Sydney Biennale Part 2

On the secondary Justine and I caught the train out to Newtown for breakfast and wandered back into the city stopping at Biennale venues along the way. The Carriageworks hosts the Embassy of Disappearance.

“The Embassy of Disappearance addresses themes such as absence, memory, history and archaeology, and concerns in relation to natural resources, politics of spaces and questions of ownership of land.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: 20th Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2384Gerald Machona (2012) Uri Afronaut

The Afronaut works but Gerald Machona were both amusing and poignant. We see the outfits the Afronauts wear displayed as sculptural relics, as well as their journey in the form of a video piece. The costumes made of decommissioned currency parallel the state of the disenfranchised legal alien adrift in their own land. The Afronaut characters reference ‘Nyau’, a form of ritual dance incorporating masks that originates in Malawi.

IMG_2385Gerald Machona (2012) Uri Afrinaut

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2016) Home Movie

Thai artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul creates film and experimental video works that address memory and representations of reality. He describes the work ‘Home Movie’ as being a ritual space in a cave-like environment where spectators gather to observe the light of the fire. I found this work mesmerising probably due to it’s elemental and ritual nature which are themes that appeal to me personally. I also spent a great deal of time watching the work and thinking about the way it was made; a ring of fire surrounded by fans that blow the fire in gusts and eventually become consumed themselves imitating a dying planet. Jus and I discussed how dangerous this would have been to make what with the electrical-powered fans slowly being consumed by flame. I was thinking about the kind of studio set-up you would require, what sort of fire regulations would need to be in place etc. It was much to our amusement that we discovered the piece is called ‘Home Movie”!

The Embassy of Disappearance is a huge gallery space and I’ve only choose 2 works to show here, but we spent several hours there looking at all the pieces. I got really tangled up with whether certain pieces functioned effectively or not and Jus had to bring me back to the present so we could make it on to the next stage because we were both dying of thirst. After stopping for a drink and a sit-down we continued on to the Embassy of Transition which is housed in the beautiful Victorian Mortuary Station.

“The Embassy of Transition is situated at the Mortuary Station, a former train station in Chippendale used until 1948 to transport coffins from the city to Rookwood Cemetery. Closely related to the Embassy of Spirits, this Embassy brings together two artists who each engage with cycles of life and death, and rites of passage more generally.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: 20th Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2417Charwei Tsai (2016) A Dedication to Those Who Have Passed Through Mortuary Station, Sydney

Charwei Tsai’s coils of incense have scripts written on them in different languages that contemplate the Bardo (the state between death and rebirth). During the course of the Biennale the coils will burn away and will not be replaced. Looking at photos of her incense coils installed in different environments I felt that the Mortuary Station was very ‘busy’ in its setting, it’s ornamentation and style so that the quiet contemplation of the installation was lost. The meaning was still there, but the feeling of that state of transition between worlds was nullified by the visual clutter of new-victorian architecture and the busy tiled floor. I spent some time talking to the woman who had been employed to look after the works in this Embassy (mainly as a zoologist to care for the birds in Marco Chiandetti’s works). Apparently the install had its own set of challenges that I was grateful to hear about; its easy to forget that well established artists deal with the same sorts of unanticipated questions and challenges that we do. Tsai had decided to install the objects lower than she at first envisioned because they would be lost in the rafters and it was definitely more engaging for us viewers to walk amongst them. There was also the challenge of the wind speeding up the burning process – will they last for the entire Biennale? The ash was being blown around the area rather than making circles on the floor, so the attendant was sweeping it up periodically rather than leaving it as it would be in an interior install.

IMG_2413Charwei Tsai (2016) A Dedication to Those Who Have Passed Through Mortuary Station, Sydney

Marco Chiandetti’s ‘The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one ends and the other begins?’ was installed but not yet active. The large aviaries and birdseed objects were in place but the myna birds intended to inhabit the installation were not yet present due to a hold-up with animal welfare permits. I would very much like to see this work progress over the course of the next couple of months.

We continued on the the Gallery of New South Wales to visit the Embassy of Spirits. Along with the Museum of Contemporary Art, this was the most traditional gallery space.

