16th Biennale of Sydney, Revolutions – Forms That Turn
June – September 2008
Interview with Artistic Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
Natalie King: Can you expand on your theme of ‘turning upside down’ from an aesthetic, psychological and political perspective?
CCB: Basically, it’s a question of changing perspectives; looking at things from a different point of view. One of the most obvious ways of looking at something from a different point of view is to turn it upside down. Sometimes when you change your point of view, new avenues and new possibilities appear, and we are in a particular period of society worldwide where changing point of view is actually very hard; because the media tends to direct the way points of view should be held, and are to be held. It’s actually a quite difficult question to answer without any examples. I think the most typical example in art would be Marcel Duchamp turning the urinal upside down, so turning upside down can mean to change the function. You de-functionalise the object as an aesthetic strategy removing the use value of something. If you cannot read a landscape that’s been turned upside down as a landscape, you are removing the use value of the figurative aspect of the landscape. On the one hand it becomes abstract but on the other hand it becomes surreal. Surrealism as we all know was a space where politics, psychoanalysis and aesthetics merged, as a form of radical subversion in western art history – Andre Breton and so on. That’s what I mean by turning upside down in a broader sense; it doesn’t mean only a literal turning upside down but shifting points of view, changing perspective. And of course removing the normal functioning role, so turning something upside down politically might mean for example breaking a machine in a factory, as the Luddites would do. It means acting in a way that disrupts the functioning of productive society.
NK: How did you arrive at this particular concept for the Sydney Biennale and what are its local resonances?
CCB: There are many resonances with the Australian context. I normally live in Italy, so the legacy of Latin culture is of course important and runs through my gaze on contemporary art. In Antiquity in Rome there was an expression ‘Terra Australis Incognita’. Of course, Australis comes from the etymology of the word indicating a wind, one of the winds: the Austral wind. This continent was imagined as an upside down continent in European culture. Of course, once the colonisation occurred, what was considered a ‘Terra Nullius’ (an empty land) was actually a land with a very ancient culture and people living there for a long long time; so from that perspective – from an Australian perspective – the West is perhaps an upside down culture, or an upside down location, where for example time is more important than place which is upside down from the perspective of an indigenous philosophy.
I had always wanted to do an exhibition about the etymology of the word ‘revolution’, and the contrast between what one associates with the word – which means a sudden and abrupt change – and the etymology of the word, which means to turn and turn again so actually there is no change; as the planets revolving or as an LP record revolves on a record player. This contradiction between the normal usage of the word and the etymological meaning of the word is one of those contradictions and gaps that open up a whole territory for thinking as to why this happens. Why this may have occurred is as interesting as what the occurrence means.
To be more specific, there is an artwork called Socle du monde (Base of the World) made in the early 1960s by Piero Manzoni in a park in Herning, Denmark, and it’s an upside down plinth. If you look at the plinth and turn your head upside down to read the text, which is “Socle du monde”, you make a reversal in your mind and actually flip the globe upright onto the plinth you notice that Australia is more or less on the other side. So, it seemed the perfect location to finally do the exhibition about revolutions and the ambiguity and double meaning of the work. Upside down, or right side up – revolution as a radical change or revolution as a turn within a harmony of continuous repetition. Revolution as repetition.
NK: The notion of ‘revolution’ has clear political overtones – how are you engaging with local politics especially our recent change in government and momentous ‘apology’ to the Aboriginal Stolen Generation? How are you tackling the legacy of Charles Merewether’s previous Sydney Biennale with its focus on migration, itinerancy and displacement?
