Thursday, November 07, 2013

Back to the future

“I dream of an art world without pointless parochialism,” was one response to our suggestion that the selection of only one artist from NZ for the Sydney Biennale was unreasonably low. That got us thinking. Just when you think the global/local argument has died, there it is, dragging itself up out of the swamp. The reason is that for all its global marketing trappings, Biennale art is surprisingly localised. Every artist bio, every catalogue entry, carefully states not only where these artists live, but also where they were born. There's perhaps an element of pay-off for national funders of specific artists but more importantly knowing where someone is from captures a whole lot of context in a single fact.

OK, back to Juliana Engberg's selections for next year's Sydney Biennale. Yes, she is one of Australia’s most dynamic curators and yes, her idea for the Biennale is global enough (“an exploration of the world and contemporary aesthetic experience”), but the artists she has selected are not born and do not live in a very large part of the globe: Russia, Africa, South America, India or China. Sorry BRIC that love affair is being left to Queensland.

This Biennale is local, it's just its local is Europe and down-under. Of the 90 artists 61 live or work in Europe (84 percent of those are from the EU) and 19 are from Australia. The rest: nine Swiss, half a dozen Norwegians, four Chinese one of whom lives in Europe, a Japanese living in New York, an Egyptian a couple of Canadians and a couple from the USA etc. In sum if they’re not in Australia (or the one artist living in NZ) they live or work in the Northern Hemisphere.

As Biennales usually do, this one also emphasises its expansiveness boasting “a vibrant list of more than 90 artists from 31 countries." To put it nicely this is blowing smoke. The closest we've seen to it is the 1979 Biennale curated by Nick Waterlow. That one was called European dialogue.

Image: countries not represented in the upcoming Biennale of Sydney in red.