“The early twenty-first century has seen a dangerous return to fats-based political conviction, with various belief structures becoming associated with extreme views, and violent and harmful acts that impinge on our everyday lives. A belief structure helps us to define what we think and believe about ourselves and the world. It is how we connect to the external world and environment in which we find ourselves. The Embassy of Spirits addresses the place in our lives of belief systems manifested in the form of religious and personal rituals.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: 20th Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2424Mella Jaarsma (2015-16) Dogwalk

Dogwalk by Dutch artist Mella Jaarsma is a set of performative outfits and a video showing performers wearing the costumes within the bounds of a ‘dog walk’. Initially I found the outfits and the video deeply disturbing; I think this could be because I don’t eat meat and am very concerned about animal rights? The costumes with the calf skin trailing it’s legs along the ground (above centre) upset me the most because it seemed like a small animal being dragged to death. For me the ‘Dogwalk’ spoke of the different relationships humans have with animals that are considered companions and those that are considered food. Reading about the artist’s intent it is a similar idea from a different viewpoint; the animal skins are those that have been slaughtered in Islamic ritual, but are being compared to dogs that are considered unclean. There is also the juxtaposition between cultural relationships to animals; in the west we consider dogs companions, in Islamic countries they are haram. She also delves into the idea of the trickster in folklore, the shaman wearing the skins of animals, human-animal hybrids etc. It’s interesting because I’m not repulsed by shamanic characters in animal skins, maybe because there is a reverence at play? I saw no reverence in this use of skins which is perhaps what gave me such a negative reaction? The soundtrack music was jarring yet hypnotic and I felt it was very effective… I’m still not sure how to feel about this work, I think it was the one that affected me the most in terms of repulsion, but at the same time drew me in because I was fascinated by my own reaction.

IMG_2426Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (2016) My Sister’s Ceremony

Walking through the door from ‘Dogwalk’ you encounter Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s My Sister’s Ceremony which I found to be a soothing reprieve from the animal carcasses. A cool, dimly lit room is dappled with light and filled with a dream forest of marked and engraved wooden poles. She uses a meditative mark-making practice as a kind of ritual and an expression of the action of her hands.

IMG_2430Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (2016) My Sister’s Ceremony

IMG_2446Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion 

I enjoy experiential environments and I feel they are a successful way to convey the subtleties of ritual otherworldly experience. ‘My Sisters Ceremony’ did this with darkness and quiet, a womb-like ambience. Taro Shinoda’s Abstraction of Confusion use’s space and bright light together with the cool scent of drying clay to create an environment that conjures the tranquility of zen contemplation. This is a place of stillness, abstraction and thought. The coolness and smell of the space are soothing and work to quiet the mind and promote introspection.

IMG_2445Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion

IMG_2440Taro Shinoda (2016) Abstraction of Confusion

IMG_2458Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

Finally, the ‘Liquidation Maps’ of Yin-Ju Chen. When Justine and I saw these we joked that they could be the unholy offspring of both of our art practices! We imagined my work and her work combining and giving birth to this show; detailed drawing, artefacts, alchemy, astronomy, macrocosm and microcosm, diagram-making and historical referencing all in one! In this installation Chen references important events in Chinese history then maps them as cosmic cartographies showing the position of the planets and the stars when the event unfolded. She references the interrelationships between cosmic events and human behaviour, the macrocosm and the microcosm. I appreciated how the works were displayed. Placing them in tables increased the cartographic and scientific presence, if they had been hung on the wall I feel they would have become more decorative and have held less weight.

IMG_2455Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

IMG_2454Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

IMG_2453Yin-Ju Chen (2014/2016) Liquidation Maps

 

 

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Sydney Biennale Part 1

On the 15th March Justine and I spent 3 days at the Vernissage of the 2016 Sydney Biennale. We spent hours and hours each day walking and looking at artworks which was both exhausting and exhilarating. I’ve divided our viewing into 2 posts which just feature a few of the works I enjoyed the most. I’m not going to write too much about them, just shorts notes about the artist and a little about the work as a bit of a memory marker for me.

