I went to the 17th Biennale of Sydney and all I got was this chip on my shoulder.

Cockatoo Island
Cockatoo Island - if hell was an art gallery

I had hoped that a trip to the 17th Biennale of Sydney would have left me a wiser person, rejuvenated and aching to get back to work after a hefty dose of art inspiration. Instead, after three days diligently making my way through the program, I was on the coach home with sore feet and sea legs, feeling jaded and full of unanswered questions.

At my worst I couldn’t help but wonder what is the point of a Biennale anyway – what is the purpose of an international festival of contemporary art in the post-Google world, where developments in art are instantly accesible?

Furthermore, I stewed, as I hurtled down the Hume highway, is the Biennale’s theme (the beauty of distance – songs of survival in a precarious age) of great importance, or no importance at all? Does it in any way shape how we experience the work selected? And is it just me or have the last three Biennale themes pretty much been variations of one other?

Accepting the Biennale as an inherently international event, what role, and how large a one, should Australian art and artists play? This brings me to one of my most persistent questions of the 17th Biennale – why so much art from Canada? After I first noticed the recurrence of Canadian artists, I assumed that artistic director David Elliot must have been Canadian, or in the least have a strong tie to the region. A little reading of his bio revealed:

‘Elliott is a cultural historian whose main interests concern contemporary art, Russian avant-garde and the visual cultures of central and Eastern Europe, Asia and the non-western world from the late nineteenth century.’

Okay, so no. The mystery continues. As it turns out many of the pieces from Canada are those that I found most enjoyable (Beau Dick, Annie Pootoogook et al), but still, what part of Biennale of Sydney says Canada to you? I can only conclude this has something to do with the meeting of post-apology cultural climates, but I also wonder if Canada was the first stop in Mr. Elliot’s research travels, he got overexcited and peaked too soon.

Another issue gnawing away at me is a sort of emptiness. I’m not being poetic, rather there seemed to not be a great deal of work, or at least in comparison with Biennales past. This was particularly noticeable at Pier 2/3 – the wonderfully cavernous space left largely empty, save a peppering of works on the perimeter. Also disappointing was the tiny token inclusion of Biennale works at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – a handful of underwhelming pieces relegated to the Gallery foyer, as opposed to the rambling feast on show throughout the galleries during the 2008 installment.

Upon seeing Cai Guo-Qiang’s crowd-pleaser Inopportune: Stage One (think suspended cars, flashing lights) I can begin to imagine where a great deal of the budget ended up

It was obvious that the main attraction was intended to be the works presented Cockatoo Island – the rusty old jewel in the modern day Biennale of Sydney crown. I can’t mince my words here: I HATE Cockatoo Island as an art venue. Allow me to explain why:

It excludes people. Yes you have to take a twenty-minute ferry to the island. Fine. But when I see the elderly, the mobility challenged and parents with prams battling their way up extreme inclines, across rough uneven terrain, through epic mud puddles and down dark tunnels I can’t help but think how selfish the whole thing is.

It’s actually dangerous. Forget your laughable workplace OH&S, I’m genuinely surprised no one has ended up dead yet. Trip hazards aside you have unstable buildings, live electricity, uncovered holes, exposed cliff edges and apparently (as signage warns) aggressive seagulls. Forget about losing yourself in the art for fear of losing yourself altogether.

You can’t find the artworks. Despite being armed with two maps and the fact that this year’s signage is a vast improvement on 2008 I missed a lot of the works on show. The experience of doggedly searching out art in this way has the unfortunate effect of raising one’s expectations to ridiculous levels. After stumbling through the mud in the icy wind while fending off seagulls a painfully dull and self-important video work is little reward.

The surroundings overshadow the art. This happens in a few different ways. Either:

– the setting is far more interesting (particularly to those with a penchant for heritage sites. Read: me)

– the work can’t be differentiated from the infrastructure around it. Either you spend an eternity looking for a work that is right in front of you, or, you spend an eternity considering and admiring a lump of wood because you think it’s a artwork and it turns out not to be. This is based on true events.

– the setting completely overdramatizes the artwork and any subtlety is lost. In 2008 it was Mike Parr’s ‘house of horrors’ that went completely OTT and now Roger Ballen falls for the same cheap treatment in the dilapidated house on the island’s hill.

– it makes it impossible to devote the necessary attention to the work. In particular I am referring to the alarming number of video works on Cockatoo Island that  near (or surpass) an hour in duration. My disdain for marathon video exists outside of the Biennale, but I cannot imagine how anyone is expected to sit them when, well, there is no where to sit, it smells, the roof leaks and there appears to be a dead bird in the corner.

If Cockatoo Island is the art world throwing down the gauntlet in a survivor-esque challenge for members of the art world then I must confess I failed most completely. But if the 17th Biennale of Sydney was meant to: ‘engage Australian and international audiences with bold and innovative contemporary art from around the world, challenging the status quo, promoting cultural exchange and inspiring audiences to experience art, themselves and their world in new and creative ways.’*

Then maybe it failed too, seeming instead to be an incoherent smattering of art on an over-ambitious island and in under-enthused institutions.

At least the free ferry ride is fun.

* From the 17th Biennale of Sydney website

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