Sydney Biennale: Blood on all our hands

Subeta Vimaralajah questions the implications of the 2014 Sydney Biennale Festival boycott campaign for the wider art scene.

Illustration by Judy Zhu.

In the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), amidst an artificial forest lives Yingmei Duan. The forest has a certain dreamlike sensibility to it, producing natural sounds of wind and water that Duan accompanies with his non-descript noises. As gallery goers approach, he emerges and hands out small folded pieces of paper with wishes written on them. Duan is not a mere eccentric art enthusiast; he is a prominent Chinese artist exhibiting as part of the Sydney Biennale for 2014. His piece Happy Yingmei is one of the most pleasantly bizarre works on show. By creating a surreal and intimate experience between the artist and audience member, Duan challenges the often-alienating and hierarchical gallery space in the art world. The delicate moment of receiving his paper note, although a momentary distraction, does little to silence the political squabbles that have usurped the Biennale this year.

Not too far from Happy Yingmei, tucked next to the gallery gift shop, hangs the AGNSW donor board. A dozen or so squares of clean cut glass, it lists the members of the President’s Council and their companies. It is seemingly a shopping list of Sydney’s corporate elite: KPMG, National Australia Bank, Optus, Westpac Banking Corp, Fairfax Media Limited, Qantas Airways. The Board of Trustees is similarly high profile. Atop members that are gambling millionaires, venture capitalists and CEOs of multi-billion dollar hotel chains, sits “President: Mr. Guido Belgiorno Nettis”.

Mr. Guido’s surname is suspiciously similar to that of ex-Biennale director Luca Belgiorno Nettis. It’s his brother. Luca is the CEO of Transfield Holdings and Guido, the Managing Director.

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Neither Happy Yingmei, nor any of the other artworks on show will define the memory of this year’s Biennale. Instead, it will be remembered as an example of boycott efficiency and leftism in the Sydney art scene. For those with little interest in art, or with an apolitical Facebook newsfeed, here’s what you missed: the Sydney Biennale is an Art Festival held every two years in the main public gallery spaces of Sydney, as well as in Carriageworks and Cockatoo Island. The festival was founded in 1973 and has since been supported by the Belgiorno Nettis family. In 2014, this partnership came to an end after refugee rights activists launched a boycott campaign. Luca Belgiorno Nettis is the CEO of Transfield Holdings, an infrastructure company contracted by the Australian government to manage detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru. Belgiorno Nettis initially encouraged artists to voice their frustrations through their art, but following alleged abuse to members of his family and an increasing list of artist boycotts, he withdrew financial support and involvement in the Festival.

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Approximately four years ago, the question of clean sponsorship arose in London at the prestigious Tate Modern Museum, a beacon of Western culture and home to the fruits of many a modern aesthetic labour. Tate Modern is sponsored by BP Oil Refineries, an arrangement that prompted the formation of art collective ”Liberate Tate”.

The collective has done a range of work to raise awareness about BP’s sponsorship of the gallery, most notably delivering a naked member of the collective drenched in an oil-like substance following the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. The extent of BP sponsorship has not been released, but one can assume it is in the millions. Although not needed to keep the museum afloat, it has probably helped that Bacon or Rothko acquisition at whose sight the average art student would weep.

The Tate is not alone in this. In May 2013 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), where the Biennale now exhibits, hung a series of works sponsored and commissioned by Rio Tinto. Embedded by Craig Walsh was inspired by the time he spent in the Pilbara region, where iron ore is mined. Working with Rio Tinto staff and the traditional Aboriginal custodians of the land, Walsh created a series of photographic portraits and films, accompanied by twenty-one industrial bins filled with iron ore.

This is not the first time that Rio Tinto has sponsored a major art project in the Pilbara region. The Pilbara Series is amongst the most highly regarded of Australian landscape art, a series painted by Fred Williams and commissioned by Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto was also the 2012 sponsor of the MCA’s inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Program. This is the company that is responsible for hacking into the beautiful Pilbara that Walsh and Williams depict. This is the company that pillages the sacred land of Indigenous Australians, simultaneously sponsoring art that celebrates said land and culture.

The question of ethical corporate sponsorship is not restricted to the public art world. Australia’s very own answer to the avant-garde, MoNA, raises similar questions about the relationship between art, ethics and class. Its founder and funder, David Walsh, is now praised as one of Australia’s greatest philanthropists and the single-handed revivalist of the Tasmanian tourist economy.

Walsh’s fortune was literally won out of his career as a professional gambler and later, his development of a gambling system to bet on horse racing. His initial investment in antique art was a means to ship capital internationally. In 2012, he was involved in a dispute with the Australian Taxation Office for an alleged $37 million owed in gambling related profits.

Despite Walsh’s questionable ethics, we are yet to hear of his gallery being picketed or his staff being heckled with insults. In fact, the vegans that stage protests on Melbourne Cup day probably considered MoNA the highlight of their most recent Tasmanian bush land adventure.

