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Ocula Report

Notes On Desire: The 19Th Biennale Of Sydney

Stella Rosa McDonald Sydney 12 November 2013

"Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will." George Bernard Shaw In 1879, a French postman named Ferdinand Cheval began building an esoteric homage to the beauty of sandstone. On one of his postal rounds, Cheval came across small pieces of the stone that over time had been compacted into vague human and animal forms. Impressed by the sculptural will of nature he collected these stones and spent the next 33 years constructing Le Palais idéal (the "Ideal Palace")

Cheval carved hundreds of figures and animals into the multiple facades of his sandstone palace; each one a small tribute to nature’s curious anthropomorphism and the deities and designs of Eastern and Western religions. Cheval built his palace for no reason other than he stumbled upon a stone and thought it beautiful, The Ideal Palace emerged from his desire to see the world anew.

Contemporary French artist Aurélien Froment has photographed Cheval’s creatures; each photograph a portrait that focuses on a single carving, separating the particular from the collective. Isolated from their context in the Palace, Froment’s figures appear like contradictions: ancient artifacts from a new world. Froment’s work explores the acquisition of knowledge through recreation and the power of play in shaping the collective and individual imagination. The photographs will be part of the 19th Biennale of Sydney and are perhaps emblematic of its themes of desire, demonstrating how a novel approach to site can initiate new historical, social and political narratives.

Juliana Engberg, the artistic director of Melbourne's Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and artistic director of the 19th Biennale of Sydney has promised a funny, sensual, intelligent and engaging festival. As the Asia Pacific’s leading festival of contemporary art, the Sydney Biennale is a unique program that narrows the distance between the local and the international without sacrificing individual concerns. Following on from George Bernard Shaw’s notion that imagination is the beginning of creation, Engberg’s curation disseminates the theme of desire across its venues to include over 90 Australian and international artists.

The scale of a biennale means that themes can become redundant or limiting, and attempts by artistic directors to doggedly stick to one premise often fall flat. Recognising this, Engberg has described hers as an evocative rather than a didactic curation, noting that,  “Didacticism is not the way to go, but poetry is a way to lure people toward your concepts and make them work with you”. Like a series of notes on desire, artists will respond to museum and non-museum spaces across Sydney, including the Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Cockatoo Island. In introducing the Biennale, Engberg said that she was “inclined to drift toward the mad” when selecting her artists and, addressing the Biennale’s contemporary relevance, said she reiterated that artistic innovation expands our sense of what is possible in our own surrounds: “When we see something sublime, wonderful and awesome, we become larger inside”.

Her blog, Engberg on the road, is a diary of her travels around the world developing the festival, indicating the pace and global scope of the 2014 Biennale and, as an informal companion text to the festival, it is worth looking at. Though loosely themed, even a brief glance at the Biennale’s artists reveals a pattern of concerns: contemporary artistic narratives are noticeably inconclusive, a quality that Engberg supposes lets audiences insert themselves in the picture and artists appear to be moving away from the conceptual and engaging with more human stories. And many of the included works seem predicated upon the notion that art is not inseparable from the environment in which it is made. Chinese artist Yingmei Duan will live at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, greeting visitors who pass through a small forest installed in the gallery with poetry and prophesies. With its blending of high sentiment, audience engagement and endurance, Duan’s practice recalls Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovich, with whom she studied, and implies a desire for connection across borders. Ecological concerns also dominate the works that will be on show. In the work of Romanian artist Mircea Cantor, to be shown at the MCA, fire is passed between participants until it is ultimately taken away by a god-like figure, supposedly suggesting that we are not taking responsibility for our environment and our future in it.

On Cockatoo Island, a former boat building site and penal colony, artists will respond to the industrial history and kinetic quality of the island through several sculptural and performative works, including Marko Lulić’s Space Girl Dance, where dancers perform Rachel Welch’s Space Girl Dance in what Engberg described as a “co-mingling of the body and modernism”. Responding to the site on Cockatoo Island the Swiss artists Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger’s will take discarded domestic objects and trash and transform them into interactive and immersive environments, demonstrating that in desiring a balance between nature and ourselves, no action is without consequence.

Australian artists will feature prominently in the 19th Biennale: including Blake Prize winning artist Angelica Mesiti, Indigenous artist Bindi Cole, video artist and painter TV Moore, installation artist Mikala Dwyer, and Michael Cook who has made new work for the festival that questions the social visibility of Aboriginal people in Australia and aspires to a new paradigm. High profile international artists will exhibit alongside emerging artists across the venues and even take to the streets as in Choreography for the Running Male by Lithuanian artist Egle Budvytyte, which features a group of men who will run through the CBD displaying a spectrum of emotions. For the MCA, Scottish artist Douglas Gordon has teamed with singer Rufus Wainwright for the work Phantom, in which Wainwright sings Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 10, performance and video artist Pipilotti Rist has come out of hibernation to show her new work Mercy garden retour skin. While at Carriageworks English artist Tacita Dean, OBE has been commissioned to create a new work for the space.

In a move that bolsters the cultural significance of the Biennale to its host city, mayor of Sydney Clover Moore revealed that the City of Sydney has signed a memorandum of understanding that will enable it to retain a work from the Biennale as a permanent legacy for the city’s public art collection. This commitment will continue with the city pledging $300,000 to a new work from each future Biennale. Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, known for their immersive, large-scale mixed media installations, have been commissioned for the inaugural work. Their installation The Murder of Crows was a highpoint of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney; 100-speakers filled a vast Pier at Walsh Bay. Engberg said that she felt compelled to respond to the elemental qualities of Sydney’s harbour and green spaces in her Biennale, and the fit with the site-specific and ephemeral work of Cardiff and Miller seems natural in this regard.

As yet unfinished, the potential of the 19th biennale of Sydney only exists as an intriguing promise not yet satisfied, as a desire toward a new way of seeing. But, like the postman Cheval, audiences may stumble upon something small and be compelled to become the architects of their own desire.

The 19th Biennale of Sydney opens on March 21, 2014. 

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