The Third Biennale of Sydney: 'White Elephant or Red Herring?'

By Gardner, Anthony; Green, Charles | Humanities Research, May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Third Biennale of Sydney: 'White Elephant or Red Herring?'


Gardner, Anthony, Green, Charles, Humanities Research


The focus of this essay is the indisputably important 1979 Biennale of Sydney, which launched Sydney's biennial as an international event seeking out adventurous art from Western Europe and the USA. We will argue that it sought both to present an image of the world of contemporary art and also, more critically, to embody a key strand of the globalising art world's emerging contemporaneity.

By the end of the 1970s, the arrival of relatively affordable international flights had pushed Australian artists, along with their peers from other 'margins' of contemporary art, into closer contact with North Atlantic art centres. The result was the beginning of a Balkanisation of art worlds beyond New York and Western Europe: within each art centre, a division into two overlapping art worlds, a provincial ghetto represented by one set of commercial art galleries or an international art world enclave represented by another, usually smaller and more exclusive, number of galleries and, increasingly, some artist-run spaces.1

This was as true in Tokyo as it was in Sydney or Melbourne. The two art worlds overlapped but the latter world-that which saw itself as international and part of a nascent, globalised art world-did not at that time or later necessarily renew itself from the former's talent-pool of the best and brightest, and then only reluctantly or in such a way as to reinforce North Atlantic primacy over the image of what was contemporary art. Many scholars' recent work, particularly that of John Clark, has shown that this remained true even of the huge Asian biennials that flourished from the 1990s onwards though, increasingly, many younger artists moved easily from international artist residency to residency and from biennial to biennial.2

Founding the Sydney Biennale

Both the Säo Paulo and Sydney Biennales were founded by immigrants from post-War Europe-in Säo Paulo, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho; in Sydney, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis. Their motivations were similar, and they had been affected by their own experiences of post-World War Π diaspora. They were European migrants who established themselves as important industrialists, proudly participating in their chosen city's civic and national desires for international recognition as nascent global cities and as nodes of business and capital in their respective regions in the Southern Hemisphere. Needless to say, civic and national aspirations were never identical nor necessarily in harmony, nor was the balance between the two always equal. Whereas the Federal Government's new Australia Council for the Arts wished primarily to support art-making nationwide and far less to project Australian art internationally. Its aim was to maximise direct support to Australian artists in the form of grants. Belgiorno-Nettis, on the other hand, wanted to replicate and import the cultural institutions of his homeland to his beloved Sydney, and in particular the venerable institution of the Biennale of Venice:

My love affair with Venice, where I have been a frequent visitor for years, is the source of inspiration for the Biennale. How do you break the isolation of Australia, which I felt strongly myself in the early 50s? How do you inject that flavor of international extravaganza, originality and explosive vision that you see at gatherings in Venice, in the Giardini, in the Corderia, in the Arsenale, with their centuries of tradition?3

Other biennial models than that of Venice were already available, principally the idea of a biennial of the South, current from 1955 onwards, that we have written about elsewhere.4 These ideas might just as easily have been adopted, but there is no evidence that they were discussed and Belgiorno-Nettis's civic-minded boosterism, nostalgia and philanthropy prevailed. He invented, underpinned and financially supported the new biennial with the organisational and curatorial resources provided by his family conglomerate, the powerful Transfield Corporation, which built bridges, railways and major infrastructure projects. …

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