Tuesday, November 21, 2006

'Politics in Aspic' Zones of Contact

2006 Sydney Biennale June-August
'Politics in aspic', a close friend said of the 2006 Biennale of Sydney Zones of Contact, and try as I might I cannot disagree with him.
Artistic Director and Curator Charles Merewether, along with the biennale staff, have made a big biennale. To the casual observer Zones of Contact may seem to be more about numbers than problems or solutions.

From 100 collaborating curators, 44 countries visited by Charles Merewether, 85 artists and 16 locations, through to Antony Gormley’s impertinent installation Asian Field, this edition of the Sydney Biennale, moulded in aspic or not, is the art history biennale, a treatise for the underrepresented with an adjunct exhibition.

Zones of Contact, Merewether’s framework, has resulted in a political and sociological semblance where, to quote the catalogue, ‘zones in daily life’ (‘war zone, hot zone, danger zone, no-fly zone, border zone, strike zone, combat zone, free zone, comfort zone, forbidden zone, pleasure zone, erogenous zone, symbolic zone') are symbolic of our contemporary lived experience.

Such a broad framework has resulted in a disjointed and self-conscious exhibition. The various zones do not interrelate or exchange, not that it is essential that they do, however, this biennale fails in its address of the contemporary lived experience that is ‘fragmentary, inconclusive, without totality’ precisely because the attempt to represent those geographies, discourses, and politics that are considered underrepresented by the western institution is misrepresented. The artists working for the underrepresented actually live and work in the centre.

Excluding the incoherent zoning, there were intermittent examples of work that confidently announced their own more plainspoken concerns, objectives and histories. Albanian born Adrian Paci’s Noise of Light 2006, a six metre high chandelier hung from the ceiling at Pier 2/3 under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is powered by ten noisy and polluting petrol generators that are started every half hour or so. Kazakhstan’s Almagul Menilbayeva’s installation comprises three videos I will never forget this 2005–06, SteppenBaroque 2003 and Apa 2003, which are displayed on monitors sitting on a bed of soil and viewed from a makeshift scaled down roadway. Naked women dance, roll and swirl in rivers and snowscapes in what Menilbayeva describes as ‘Punk Romantic Shamanism’. Paci and Menilbayeva both work within the bounds of contemporary sociological praxis by using an aesthetic as critique or commentary as opposed to the more familiar documentary mode found throughout Zones of Contact.

At Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Câlin Dans’ Emotional Architecture2—Sample City 2003, where a man roams Bucharest carrying a door on his back, is one of the more engaging video works found in Zones of Contact. With many video works lasting more than 30 minutes, the documentary mode becomes ineffectual and counter intuitive in the biennale context because the installation of the works does not allow for effective shared viewing. Fighting for headphones and beanbag space does not invite patient engagement with complex and sensitive subjects.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has installed 72 robotically controlled fluorescent tubes on the ceiling of the foyer. Controlled by three computerised surveillance systems, the lights of Homographies 2006 spin 360º tracking your movement through the space. Light relief from the numerous documentaries, this work is a novel one-liner critique of the surveillance heavy world we have created.

Similarly engaging but more complexly layered in its relationships with the viewer is Damián Ortega’s Inverted Power 2006, where from a crucifix shaped frame hang house-bricks on strained rubber ropes. Ortega’s work, along with Milica Tomic’s Container 2006 at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, show the possibility of contact with local histories, politics and sociologies in a compact and reticent form. Tomic’s Container, a shipping container filled with bullet holes, becomes a monument to a reported event where the US Army in Afghanistan shot at a shipping container filled with captured Taliban after the captives had requested some airholes.

Zones of Contact is an academic exercise. Idealised as a platform for the underrepresented, the resulting exhibition is obvious and conventional in its intention, and notably disengaged with local issues such as Sydney’s recent race riots and other pertinent social and political zones in Australia. Where are the immigration zones, the racist zones, the mandatory detention zones?
Jarrod Rawlins
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