Our first stop was the ‘Embassy of Translation’ which was housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia on the waterfront.

“The Embassy of Translation revisits historical positions, concepts and artefacts by means of current technologies and working methods, and reconsiders them in the light of contemporary concerns. The works in this Embassy address the question of how we can use our access to the vast past to translate and re-contexuralise history.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: Biennale of Sydney.

I only recorded one work here; Céline Condorelli (2012-2013/2016) Structure for Communicating with the Wind
I enjoyed the idea of a device for communicating with the wind. The movement of the fabric plus the reflections onto the floor were silent and mesmerising.

We caught the ferry across the harbour to the ‘Embassy of The Real’ on Cockatoo Island. The island itself was very interesting, being both an ex penal colony and shipbuilding yard, so the buildings and overall feel of the island is unusual. We had a look around the large industrial buildings first.

“The Embassy of the Real poses a question central to the Biennale: If each era posits a different view of reality, what is ours?”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2322Lee Bul (2016) Willing To Be Vulnerable

Korean artist Lee Bul works with large scale, immersive installations. her site specific work on Cockatoo island deals with the memories, dreams and aspirations of humanity. This was one of many site-specific installations we saw at the Biennale. I really appreciated the artists’ use of space and site for the works shown on Cockatoo Island.

IMG_2328William Forsythe (2013) Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No.2

We had a lot of fun with the William Forsythe work. Below is a video of Justine running through the moving pendulums. This work was originally developed to be part of a choreography performed by a dancer. In this case the work is activated by the viewers.

IMG_2333Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

Chiharu Shiota has constructed her installation Flowing Water within old prisoner barracks. The work explores the relationship between sleep and waking, between the body and the mind, the states of hypnogogia that are experienced between waking and sleeping. We spent time talking to the attendant who explained how long it took the multitude of assistants to create the work. The feeling within the work was cloying and unnerving with the black threads creating the illusion of a white mist – don’t ask me how that works!

IMG_2342Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

IMG_2338Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

IMG_2334Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

There was a very engaging sound-based work by Cevdet Erek called “Room of Rhythms – Long Distance Relationship”. I don’t have any photos because it wasn’t the kind of work that could be experienced visually. Within some ruining buildings on the island were large outdoors speakers pointing in different directions. As the participants moves around the site the rhythmic beat changes and morphs into new beats. It was very hot outside so we didn’t spend as long with this work as we would have liked to.

IMG_2349

Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

Bahrti Kher’s ‘Six Women’ are cast from real women, who are also sex workers, in her New Deli studio. The casts are incredibly poignant portraits that show up the subtle bodily characteristics of the women even when displayed in cold, white plaster. They had a natural weight and fleshiness that gave the impression they could move a hand or adjust their posture at any moment. When I walked behind the women and looked over their shoulders I got a sense of intruding into another persons personal space.

IMG_2346

Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

IMG_2350

Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

In another sector of Cockatoo Island we found Emma McNally’s ‘Choral Fields’ installation. These giant cartographic drawings were displayed on either side of a constructed angular runway on big display boards. McNally’s works are described as inhabiting the overlap between the virtual realm and the physical world, of tracing the things that are sensed rather than seen. The works can be experienced as diagrams of data moving through unseen pathways, communicating between the real and virtual worlds.

IMG_2367

Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12

IMG_2364

Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12

IMG_2359

Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12

A Beautiful Hesitation & Panel Discussion: Exhibiting Art

Last year I went to see Fiona Pardington’s ‘A Beautiful Hesitation’ show at the City Gallery in Wellington. I wrote then about how frustrated I was with the lighting and the layout of the show and was interested to see it in Auckland to find out whether any of those issues had changed. It seems like I wasn’t the only one to have problems with the lighting on the glass of the large, dark images, as Auckland Art Gallery has presented them in a darker room with much more subdued and less directional lighting. The difference in experience is phenomenal! The layout of the works also seemed more cohesive and natural with similar works and time-periods grouped together with some rather nice salon hangs where appropriate. Overall Auckland Art Gallery improved on the display of the works considerably, they also had the accompanying book which wasn’t yet available in Wellington.

