Signs of Strife?



'Signs of Strife' Art Monthly (1999)

In June-July, Melbourne hosted a new $2 million visual arts festival. What has the Melbourne International Biennial told us about the contemporary art scene? We have heard three stories thus far.

The ‘Melbourne story´ heralds the city´s debut on a global biennial circuit. With the demise of the Sculpture Triennial, Melbourne had lost its place in the national visual arts calendar. Its revived status as an international city is reflected in the decision to organise a Venice-style event, with a major exhibition accompanied by pavilion shows from participating countries. The MIB title Signs of Life reflects a re-awakened CBD that hosts a substantial residential community.

The ‘curator story´ dwells on the Herculean effort in bringing together an event of this magnitude. Juliana Engberg tells of meeting 1500 artists in travels last year. In a short space of time, she managed to not only fill eight floors of a city building, she also wrote and designed the 260 page catalogue.

Finally, the ‘art story´ observes the dominance of video in contemporary art. Engberg presents video as the ‘new fresco´ projecting art into a wide variety of public and private spaces. This follows an evolving discussion on the enduring nature of video art in forums at the Centre of Contemporary Photography and 200 Gertrude Street.

Are there other stories? While there are many rumours of a financial disaster, it is difficult to determine their truthfulness. Is no news about finances good news or bad news? Was the Biennial extended for two weeks due to public demand or to make up for lower than expected takings?

Normally, we would turn to the daily newspaper for answers to these questions. The Age was a MIB sponsor, and provided much advertising. Peter Timms initial review selected a few works for praise but otherwise castigated the curator for her ‘undisciplined´ manner. Since then, the paper has provided a regular feed of stories about the Biennial´s success. While there is no reason to doubt the truthfulness of these stories, the perceived interest of the paper in the success of the event makes it reasonable to think that other stories had been excluded.

In recent times, The Age has split into two divisions. The editorial half maintains its status as a critical news forum. Grafted onto it is a fleet of lifestyle supplements. The arts pages are now contained the Today section, among features on Austin Powers and street gossip. These pages successfully convey the life of a city, but reduce its mission as a source of critical review.

Some might argue that the dilution of critical voice in the arts pages is no great loss, as it normally plays host to quite conservative values. For these people, open discussion is something reserved more for public events such as forums. However, this is one currency in which the MIB public were undeniably short-changed.

We have come to expect that any visual arts festival is accompanied by public forums or panels where the curatorial vision can be freely discussed, even interrogated. These are open spaces where anyone should be able to ask questions or heckle from the back row. Though outsider voices are often dismissed with rolled eyes and exasperated sighs, they can bring a contrary idea into circulation. The emperor´s naked condition can be the subject of rumour without any diminution to his power; it is only when commented on publicly that his authority crumbles.

Perhaps debate has moved on to other media. There were artist talks, curatorial walk throughs, a quick response publication and ‘faves´ from guest critics. The ACAM-L (Australian Contemporary Art) mailing list featured a number of candid responses, but its audience is far from public.

The curatorial framework for Signs of Life is itself antithetical to criticism. Like her 1998 Adelaide Biennial, Engberg´s Melbourne exhibition creates a ‘safe place´ where artists can express their pre-Oedipal selves. Robert Gilgorov´s video work of birds emerging from the jaws of a carnivore host dramatises this condition of art as an unworldly haven. The professed theoretical basis for this strategy lies in psychoanalysis—a space where a troubled adult might put the shameful and messy remnants of childhood on the table. Yet while Freud´s vision of childhood was animalistic, Engberg´s Biennial is mostly warm and human.

And Scandinavian. The Nordic orientation is overt—a curator of Danish background, eight artists from Scandinavian countries and pavilions from Denmark and Norway. Conceptually, the eschewal of theory reflects a Scandinavian approach to human expression. The patriarch of the modern Danish church, NFS Grundtvig, was famous for his call Menneske Først (‘Person First´), which placed humanness before doctrine. His song of the Scandinavian congregation professed ‘If the Lord has not deceived us,/ There is nothing which has borne his house/ But the living word of God.´ As Grundtvig humanised Luther for the Danes, so Engberg recovers a psychoanalysis that offers hope in preference to tragic insight.

Video installations celebrate the spirited voices of non-stars. Three works—Susan Philipsz´ singing sisters, Gitte Villesen´s Willy and Andrea Lange´s refugees—place sincerity before professionalism. Engberg´s catalogue essays focus on the therapeutic moments. Vivien Shark le Witt reveals the ‘little girl within´. Mariele Neudecker evokes the ‘aquarium in the psychiatrists waiting room where one reverses memories and fantasies to conquer the past.´ Even Robert Gober´s potentially sinister installation of psychic plumbing is described as ‘a hopeful, renewed kind of space´.

It is possible for this framework to create powerful results, encouraging an intimate relationship between work and visitor. The Telecom building provided a calming refuge from the noisy city, which served as a welcoming gathering point for Melbourne´s art world. But this insulation also hazards that stifling Danish phenomenon of hyggeleg, or cosiness.

While there were no wall texts to restrict visitor experiences, this removed the biennial´s implicit curatorial claims from public notice. The event´s publicity did little to draw people to the event. MIB stickers with ‘You are being watched´ referred more to the paranoid strategies of Kruger-style art than the gentle anthropomorphism of Signs of Life. Sealed off from the world, the nightmare destiny of visual art is typified by Francisco Topa´s suspended snail, left isolated from its natural world to inscribe transparent solipsisms.

Victoria needs a visual arts scene that maintains its critical relevance. In an article reprinted in The Age, Graham Little described Jeff Kennett´s interview style as ‘inspirational but never a debate, disarming and difficult to challenge without seeming negative or "un-Victorian."´ Is this corporate conformity spreading to the visual arts? Would it be mean-spirited to think that obligatory labels like ‘life´, ‘fresh´, ‘vibrant´, ‘youthful´ and ‘energetic´ elide the political voice that art has inherited?

Many of the MIB shortcomings can be explained by the immense financial and logistic pressures in producing a major international arts event in only one and a half years with skeleton staff. It was an astounding feat. But criticism is necessary for a project to evolve and it is a mistake to cut off existing avenues of dissent. We have all sat through dead panel discussions, but it is wrong to blame the public for this. More often poor discussion results from a predictable choice of topics and speakers, or a chair eager to impress an overseas guest.

Aristotle is remembered as saying that ‘Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth´. The noble ideas of communism came unstuck because they were unquestioned. Criticism makes us stronger.