CCB: I’m not ‘tackling’ the previous Biennale of Sydney in any way. I enjoyed the previous Biennale and saw many works that were engaging and interesting, and that focused on indeed those issues of migration, itinerancy and displacement. This exhibition is different in that it doesn’t focus on migration, itinerancy and displacement but why in the world would you do two Biennales in a row on the same subject? I think there are clear political overtones, however these emerge from the location where psychoanalysis, psychology of perception, and politics, meet. I believe that no political revolution can begin without a personal and singular revolution. If you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X you understand that it is always about the individual revolution first and foremost. That was at the basis of all Black Panther Party positions as well. It’s about a singular individual revolution within the self, and then by extension and only by extension can it be a more broadly general political revolution. I suppose I address issues of phenomenology, the body in space, movement, the construction of form and experience through movement. All of the artists and all of the works that are in the exhibition are based on such forms of displacement, let’s say of perception, are also inherently about a broader revolution. If you were to ask René Magritte why he painted the paintings he painted, he would say ‘as a Marxist I believe that one of the only spaces of freedom is the one inside my brain and that cannot be colonised’. If you asked Aleksandr Rodchenko why he invented the Spatial Constructions, he would say that it was about a revolutionary new form in a revolutionary new society. So, I would say that there are politics, but the politics are the politics of aesthetics, much closer to, say, the thinking of Jacques Rancière, than to the thinking of art as activism. I believe that you can be a feminist but not a woman. For example William Kentridge is clearly a post-feminist artist in the way that he never defines the finality of a drawing, and there’s a constant celebration of uncertainty, failure of the narrative, a layering that is post-feminist, so it has nothing to do with being a woman or a man. By extension you can make a tremendously authoritarian and basically fascist work of art even if you are talking about issues of displacement, migrancy and itinerancy; whereas you can make a radically democratic and politically radical work of art on those same issues, and it all has to do with how the gaze is positioned, and how the medium (being the message) is being used, how the technology is being used. Is the technology used against itself to break the power structures that that technology was created for, to alienate people? Or is that technology just serving the purpose of reinforcing those same structures of alienation that are perpetrated through that technology and used in people’s daily lives. The internet can be a space of freedom and the internet can be a space of alienation. The internet is neither good nor bad, politically. The video can be a space of alienation and the video can be a space of liberation. For example, high definition is a clearly politically fraught terrain as it is creating a space of access only to the more powerful people – to have a high definition projector costs a lot more money than a standard projector, and suddenly the flooding of the market with 16:9 ratio high definition cameras is a reactionary thing that’s happening right now and has to do with making the medium inaccessible to the masses, and actually the ‘bad definition’ videos uploaded on YouTube are a form of Arte Povera in many cases, so they’re a form of breaking of the high definition world, right now. I think it’s very much about the politics of language not the language of politics.
I’m very fortunate and lucky to be able to do a Biennale at the time of this recent change in Government in Australia, and honoured to be doing it at the time of this momentous apology to the Aboriginal ‘Stolen Generation’. I think it was overdue and is an important moment for Australian history. Of course an apology has to be followed by real events, but it is a step in the right direction. I think the issues with the relationship between western colonisers and their descendents on the one hand and the Aboriginal people here on the other is a huge question. I see a great poverty which is not right, and I see the wonderful positive nature of the introduction of Aboriginal art made today in the field of contemporary art in museums. However I also see the sweatshops and the great market increase of values that these paintings have (without any resale rights going back to the communities from which they emerged), so I see many problems. I think part of the wealth of Australia is the mines and I don’t see the money going back to the Aboriginal people, who are the traditional owners of the land. I’m shocked to find that in this country there are no rich Aboriginal people whereas in the USA I see many wealthy people from all the minorities. It is very strange to me that there are no economic powers that are Aboriginal in this country. I would say that there is a very long road ahead but at the same time I’m very happy and honoured to be working here at this time. I’ve asked many of my Aboriginal friends and so far everyone has been very in favour of this apology, both artists and non-artists, so I think that if they are in favour it means that something right was done.
NK: Your curatorial practice often hinges on an historical kernel. How do you intend to integrate historical and contemporary artworks?
CCB: I think everything is contemporary. Anything that exists in the world is from a philosophical perspective contemporary. Is the water that laps the harbourside contemporary or ancient? I think it’s both. And the air that we breathe…I mean of course a specific flower has died and a new one has grown, but is that ontologically from a philosophical standpoint different than the water that is in the harbour? Therefore a painting that was made in the Middle Ages, if it exists today and I can perceive it, is contemporary. I actually think that nothing in the world exists. I am a sceptic and believe that there is nothing outside of what I can perceive, and everything that I can perceive is part of the contemporary field, because it means with time, and everything that is with place, cum loco, is also cum temporis, all of today. Basically I think there was an artificial distinction between what was made in the past and what was made today and that’s a consumer distinction, but in the past it was never so. Raphael would repaint a fresco of someone before him just to fix it and it was neither of Raphael’s time nor of the time prior, it was just of the place, of that Chapel. I don’t believe in this artificial distinction which I think has been created only for the purpose of marketing the new products, new artists and so on. It’s like in any field of our society; if you consider the old video camera as old and the new camera as new then obviously you are encouraging the acquisition of the new video camera. But maybe a more ecological perspective might be of more use.