The history of art and blood money is not new. The great artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were mere artisans beholden to patrons that dictated the subject matter, style and content of their works. The works of Titian and Raphael that the Western world flocks to are the mere pretty playthings of past oppressors.

This is not to say that art does not have a revolutionary history. The opening of the Louvre in 1793 as the first public museum is testament to an alternate history forged by artists wanting to universalise art by liberating it from class constraints. This revolutionary history persists through modernism. From early names like Courbet and Manet, through to Duchamp and his infamous Fountain (a porcelain urinal), it would be naïve to say that art is entirely void of class-consciousness. The question is whether this dialogue has persisted, or whether these figures are token examples of leftism in a bourgeois art world.

The counter-culture ‘60s reflected the emerging relationship between art and class in a world increasingly beholden to capital. The idealism of the young artist who loathes oppressive institutions but ultimately panders to them has become a tried and tested narrative in the postmodern era.

Case in point, Yoko Ono. Once a radical fluxist, peace activist and neo-Duchampian, her anti-establishment manuscripts now sell for over $400,000. At a recent exhibition held at the MCA, a starving art student was expected to pay $15 to see her show, and then led through to the gift stop to buy a postcard, puzzle, mug, t-shirt or button emblazoned with “War is Over” as memory of the experience. Ono, a previous notable member of a movement founded on being against an increasingly commercial art world, now uses the gallery gift store to challenge the establishment.

Yayoi Kusama tells a similar story. In 1969, Kusama was instructing a naked performance artwork through the Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA)’s sculpture garden to condemn the existence of exhibit entrance fees and gallery hours that restrict artistic freedom. Sotheby’s auction house sold her most recent canvas for over $5 million, and two years ago she paired with Louis Vuitton to sell her visual trademark on high heels for a thousand bucks a pop.

Art is not void of class dialogue; it merely discards this dialogue when the market requires it to.

The Biennale saga seems blind to these patterns. The image of the proletarian art life is ever pertinent, but yet to engage with the vertical systems of privilege the art world is structured around. Robert Wellington, a member of the University of Sydney Art History and Film Studies Department, affirms these trends. He identifies that, although most of his colleagues are on the political left, they “come from reasonably privileged upbringings,” as there are “fewer opportunities in academia for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds simply for practical reasons”. These “practical reasons” are not exclusive to academia. Ascendancy in the art world is still based on a culture of unpaid internships, gallery opening cocktail parties and social connections. Art may seem socially conscious, but there is a corporate sponsor or privileged curator signing the cheque for every minority voice that gains recognition.

Without that cheque, the art world is left in a questionable place.

For its $53 million renovation, the MCA received only $13 million from the various levels of government. All tolled, governments provide close to 60 per cent of funding for galleries and museums in Australia. It’s hardly insignificant, but the support of the state for projects sought after by Australia’s art aficionados is limited. Some artists have recognised this tension. Douglas Gordon, creator of mixed media installation Phantom currently exhibiting at the MCA, was didactic in his political response to the boycott. He defended his right to participate in the Biennale, labeling a boycott “ineffective” and “irresponsible” in an art world still reliant on corporate sponsorship.

What is more concerning than the state’s inability to buy Cezanne’s is the comparative means of self-interested private buyers. The Belgiorno-Nettis family is peasantry compared to the plutocrats and billionaires that saturate the global art market and drive up price tags, housing their unique collections in tax-exempt warehouses. In Zurich, Geneva, Luxembourg and Changi, the world’s wealthiest lock away priceless artworks and antiques in confidential, highly secure and economically efficient warehouses whilst they accrue value.

The issues of tax evasion aside, hidden away in these warehouses are some of the world’s greatest masterpieces that will never be appreciated by their owners, let alone be seen by the public. A single warehouse in Geneva alone holds art worth over $100 billion, including dozens of Picassos’. In this way, art is no longer a public good, but a private investment. For these investors, art isn’t analogous to film and music, but gold and oil. They see themselves not as donors, but as shareholders.

As lovers of art and activism we are posed with a dilemma: art, politics, or both? The moral high ground is not so clear-cut. Not only is boycotting masochistic, it is likely unproductive.

Even with the success of the Biennale boycott, Luca Belgiorno Nettis will not cease his passion for the arts. He will instead cease being passionate about philanthropy. The canvases and installations we once enjoyed will instead be housed in the living room of his McMansion or worse, locked away in a climate-controlled storage unit to accrue value alongside his Porsche.

This is not a question of whether the boycott campaign for the Sydney Biennale was a good idea. Rather, that such a boycott cannot operate in a vacuum. The Biennale has started the discussion, in a way it has never existed in Australia. If we as viewers of art believe it has a social purpose, this dialogue needs to continue. The likely implication of continued boycotts is that we have less art and that our galleries can’t exhibit the most innovative and historically significant art.
This is either a sacrifice we make together, or the Biennale becomes a slight and inconsistent victory in an art world that still has blood on its hands.

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