Friday, March 28, 2014

The black box Biennale

How much longer must video serve as the go-to guy for padding out the over scaled spaces Biennales have devoted to them? It certainly does the heavy lifting in the current Sydney Biennale. Too often experiencing the various venues demands a trudge from bench to bench in one vast dark room after another. Even wall texts are sacrificed to the Lords of Darkness. At one of the venues people were resorting to the torch function on their phones to light up the labels and commentary.

And in mega exhibitions like the Sydney Biennale, the curatorial framing through labels matters hugely. Faced with artists most of us have never heard of, the labels are essential to help figure out what we’re looking at and why. In this case we were poorly served by grand claims and abstractions. 

Poor old Douglas Gordon’s 2011 piece Phantom (a grand piano and slow-mo film of an eye) was touted as “a room brought to the brink of emotion” It wasn’t. When we were there four of the seven people with us were doing things on their phones. NZ’s sole representative Shannon Te Ao also suffered from label blight. He was well placed in the Art Gallery of NSW but the video of him reading poetry to animals was undercut rather than elucidated by the claim that it showed “the potential of the poetic to reignite our social and interspecies imagination”. Try telling that to the mellow donkey who drifted in and out of shot or, better still, the large white bird who slept through the whole thing.

One big plus for the event had to be the triumph of phones - or cameras as we call them now - especially in the Biennale’s audience-pleasing set pieces. The Jim Lambie room was a huge win for Instagram and Facebook with lots of people having a lot of fun posing and taking photos of each other. This was probably enough in itself but but no, the label was a big downer of “inward portals to the psychic world of dreams and the unconscious: an internal desire made manifest.” 

Come on curator people are we talking cool fun or deep messages? If the Biennale of Sydney is anything to go by you can’t have it both ways.

Images: top, Jim Lambie gets the FaceBook treatment and bottom Shannon Te Au talks to the animals.