Reviving the Fantastic. (Reviews)

Article excerpt

Biennale of Sydney

International Festival of Contemporary Art

Sydney, Australia

May 15 - July 14

The Biennale of Sydney has always tried to distinguish itself from the myriad of biennales that have sprung up like weeds in the past ten years or so. Yet despite the Biennale's long history, beginning with its inauguration in 1973, it has never really managed to find its niche, unlike the critical dumpfest that has characterized the Whitney Biennale, the Miss Universe-like pageantry and competitiveness of Venice, or even the mammoth scale of Sao Paolo. Too many times, it has Paiggybacked off the findings of other curators, appearing bland and even overtly derivative. This year's artistic director, Australian-based artist Richard Grayson, along with advisors Janos Sugar, Susan Hiller and Ralph Rugoff, overhauled the Biennale in favor of a more expansive and flexible one and a great number of the 57 artists invited were not the usual panoply of biennale regulars. The result was an exhibition that was quirky, refreshing and thankfully broke free from the opinions, obsessions and standards of the rest of the art world. Put simply, this particular incarnation of the Biennale of Sydney was a joyful and riotous meeting of the mad.

Despite this year's suspiciously whimsical theme of "(The World May Be) Fantastic," with all of its suggestions of frothy, insubstantial anarchy, a surprising number of the works succeeded in making a convincing rejoinder to the idea that contemporary art must necessarily toe the didactic line to be considered serious. Without the straitjacket comprised by the interference of too many ideological posturings, the organizers of the Biennale were able to stage a show that was pleasantly open-ended and inclusive of aspects missed in other large-scale exhibitions such as humor, imagination and an unwavering belief in the potential of the mundane. One might even argue that this year's Biennale was the antithesis of other' biennales (the "anti-Documenta") as it confirmed that levity has not lost its value, despite a global discourse that insists upon the necessity of having a solemn agenda to validate one's claim for existence.

To be sure, this Biennale, as with any large group exhibition, was predictably uneven and in many respects was a cross between an overloaded buffet and an unsatisfying sampling. In some cases, works that were originally conceived as part of a series appeared in bits and dribbles, which frequently made for a half-baked presentation. Series that fell short due to curatorial editing included Gang Xin's photographs, depicting the artist as he licks various objects, like Great Wall. Beijing. China (2000), and the brilliantly apocalyptic saga of paintings by the late Henry Darger, entitled "The Story of the Vivian Girls," of which only a few panels were shown. More problematically, a number of works seemed forced within the parameters of the exhibition theme, or not sufficiently thought out to invoke a convincing sense of the fantastic. There was a plethora of strategies that were decidedly pedestrian as the notion of the fantastic was often misconstrued as synonymous with the look of hyperrealism, the occult or th e spectacle. Many works, particularly those relying on their ability to simulate the real or those that made excessive use of technological aids, came across as gimmicks that were entertaining but eminently forgettable. Olaf Nicolai's Portrait of the Artist As a Wee ping Narcissus (2000), in which the artist rendered a true-to-life vision of himself apparently weeping into a pond, was a latter-day take on George Segal's mimesis of actuality but without the understated pathos. Patricia Piccini's lifelike girl, playing with what appeared to be pieces of human flesh shaped like fecal matter in Still Life with Stem Cells (2002), seemed to be vying with Jeffrey Vallance's conspiracy theories, including a work about images of clowns "found" on the Shroud of Turin titled The Clowns of Turin Found on the Holy Shroud (1998), for the dubious honor of being "weirdest of show. …