NK: Who are the core artists and what has been your methodology for selection? How are your 12 curatorial ‘comrades’ contributing?
CCB: I don’t know if there are any ‘core’ artists. I think if an artist is doing a project that is only in the online venue, such as Ahmet Ögüt, or if an artist is doing a very elaborate project with say the Redfern community like Michael Rakowitz is, I wouldn’t call one of them ‘core’. Core suggests a hierarchy. I really think Romaine Moreton’s poem in the catalogue is just as important as Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s major installation at Pier 2/3. So I would instead use the word constellation of artists and artworks that appear and disappear; some taking up more physical space some taking up less, some taking up more budget some taking up less.
Methodology of selection: I think it’s an organic process. It’s true over the years I’ve tended to work with the same artists time and time again, and develop relationships with them that might go from a small participation in a group show to writing a monograph and doing a survey exhibition. That is one of the things that has characterised my practice as a curator. So you’ll see long-term engagement with artists like Pierre Huyghe, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, William Kentridge and others. It makes a constellation from which other things are logically attached as an organic process. Sometimes artists will suggest other artists. The comrades provide a collaborative knowledge. Hans Ulrich Obrist is a little bit younger than myself but more or less a colleague that I highly respect as a major figure in curatorial practice over the 1990s, and our relationship dates back to 1992 when I invited him to Rome to participate in a project on the relationship between high and low, marginal and central, core and not core and so on, and he brought a beautiful project about weeds to Rome. Ever since then we have worked together off and on; I would say he’s a friend and colleague, someone that I bounce ideas back and forth with, I think quite a free thinker. The other comrades are younger than me, for example Raimundas Malasauskas, Russell Storer, Natasha Conland, Massimiliano Gioni, Jessica Morgan, Hetti Perkins and so on. I think it’s in the pleasures of not thinking that one arrives at wisdom. I mean one never arrives at wisdom and it’s very interesting to see the perspectives of younger people and people from different contexts, Kathryn Smith from South Africa and so on and so forth, with different backgrounds. So there are no rules about how they should participate. Some have suggested artists and some have suggested ideas. It’s more about a collaborative form of knowledge that is more complex and contradictory than I could put together by myself. I think we’re in an age where it’s very hard for an individual without conversations to contribute to culture today in the way that an individual could in the past. There are more possibilities for sharing knowledge, but at the same time if you go back in time you’ll find that collaborative knowledge has always been part of it – look at Miracle Plays and Passion Plays in Europe in the middle ages, and go back to Homer – who was Homer? Homer was nobody, Homer was many centuries of different people. Collaborative knowledge has always formed knowledge. It’s only recently with the crazy idea of private property, which I think of the Enlightenment British idea. There never used to be passports and ID cards with photographs; that’s a very recent development of the last three centuries. I believe in sharing knowledge.
NK: How are you striking a balance between commissioning new work and utilising existing artworks?
CCB: It’s again an organic development. I don’t necessarily commission new work. Out of the conversation with artists a new work will appear on the horizon, whereas out of the conversation with other artists, a precise existing work will appear on the horizon – so it is obvious to me and Jeremy Deller that Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis’s The Battle of Orgreave must be in this exhibition because of the revolutionary potential of the strikes that Deller was re-enacting, as well as the fact that it was a re-enactment with the same miners that originally striked in the 1980s. So it’s obvious that that should be in the exhibition, whereas with Sam Durant it naturally emerges to be a new project and it was natural that Tracey Moffatt would do a new work because of the way the conversations went. So I don’t really ‘commission’ – both new and old works appear.
NK: What are the key venues and how will they be ‘activated’?
