After my first visit to any of the 2010 Biennale of Sydney I'm relieved that it's hard to dismiss what I've seen so far as just another example of curatorial toss wrapped up in theory and radical chic. The signs weren't good though, the daft subtitle of the event "The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age" sounds like the worst sort of artwank, the taster show at the MCA 'We Call Them Pirates Out Here' is, for the most part, a collection of dismal pseudo-radical claptrap and 2008's Biennale 'Revolution: Forms That Turn' was so self regarding as to be parodic. So, it's fair to say that I hardly expected to be so excited by a number of works even before I'd finished with the Ground Floor. It's looking good.
Rather than take a venue by venue look at the work, or even a festival overview it strikes me that something more coherent might be said by looking at more or less natural groups of work. The MCA has a number of pieces I want to return to but on first view it was the range and quality of the video works in Circular Quay that impressed me.
In 'City Self Country Self' Rodney Graham has a made a strange circular narrative, set in what might be an early nineteenth century middle-European cathedral town, that isn't a million miles away in look or feel (it reminded me at least) to Herzog's 'Enigma of Kaspar Hauser'. In this costume piece two men in period costume one a bumpkin, the other a colourful dandy, walk around a town in a seemingly fixed orbit. The obvious surface message one can take as the climax arrives and the dandy's buckled show kicks the peasant's arse is one of the historical triumph of the bourgeoisie. That seems rather unsatisfying compared to What happens in the rest of the loop. This feels like a short film about time. Both characters bang out clockwork beat of footsteps on the cobbled streets, the dandy checks his watch, the yokel the clocktower and the circuit of the town's alleys might be a trip around the dial of a timepiece. Graham appears to be thinking about historical inevitability, about repetition and about the different relationship individuals and classes have historically had to time. It manages to funny, sweet and thought provoking, edited with a sure and metronomic hand.
Susan Hiller's black screen and subtitles are more poignant. 'The Last Silent Movie' is an installation across two rooms that is part elegy and part archaeology. In one room a black screen shows nothing but English subtitles whilst the soundtrack plays recordings of words and conversations in a range of indigenous languages and dialects from around the world, all at or close to extinction. In one sense this, if it alone composed the piece, would only be so effective. The loss of language is sad but the subtitles preserve meaning. For me the power of the piece is that it is composed with a second room in which are framed graphs of the sonic signatures of the spoken words. These look like death certificates for a language and remind us that something whole and integral to a people is being lost, rather than a quaint historical oddity. The loss of a voice is a terrible thing, and that innate knowledge helps make this work so poerful.
Of course it's not all good. Mark Wallinger's glib 'Hymn' serves to remind us of the inanity of so much BritArt (and if it doesn't go upstairs and look at the toss served up by the Chapman brothers) and in doing so at least gives us a sense of the high quality of some other works. If this is the artist as some kind of prankster it's lame stuff. Standing on a hill overlooking London, holding a ballon with (one assumes) his childhood image printed on it, the artist sucks in helium and recites a hymn. One can read into it a desire to return to youth, but that's it, no depth, no humanity. It's emblematic of nothing so much as the race for novelty and kitsch in a certain recent period in British art. It's long been my contention that art about art is pretty dull, art is interesting when it's about people, feelings, ideas and things. When it's about art it's not. Christian Jankowski goes to some lengths to prove this. His work is a mock documentary, or at least a montage of mock news footage, featuring pieces to camera where reporters pretend to cover the artist's psychic dilemma prior to the Biennale itself. It's wrapped in that self protecting suit of irony but that makes it no less dumb and self satisfied. A bad combination.
My admiration for Bill Viola remains undimmed and I smile inside when I know I'm going to see his work. Seeing 'Incarnation' this time I'm no less moved but feel a sense of over-familiarity with the tropes of falling water as a barrier between states of consciousness. This piece is typically slow and beautiful. Two naked figures gradually emerge behind a grey sheet of rain, perhaps a veil of tears or an amniotic fluid, they tentatively push at it, until a hand and then their bodies break through. They come out into light and colour and it is not a wholly happy incarnation. The trepidation, their vulnerability, their closeness reminds me of Masaccio's 'expulsion' but here uncertainty still reigns. Viola often captures something that is, literally, awful and sublime in our relation to life, here he does to, and I suppose if you do have a 'thing' it might as well be a great one.
Perhaps the most touching work from the videos here is by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. These simple video works show lareg reproduction of works by Manet, Millet and Van Gogh in Thai forests and rice fields. On the ground in front of each of them sit a group of Thai villagers, agricultural workers. Each projection simply records the villagers as they talk and laugh about the paintings. They laugh at nudity and the shape of Manet's sitters breasts, they assume Millet's gleaners must be searching for insects and they translate the images warmly and generously through the lens of their own experience. It would be an enormous mistake to think this was merely art about art, this is about much more, the dignity of real peasants in the face of romanticised historical agrarians and the tenuous nature of meaning. More interesting still is that despite the cross cultural and historical confusion they continue to be interested to seek to understand, as they talk they begin to empathise, to create sympathetic narratives. It really is a work worth sitting with.
This felt like a good start for me and the Biennale this year. I'm sure this won't be the first time I dwell on the overall 'Distance' theme imposed on all of the work here. It seems to me a fairly typical contemporary art strapline, it seems clever at first but collapses under any kind of consideration that doesn't come from deep within the belly of the art world. Firstly I would challenge the statement that underpins it, that somehow 'distance' is a maligned force in Australia. That might be true of artists and other cultural cringers but I would place money on the fact that for many Australians distance is an unalloyed good (the insight comes from my 'non-ArtKritique' life and social attitudes research I've conducted), it leaves them with a sense of autonomy and freedom. That doesn't make the work or the Biennale bad, it just inconveniently points out that what might be beautiful would be a greater distance between the art world and its own navel.