SUPERPOSITION 2018 Mischa Kuball: Notes on the Sydney Biennale

Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation of a levitating human being.
© Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018

Sincere in its depiction of crucial social issues, the 21st edition of the Sydney Biennale (16 March to 11 June 2018) proved it has come of age. In Mami Kataoka from Japan, head curator of the Mori Gallery in Tokyo, it also finally appointed an artistic director from the Asia-South Pacific region.

With SUPERPOSITION, a term borrowed from quantum mechanics, Kataoka aimed a magnifying glass at “conflicting ideas across all levels of humanity: different cultures; readings of nature and the universe; political ideologies and systems of government; interpretations of human history” (Mami Kataoka), illustrating locally how these factors interact globally.

NO GOOD NEWS ARE BAD NEWS

The bad news first: there was no catalogue – at least not in printed form!
 
  • Catalogues © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018.
  • Art is Easy. © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018.
While this may not be newsworthy in the digital age, it still meant that anyone who, like me, visited this year’s 21st edition of the Sydney Biennale had to make do with a descriptive exhibition guide and, unlike Venice or Sao Paulo, eventually leave town without any excess baggage. Yet the lower ground of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) featured an instructive room entirely dedicated to the special history of this biennale, with posters and beautiful catalogues providing a fitting overview.
 
  • Samson Young's mute orchestra. © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018.
  • SEMICONDUCTOR © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018.
  • SEMICONDUCTOR © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018.
Indeed, the lower ground of the AGNSW focused the senses, be it through Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation of a levitating human being or through Samson Young’s mysterious mute orchestra that made us ‘tune in’ to Tchaikovsky in a new way. A panoramic projection by SEMICONDUCTOR, a collective from Brighton, seemed to open a virtual window into a technoid laboratory world where everything explains itself and anything seems possible.

MERGING PRODUCTION AND RESONANCE  

One level further down, a project by Oliver Beer fully capitalised on the resonance of physical bodies: Two women and two men each sounded and sang songs with different cultural connections to one another that resonated in the other person’s mouth, confronting visitors with a highly condensed amalgamation of production and resonance and creating moments of striking intimacy along with an idea of body politics. Unsurprisingly, all live performances at the Sydney Opera House were sold out.

Oliver Beer © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018. Curator Mami Kataoka finally fulfilled the original topographical focus of the first Biennale of 1973 with a spotlight on the South Pacific region – from Tiffany Chung’s embroidered world map of global migrations to Michaël Borreman’s dystopian models and a massive crystal ball by Ai Wei Wei that gave little cause for optimism for the future.

Ai Wei Wei © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018 RETURN TO INVESTMENT

The layout of the various exhibition locations in Sydney – a city that is currently reinventing itself in the form of major urban projects like Western Sydney and Darling Harbour – could well have led visitors to assume they would be able to rely on a common thread. This expectation was consciously foiled. Thus, Michael Stevenson’s reconstruction of two start-ups at Carriageworks found itself in lively competition with the Fashion Week sponsored by Mercedes Benz. This was particularly delicate not least because the previous Biennale had asked the sponsorship question so loudly that artists had made their participation contingent on it. You could be forgiven for thinking that this, too, may have led to a more focused edition (sans catalogue?) this time, which nonetheless successfully directed the gaze towards contemporary discourses.

SHOW YOUR COLOURS!

At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), visitors walked straight into a fully equipped propaganda room by Canadian artist Ciara Phillips. Her protest aesthetics were reminiscent of Berkeley nun Sister Corita who had helped creatively shape the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s.
Tom Nicholson’s Untitled wall drawing meticulously recorded border demarcations in Australia since 1901 – a silent protest. In contrast, Jacob Kirkegard had turned the cacophony of everyday life into a droning wall.

PRISON ISLAND

Since 2008, the Biennale has used Cockatoo Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site right in the middle of Sydney’s harbour, as an exhibition space. Here, Ryan Gander’s work aimed to restrict visitors’ freedom. A sense of moving around under the constant threat of potentially being on a film set contributed to this feeling just as much as the dystopian, whitewashed scenario that forced viewers into a passive and distanced form of participation. Everything they saw was choreographed by the artist and could not be influenced – an almost harsh form of exclusion from participation.
 
  • Ryan Gander © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018
  • Ryan Gander © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018
Suzanne Lacy’s Circle and Square offered a different approach, uniting protagonists from different cultures involved in the textile industry and its slow decline in Northern England. Similar to Germany in the 1960s, “they called for workers, and human beings came.” Powerful choirs commanded attention, bearing witness to a variety of cultural regions: unadulterated oral history.

Suzanne Lacy © Archive Mischa Kuball, 2018 Indeed they also referred to the history of the location itself as a historic resonance chamber. After all, Cockatoo Island was not just a military base but also a place that stood for the exploitation of convict labour.

Conversion is therefore as much a topic for the curator and her artists as it is for the local city planners. In Sydney, Mami Kataoka presented these disruptions and contradictions, where they formed a highly condensed, critical amalgam, without shying away from moral gestures and socially relevant questions.

You wished she (and we, the visitors) had had a philanthropic (and bibliophile) sponsor – otherwise:

The bad news last – there was no catalogue!