Today the Art Student and I popped into town with a visiting Melburnian friend to stroll around the MCA for a couple of stimulating hours. It was our second excursion to the Biennale. We went out to Cockatoo Island a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t make the time to blog about that, and to judge by the program we missed some of the most interesting things out there. We did see Cai Guo-Qiang’s Exploding Cars, walk on the shanty town rooftops of Kadia Attia’s Kasbah, and chortle uneasily at Shen Shaomin’s Summit. Today we were greeted at the door by two of Shen Shaomin’s bonsai works, which at first glance deliver much less punch than the realistic corpses of Communist leaders in Summit, but after we’d seen half a dozen of his tortured trees, even without being able to read the ideograms describing how they had been manipulated, we treated them with due respect.
The walls of the first large room at the MCA are covered with big colour photographs, a hundred pairs of which one is a domestic space and the other a person standing back to camera. I imagine there are people who are capable of standing in this room and spotting the unifying motif. I looked up the program and told my companions and one or two other people – no one complained about the spoiler. (If you want to know more, you can click here.) The artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, created the memorable Old People’s Home, which we saw in Tokyo last year.
There’s far too much in this exhibition for one visit, or one blog entry. I was struck by the amount of Indigenous art – from Australia, of course, but also from New Guinea, the Arctic, the Americas and Europe. One large room on the top floor is devoted to 110 larrakitj (memorial poles) by 41 Yolngu artists from East Arnhem Land, and it’s a knockout. There’s brilliant trompe l’oeil, wonderful sculptural play, images reminiscent of the Mexican Día de los Muertos, shimmer to make your eyes water. A place to just stand and stare. I took my one phone photo there. It might give you some idea.
I tend to skip video installations in art galleries, and I saw at least two pieces today that confirmed my expectations of amateurish sound recording / acting / design, and did less than nothing for me. But Bill Viola’s Incarnation is totally magical. Two naked people walk towards the camera in slowmo, and it turns out that the graininess of the image is caused by a veil of water falling between us and them. They walk through the veil and are suddenly clear and in full colour. After a long moment, they turn around, go back through the water, and walk away until they vanish into the granularity of the screen. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video triptych is a delight of a different order. On each of three screens a life sized print of a famous nineteenth century European painting is set up in the open air in front of a group of Thai peasants, who sit with their backs to the camera and chat among themselves, mostly about the painting. We get subtitles. The naked woman sitting with clothed men in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe provoked quite a bit of anthropological speculation: ‘I suppose it’s cooler to go like that in hot weather’ ‘Is it a funeral custom?’ etc. Millet’s Gleaners and Van Gogh’s Midday Sleep were less mysterious, but there was much discussion of the exact nature of the crops and activities in each picture, the weather and the state of the fields. Not for these peasants our cringing sense of inadequacy when confronted with what we’ve been told is Great Art.
There was a lot else. Angela Ellsworth’s Seer Bonnets, beautiful to the eye, are made of pearl headed pins, thousands of them, all viciously pointing inwards to where the wearer’s head will be. Louise Bourgeois has made fascinating sculptures from old clothes. Salla Tykkå’s video Victoria spends 10 minutes watching a waterlily bloom and grow, possibly in a greenhouse in Kew Gardens in London.
We had lunch in Glebe, and drove our friend to the airport less sure that Sydney is Philistine-ville. Then I realised I’d lost my wallet and will now draw up a list of all the cards I need to replace.