CCB: The key venues are the traditional venues – the long collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales continues, as with the Museum of Contemporary Art and Artspace. There are a few outdoor works, such as Giuseppe Penone’s and Destiny Deacon/Virginia Fraser’s work that will be in public spaces, and the collaboration with the Sydney Opera House continues with a performances by Dora Garcia and a work by Pierre Huyghe scheduled for July. Public space is a tricky space to use as it is so privatised and manipulated by the powers that are controlling desire in the urban landscape; I find it fraught with difficulties but we are using some of it. The main new key venue, aside from using again Pier 2/3 on the harbour (the only unrenovated pier in the Sydney Harbour that has been used previously by the Biennale of Sydney), and novelty for this Biennale is an island in the harbour called Cockatoo Island. It was not accessible until very recently and has probably had many, many inhabitants in pre-colonial times because of the opportunities for fishing etc. After this it housed a convict-built prison in 1830s, then a shipyard for military ship building. It was also, for a while, a reformatory for ‘wayward girls’. From the perspective of Michel Foucault, one could say that it layers everything that’s horrible in western civilisation – military power, sexual repression, the penal colony, everything. At the same time, something very strange happens when you’re on the island with its 52 buildings and lanes, big industrial buildings and domestic houses. What happens is you feel you’re in a location of respite. Through the looking glass onto a reversed Sydney. A mirror image or upside down Sydney – you see downtown Sydney from the island but you can’t buy anything; you can’t see any single piece of marketing. The drama of our society and of our cities is the overwhelming dominance of marketing strategies and advertising that overwhelms our lives. I think that the real prisons are the downtown areas of our cities. Cockatoo Island even with its history gives us such a sense of relief, an opportunity to see the city at a distance. I hope it will continue to be used as a venue. It is a curatorial paradise, can you imagine 52 empty buildings to use as you wish – bigger than the Arsenale and Giardini in Venice put together. It is a beautiful location for the artists who don’t have to be crammed into a supermarket/shopping-mall exhibition. You can take a few minutes to walk around the exhibition and pause between works, giving an autonomy and space around each project that is not possible in a normal museum. So I’m using the empty spaces and the voids as well as part of the exhibition.
NK: What kind of events, public programs and performances are you scheduling?
CCB: A little bit of movement and life doesn’t hurt. For example one of the most interesting events is with Australian artist Ross Gibson who will be in kind of a ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ environment to quote Melville. He will be ‘installed’ at his desk near Bruce Nauman’s The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths, 1967, and he will be holding conversations as revolutionary spaces of twists and turns and encounters of thoughts between different people, throughout the Biennale until September at the AGNSW. Another live performance event will be Stuart Ringholt’s Anger Workshops at AGNSW. Another event is Ana Prvacki’s performance at the MCA – which involves learning to play the flute as a technique for producing saliva, because saliva contains natural pain killers, so she’s creating ‘pain killer serum’ through learning to play the flute. Another live event is Dora Garcia who is enacting the performance that Lenny Bruce was supposed to have done when he came to Australia in the early 1960s. He was a wonderful and radical stand-up comedian who was paid to come out and do his show, but came out on stage and said ‘what a fucking wonderful audience’, got immediately arrested, thrown out with his passport stamped ‘no re-entry allowed into Australia’. So the fact that over 40 years later we would be doing the performance that Lenny Bruce was never able to do, through the imagination and projection the artist has created, at the Sydney Opera House, is fantastic. Liam Gillick is coming to give his talks at the end of the exhibition, and William Kentridge himself will do a very innovative new work which involves walking a fine line between what a lecture and performance is, and will be interacting with his own projected self. This will be a new development for Kentridge’s work that he’s never done before, even as a theatre person. There are older and younger artists doing events and performances throughout the Biennale, and I consider these on the one hand to be simply reflecting the reality of our time – I think many artists at the moment are interested in ephemeral works and works involving body – Tony Schwensen will be giving a performance in front of the MCA, and Sharmila Samant will organise an auction of the thousand snakes made by people in India, with money returning to the community they were made in, it is a work that deals with the cycle of life and death and the rupture that certain transgenic manipulations of seeds brought into life and farming areas in India. Pierre Huyghe is creating a performative piece which is not really a performance but almost a still image expanded in time, so a reversal of a performance, at the Opera House.
NK: I understand that there are more works by Australian artists than in previous editions with contributions by well-known artists including Mike Parr, Simryn Gill, Shaun Gladwell, Destiny Deacon and Tracey Moffatt. How are you positioning these artists alongside their peers?
