Sydney Biennale: Revolutions-Forms That Turn

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Sydney Biennale: Revolutions--Forms That Turn

Various venues June 18 to September 7

Reviewers of major international biennales have a tendency to adopt one of three approaches: to lavishly overpraise, virtually overlook, or summarily dismiss the exhibition at hand. Thankfully the most recent Sydney Biennale does not necessitate any of these familiar strategies; moreover, the exhibition carries in its wake much to consider, in terms of both its positive and its problematic characteristics. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has offered up a large-scale panoramic exhibition spread throughout an eclectic variety of venues, showcasing in unequal parts a 1968 nostalgia trip, a generous dose of Arte Povera, and only a few emerging artists. The biennale features primarily historical--that is to say, near-canonical--works that literally spin, turn, or are otherwise engaged in movement, befitting its awkward title 'Revolutions--Forms That Turn'. This conflation of theoretical and political notions of revolution with a repetitious use of formal literalism is ultimately tendentious and unclear. But clarity does not often make for successful curatorial ventures. The most important ally for contemporary curators can be the ever-elusive notion of surprise.

Unfortunately, surprises are relatively limited here given the neo avant-garde, history by the book approach on view. For example, painting, despite its notable resurgence during the past decade, is generally limited to post-conceptual and proto-performance strategies. By contrast, the hefty catalogue features many preliminary drawings and sketches (thus allowing it to be published on schedule without on-site documentation of the biennale). Nonetheless, as the biennale was organised with a comparatively small budget (reputed to be under A$3m) in relation to its scale, it's impressive that so many distinctive projects and works have been brought together in Sydney.

Much of the historical material chosen by Christov-Bakargiev is altogether crucial to an understanding of contemporary art and is well presented. It includes much from key figures from the 60s to 80s: seminal works by Adrian Piper, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, Jean Tinguely and Giuseppe Penone, and a captivating new installation by Joan Jonas. There is also a nice effect in viewing the original footage of Carolee Schneemann's Meat Joy, 1964, only to realise that it bears more resemblance to a quaint recital than an anarchic orgy. One surprise choice is the eccentric Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy, whose work consists of clandestine snapshots taken with homemade cameras. (Tichy was 'discovered' earlier by Harald Szeemann, who included his work in the 2004 Seville Biennial.) Climbing into a hammock in 'Quasi-cinemas', 1973, Helio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida's psychedelic riposte to Brazilian martial law, to bliss out to Jimi Hendrix, afforded a welcome Tropicalian retreat from the march through the Museum of Contemporary Art.

What links kinetic artists to the Gutai group? How do Peter Fischli & David Weiss's precarious table-top photographs relate to Joseph Beuys's didactic social forays? Is Olafur Eliasson's wobbly Light ventilator mobile of 2002 actually informed by its direct proximity to a sample of Calder's old-school geometric elegance? Perhaps the nadir of this approach places Rodchenko's hanging constructions, Maurizio Cattelan's flaccidly suspended taxidermied horse, and Rodney Graham's satires of School of Paris mediocrity all in one room. In this competitive environment, conceptual and formal confusion reigns.

The Gallery of New South Wales houses most of its offerings downstairs, so that one descends directly into a labyrinthine and often cluttered arrangement. Helping to punctuate this trajectory are a series of nine monitors placed at sporadic intervals near the ceiling depicting Francis Alys undergoing a number of pratfalls (Choques, 2005-06). …