skeletons of Indigenous peoples were acquired and shipped back home to feature in museum displays.

The images are combined with an assemblage on the floor of the space that includes rocks (see below). Using rocks like this reminds the viewer of the glass cases of the Nepalese installation but, here, the message is diluted by the over-definition of the artifice. A bit more thought might have gone into this work to make it equal to those of Ocampo or Davila.

The environmental theme reappears in the installation of Hobart organisation Adrift Lab (see image below). The space here was dark, the light coming from the objects on display.

Nearby was an installation by Lhola Amira from South Africa. Amira is a queer artist who has adopted the plural form of the pronoun.

One work I failed to get photos of was by S.J. Norman, an Aboriginal artist. This was in a room filled with black chairs, each of which had a brush sitting on it. In front of the chairs, in two flanking rows, were hung video screens showing people having their hair brushed. The message was about the hair of Indigenous people being thicker and less manageable than the hair of white people. But hair is a funny substance as it is always adorned or managed, in a way that depends on the culture in question.

Next was a room full of painted sculptures (see image below) by Anna Boghiguian, an Egyptian artist. Like Taumoepeau’s, Boghiguian’s works featured sacks full of things – again signalling at the colonial experience. But here the artworks are both paintings and sculptures. The thin wash of the board lending drama to the works, which were commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from the Council for Australia-Arab Relations of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In the artwork below the standard post-colonial narrative is underscored by the paper the woman is holding. It reads ‘A History of Human Oppression’, and so is a critique facing both ways: at the colonial nations and, also, at formerly colonised nations that use post-colonial narratives to oppress their own people. In many countries, in different ways, the cycle of oppression continues today …

On the day we went to Cockatoo Island a ferry left Barangaroo every 30 minutes, and subsequently returned thence at the same frequency, taking visitors back to the city from the exhibition, so the show is easy enough to get to. The ferry trip takes about 15 minutes and you get to see the waterfront suburbs of the harbour (… pause …) site of colonial oppression.

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