CCB: One of the problems of international biennales is the global nature of the artist’s list. I think the reason you go to see Saigon Open City, for example, is to learn about the Vietnamese artists in the exhibition, and the Istanbul Biennales have always had a wonderful presence of Turkish artists. So I think a Biennale is not just about bringing international art to the location where it’s hosted as a form of exchange, but the exchange has to go both ways – a dialogue and a conversation with the local art community. It’s interesting that the Sydney Biennale might play a stronger role in putting Australian artists on the map than including them in the Venice Biennale for example, it’s the reverse of 20 or 30 years ago. So I think an important part of its role is to highlight them. I don’t really plan how to position them exactly – they’re not in a section of their own of course there all mixed up! For example Raquel Ormella is interested in art and activism and in the relationship between revolutionary art and art of the revolution. She has of course been influenced by Joseph Beuys and his idea of the social sculpture, at the same time she questions Beuys and his heroic, shamanistic, let’s say, late patriarchal position, so what will happen is that Raquel’s work will be in direct dialogue with the first blackboard that Joseph Beuys ever made. She’s doing a series ‘whiteboards’ will be made in relation to Beuys’ ‘blackboards’, and that is one way that shows an intellectual relationship between the artists themselves. It can be between live artists but it can also be between an artist who’s alive and one who’s not alive.
NK: How are you linking the Biennale circuit for 2008 with Yokohama, Shanghai, Singapore, Gwangju through Art Compass? How are you negotiating regional inflections in the Sydney Biennale?
CCB: I think that’s not really a question that I should answer. That question is better addressed to Marah Braye, CEO of the Biennale of Sydney, because I did not actually set up Art Compass as the Artistic Director. Of course ever since I arrived here I thought it was good to connect with Singapore and Gwangju and some of the other Asian biennales, however it is not something I can explain or answer. It is true that Sydney was the beginning of establishing international exhibitions in the Asia Pacific region when it opened in 1973. It was the first periodic international exhibition in the region; Singapore was only recently added, Yokohama Triennale some time ago, Shanghai as well, Gwangju after 1993 due to the impulse and desire of Nam Jun Paik to have something like that established in his home country after the uprisings and revolution that happened there (so it’s interesting that Gwangju Biennale happened as a consequence of the revolution there). But I can say that in so far as Sydney was the beginning of this expansion of the international periodic exhibitions in the Asia Pacific region, I think its engagement in Art Compass is very important. I’m not an expert in the Asia Pacific region, and I cannot change my own biography, my background and experiences. Cleary there has been a decision made prior to my engagement to ask a curator based in Europe and this has certain consequences. They also knew I was an expert in Arte Povera so a high-tech exhibition was not to be expected. I could have spent the last two years travelling in Asia and giving my first impressions but wouldn’t it have been wiser to ask someone else who’s very knowledgeable in that area to curate the Biennale, if the focus was to be on Asia? I hope that will happen very soon for another edition. There will be works by Atsuko Tanaka and Saburo Murakami, important Gutai artists in the exhibition, and there is Jun Kurashige from Japan, and Qiu Anxiong and Chen Xiaoyun from China, but I can’t say it’s a strong Asian presence. However I can say there is a strong presence of Indian contemporary art, for example Sharmila Samant, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Bari Kumar and Ranbir Kaleka. These things have to grow organically, they can’t just happen from the top down.
NK: Finally, what is your one dream for the Sydney Biennale?
CCB: There’s not one dream, I could mention various ones. I hope for example all of the new projects will be what the artists want them to be. I hope that the historical loans will all happen but they might need to be reduced. I hope also the ‘potential’ works (that is, the failures, the projects that cannot happen) will be present as absences in the exhibition. It’s very hard to achieve that because it has to do with the idea of potentiality and withdrawal (and so the politics of Paolo Virno and Giorgio Agamben); how you can create an exhibition where you withdraw art as well as exhibit art? Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas will be doing a journey, a circling around Australia as their project – so in a way it’s withdrawn as it’s not actually visible to the audience. But I hope those experiencing the Biennale will understand the reasons for these gaps and voids, which are as important as the presences in a world that’s so commercialised. I suppose one final dream is that the experience be a poetic one. I think, ultimately, poetry and emotions are where revolutions begin. I don’t think Lenin was motivated by rational thinking. I think any impulse, any revolutionary moment is dictated by irrational emotional things that make you do things that if you thought about them carefully you’d never do. So I think the poetic dimension is the most important dimension of any survival of life or art in any world. William Blake is one of the greatest revolutionaries. How can one achieve the poetic revolutionary? Which brings me to recall Julia Kristeva. Kristeva as a psychoanalyst, semiologist and political thinker explored the nature of the impulse to revolt, and one of her first books was Revolution in Poetic Language. I suppose it’s all about the poetry.An edited version of this interview will appear in Flash Artback to SPEECHimage, Vernon Ah Kee Cant Chant 2007, installation, various