Monday, March 21, 2016

They killed Kenny

There are always some good things to see at the Sydney Biennale and sometimes, as in the outstanding 16th edition curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in 2008, many, many great things. But this year it’s a struggle to find much excitement. Artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal titled her biennale after William Gibson's well-worn phrase, ‘the future is already here - it’s just not evenly distributed’. Presumably she intended to claim some sci-fi cred but went on to undercut it by seven heavy-handed curatorial themes: Transition, the Real, Translation, Spirits etc One theme or “Embassy of thought’ as they are coyly titled per venue. This gave rise to all sorts of awkward diplomatic analogies over the weekend: attaches, amabassadors, visas, passports etc. Why a major art event would want to define itself by conventional diplomatic stereotypes is anyone’s guess.

The extraordinary character of Cockatoo Island has usually made it one of the highlights of the Biennale. This time round even the history and atmosphere of this world heritage site were dampened. Lee Bull was the lead attraction. No slouch when it comes to filling space, she was given a massive 2,500 meters (about the half the size of the new MCA extension) and gave it a decent go: there's an enormous silver dirigible, an enormous inflatable globe, enormous draped sheets of figured plastic, enormous loops of light bulbs. Trouble is, trying to fill such enormous industrial spaces sets up a competition a single artist can't win. Bul's willing to be vulnerable seemed driven by the space rather than commanding it. Although the work does appear more convincing in photographs, in reality it looks alarmingly like the replica NYC in Charlie Kaufman's 2008 movie Synecdoche, New York.

William Forsyth did rather better by suspending hundreds of plumb bobs swinging from a moving frame and Ming Wong nailed the sci-fi theme with monsters, robots and rockets from the history of Chinese cinema. The odd thing though about the Cockatoo experience this time was how few works there were to see. It's a mission to get out to Cockatoo and you have to wonder why the Biennale was dispersed over so many venues when there is so much opportunity there. Then there was the lack of labels, signage and the impossibility of connecting the numbers on the Biennale map with the buildings in front of you. Add to this confusion an annoying number of Biennale staff swishing past on golf carts tooting people watching videos out of the way (sorry Joyce Campbell) and we'd have to say this time the Cockatoo Island experience really lacked its usual energy and focus. If you're thinking of visiting, consider waiting a few weeks to give the Biennale's admin time to get themselves organized and the island venues signed and labeled.