Anita and I went along to the panel discussion with Natasha Conland, Christina Barton, Misal Adnan Yıldız and Allan Smith on the exhibiting of contemporary art (with quite a bit of emphasis on the current Necessary Distraction show). I enjoyed hearing their perspectives and experiences  creating exhibitions of contemporary painting. A few points that particularly interested me:

  • Christina brought up the questions around curators producing exhibition strategies that stand as artworks in their own right (she brought this up in relation to the Necessary Distraction show curated by Natasha that utilises unfinished walls and exposed construction). How does that impact on the work? What does the exhibition become?
  • In discussing what makes painting ‘contemporary’ Adnan talked about painting needing to have an understanding of installation practice. Painting can no longer assume the position of being self-contained within it’s frame, unaffected and not interacting with the space around it.
  • Anita and I noticed that each curator placed different values on art’s duty and seemed to curate accordingly.

Artists must be able to contextualise their work

Modern vs Contemporary Art at the Armory | Art Guides

This video is from The Creators project and is a short look at reporter Kathleen Flood’s visit to the 2016 Armory Show in New York. Kathleen wants to find out what the difference between ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ art is. She is unable to get a cogent answer. She speaks to an ‘Art Consultant’ and an artist who both tell her that “modern artists are dead” and “contemporary artists are alive” – not even a brief explanation of Modernism or what important movements came between then and now. According to this logic, if the artist who gave her this definition died tomorrow would his work suddenly jump from being contemporary to Modernist?

She then talks to artists about their work and very few are able to give any context for their practice. An artist called Ed Young talks about his works “All So Fucking African” and “Delroy” but is unable to give us any insight in to what it is or why he created it; in fact he uses the phrase “I really don’t know why I made it” as his parting gift. For a white South African male to make a piece of work like this, he really needs to know why he’s doing it – does he want to reference apartheid and colonialism? Is he looking at the commoditisation of the African continent and it’s indigenous people? Or does he just want to make a big controversial banner with the word FUCK on it? Come on Ed, what’s the context for this work? Being controversial and thinking it looks kinda cool isn’t enough.

This brought into sharp relief for me the difference between artists who can talk about their practice and those that cannot. Granted this video is really more of a pop culture interlude than a serious piece from the art world, but this is exactly why the public think that contemporary art has little value and is just a bunch of pretentious fluff. If artists and art world people can’t succinctly or correctly explain why modern art and contemporary art are different, then how is anyone else viewing work supposed to know?

Contextualising and speaking about your work in a succinct and informed manner is difficult. It’s a constant challenge for me but it allows me to speak to others and to myself about the work. The ability to question and answer enriches the work in ways that can’t be found elsewhere.

The best bit of this video was a woman explaining which works her celebrity instagram dog enjoys the most and why. Welcome to The Armory.

The comfort of irony

I was just reading this article The Biggest Art Trends of 2016 and having a chuckle at the predictions; Fake Clickbait is my personal favourite:

“The past decade saw the rise of news satire as a primary, viable source of news and information. As programs like The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and The Nightly Show grew in popularity, the general public became comfortable with “fake news” allowing sites like The Onion to explode in readership. So it should come as no surprise that the populous has reached the next level of meta-commentary. As everyone consumes gallons of clickbait from sites like Buzzfeed, another form of satire now has room to grow. Enter “fake clickbait”—especially ClickHole, from the minds behind The Onion—as a new form of acerbic social commentary. 2016 looks like the perfect storm for this trend, as a growing savviness from fake ‘bait creators coincide with a public quickly losing its taste for traditional, attention-grabbing clickbait.”

Imagine the performance art potential in fake clickbait!

I do really enjoy the bevy of artists working within the realm of social commentary and societal reflection. NZ has Simon Denny documenting and re-presenting our cultural climate, and I briefly talked about Amalia Ulman’s instagram project “Excellences and Perfections” (2016) in my last post. Both of these artists are reflecting back at us without bias and without too much irony. I feel there is an honesty in the way they reflect on a culture that has become so self-referential and absurd that the general public still get tricked by satire news sites and re-share their ‘news’ stories with abject outage.

