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The emperor’s new art

Is the Sydney Biennale really an art festival? Patricia Arcilla finds out.

Image: Glen Armstrong, via Flickr.

I spent my Saturday in a penal colony. Not Kafka’s, though the comparison may be apt. The torture device was notably absent, but the underlying confusion and despair were not. The colony that I am referring to is the World Heritage-listed Cockatoo Island, which hosts a portion of the 19th Biennale of Sydney’s exhibition until June 9. The source of confusion and despair is less easily identified, traceable to the exhibition’s composition of art, eliciting tenuous interpretations or scathing remarks that an infant could do better. The root of my despair, thus, was the realisation — as I stood on the upper island contemplating Yael Bartana’s ‘Inferno’— that my own reactions erred towards the latter. Odd, coming from someone who will vehemently defend Anish “Giant Wax Blobs” Kapoor and Marina “Made James Franco Cry” Abramovic.

Like these two artists, the Biennale is marketed as the vanguard of revolutionary and thought-provoking contemporary art. And yet in a world oversaturated with content, where anyone with a smartphone, sketchbook, or skin thick enough to emote before a crowd can call themselves an artist, fulfilling such promise is no easy task. Cockatoo Island unsurprisingly falls short, acting as a sort of beginner’s field guide to avant-garde and the associated ‘edgy’ aesthetic.

Foremost of these distinguishing features is manipulation of scale, as in Eva Koch’s “I AM THE RIVER”, a 12×6.75m version of the animated waterfall pictures you admire at your local Chinese restaurant. You would suspect such a kitschy inclusion in the exhibition to be ironic, were it not for the nearby ‘The Village’ by Danish artists Randi and Katrina, whose anthropomorphised houses satisfy humanity’s continuing and confounding obsession with putting faces on everything.

Kitschiness, presented as innovation, makes an appearance alongside other signs of the aspirant avant-garde in the participatory elements of Gerda Steiner and Jørg Lenzlinger’s ‘Bush Power’, where skeletons dance and paper flowers rustle in time to audience movements on gym equipment below. In other works it is sidestepped in favour of reliance upon pre-existing cultural knowledge, as in Kate Daw’s Fitzgerald-esque ‘Green Light’ (in name and nature).

Other rooms stand empty except for ice-filled glasses arranged with deliberate indifference. I posed the whispered question, “is this an artwork?” to my companion. Neither he nor the venue map were able to provide answers (though, given affairs, the answer was probably yes). The guesswork and Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome which afflicts the corpus of contemporary art reared its head in Matt Hinkley’s ‘Untitled’; it featured wire and polymer installations so inconspicuously tiny that the audience feigned interest in a blank brick wall perpendicular to Hinkley’s work. Their confusion was not unique: in an apocryphal tale, Jackson Pollock stood before his own work and asked, “is this a painting?”

To whom is this utterly non-threatening version of the avant-garde marketed? Probably those with a living room like Jack’s in Fight Club— modular furniture and magazine-industrial interiors. The powers on Cockatoo Island know their market: one of the ship workshops has been converted into a furniture showroom that would make Palahniuk weep. Long after the artworks have been uninstalled and the Dog Leg Tunnel divested of the tiny Google Ghost Train (Callum Morton’s ‘The Other Side’), bourgeois art lovers can compare fabrics and timber veneer samples for their wall mounted bed frame, then gaze upon the nearby remnants of convict silos. If that isn’t Surrealism, I don’t really know what is.