The concept of irony is in many respects a safety net, a way to protect oneself from expressing personal views in a manner that could be criticised. Hipster culture is constantly lambasted, viewed as fake and ridiculous. But perhaps it’s a way for youth culture to protect itself from inevitable mockery which, with social media, now comes from every angle? If you genuinely enjoy a type of music that is viewed as uncool or embarrassing isn’t it safer to maintain that you enjoy it ironically? No one can laugh at you for liking something ironically – it provides a protection and a shield from mockery. Earnestness maybe be the opposite of irony but it doesn’t negate humour. In many respects the ability to earnestly express a view and still accept that others might mock it shows an ability to laugh at oneself.

Being a teenager in the 80s the youth subcultures I was surrounded by were earnest, un-ironic, but still filled with self-aware humour. Subcultures such as punk and goth are often viewed as po-faced teen rebellion, but once past the teenage years when, lets face it, nobody has a sense of humour about themselves, those who identify with these subcultures happily embrace their perceived ridiculousness with good humour. It is basically the antithesis of hipster culture where fear of ridicule creates a veneer of detached apathy. I look forward to a post-ironic world where irony can be utilised as a vehicle for humour rather than as protection against ridicule. It’s quite liberating to be freed from the safety of irony.

Performing to camera/Performing for camera

There is a new exhibition on currently at the Tate Modern called “Performing for the Camera”. I had a look through the works on display and it got me thinking again about some of the ideas I’d grappled with last year when making my first performative videos, as well as my dabble in live performance.

In my mind, the statements ‘performing to camera’ and ‘performing for camera’ are two very different propositions. The first denotes a connection with the camera (and therefore the audience behind the camera) that is likely to be realised through direct dialogue in some form; not necessarily speech or eye contact, but an obvious angling of the performance to the viewer. All actions are performed ‘to’ the camera – the audience is the camera. The second suggests the performer has an awareness of the presence of the camera and, therefore, of a potential audience. But the performance might not include any direct dialogue with the camera in the form of gaze, gesture or speech. A performer could quite well perform in the distance with their back to the camera and still be performing ‘for’ the camera. When creating my pieces last year I made the decision that the performances would be ‘to’ the camera. In Hive Oracle (2015), Sublimation (2015) and Albedo (2016) there is direct eye contact from most of the performers. Some performers in Albedo do not make eye contact with, or address the camera, but their pose and gesture is angled to the camera’s presence.

Working with performers I found many differences in the way still photography and moving image recognises tone and gesture. An expression that might be captivating in a still image becomes overwrought and overacted as soon as the image is moving. This is equally noticeable in my barely-moving tableaus which straddle the line between image and moving image. It was imperative for the work that I did not end up with performers who looked like they were Performing (capital P). I’ve seen this happen before with performers who, no matter what role they are taking on, are always, intrinsically themselves. In certain circumstances this is a strength, but it’s not what I needed for this work. Then the other side of the coin is hoping to work with inexperienced performers to find a naturalness in the work, but they can be too anxious to relax. Luckily I was able to work with some great performers who were able to relax into the roles and give an understated, natural performance.

There is a set of new work by artist Amalia Ulman showing in this exhibition that interests me particularly. Her Excellences & Perfections series appeared on instagram as what at first glance seemed to be the heavily curated selfies of a preening millennial. It was infact a scripted and well-planned performance of three consecutive tropes of young female internet celebrity existence.

“It’s more than a satire,” she explains. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’ ” What was the joke? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
Ulsan, A. quoted in Sooke, A. (2016) Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece? Sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

There are layers of performance going on within this work: the performance of Ulman as the women in the work, the performance of Ulman as a woman in everyday life, the performance of Ulman in the art world as a young artist, the performance of Ulman as the artist performing the art; it just goes on and on, bending back upon itself. Very interesting. I was wondering how much of Ulman herself exists as parts of the tropes she was performing? How often is she knowingly or unknowingly drawn into playing those roles?

With my next filing session I have some ideas around testing the performance of the actors to camera and around how much of themselves becomes present/not present. Hopefully there will be some curious outcomes.

Photo credit: Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​