McKenzie Wark on Sun, 18 Oct 1998 10:04:05 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Report on the 11th Biennale of Sydney

11th Biennale of Sydney
McKenzie Wark

Walking around Pier 2 on Sydney Harbour, on brilliant spring day, its hard
not to like the 11th Biennale of Sydney. Beat Streuli has a whole room
dedicated to huge projections of colour photographs, taken at Bondi beach.
Surfers, teenagers, mums and dads, everyone looks as heroic as a classical
Greek statue. The bright light of the photographs contrasts eloquently
with the cool shade and woody aroma of the pier. 

Entering the space set aside for Ariane Epars work, I find myself looking
at a perfectly ordinary corner of the pier building. There seems to be no
art in it at all. I back up and read the title of the work. "Emerald
Green: Gritty dirt flicked from the floorboard cracks searching for the

On closer inspection, I see the water lapping beneath the pier, greener
than a lime soft drink. The attendant tells me the artist got down on her
hands and knees to get the dirt out of the cracks between the boards, and
on such a brilliant day this insane act seems like a wonderful gift, a
labour of love. 

Art critics think they review art shows. The truth is that art shows
review their critics. The mainstream newspaper critics completely failed
the test of this Biennale. Bruce James, writing in the Sydney Morning
Herald, was the only exception. The others just cranked out their

If the 11th Biennale exposed the illiteracy of the mainstream critics when
it comes to contemporary art, it also exposed the limits of the
hyper-literacy of the art theory academy. In the superb catalogue for the
show, Every Day, curator Jonathan Watkins explains how the impetus behind
his Biennale is the growing rejection of the "operatic tendencies" of art

Hence the anxiety among art theorists about this Biennale. Watkins has
chosen the one concept from cultural theory that most consistently points
to a way of escaping from its totalising clutches. The concept of the
"everyday", borrowed from Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, is
expressly designed to lead theory out of its desires account entirely for
the world in its own terms, and lead thinking back into the world and the
things people do there, day to day, in their lives. 

In his essay for the catalogue, Nikos Papastergiadis acknowledges the
force of the desire in contemporary art for "overthrowing the tyranny of
theory", but feels obliged to counsel caution. "It can lead to the
idiocies and banalities of life being reproduced under the name of art".
What he doesn't say is that the reverse is true also. This art arose as a
reaction to the banalities of theory being reproduced under the name of

Papastergiadis can't resist restating the central dogma of cultural
theory: "There is never any direct access to life -- language, culture and
the psyche are always inextricably interwoven in our every effort." Which
is most likely quite true. But it all too often gets used as a licence to
see in art nothing but the trace of language and culture. Theory abstracts
any residues of the everyday out of art in order to say how art is
actually just a symptom of some hidden social or political cause. The more
subtle, unthinkable, everyday side of art is then no longer available as a
resource, and art is trapped within theory. 

But is theory the only way to arrive at an understanding of what
Papastergiadis calls "the good life"? Maybe not. Maybe art still has a few
tricks up its sleeve for outwitting the ever vigilant and always ferocious
rhetorical energies of theory. 

Given the banality of the newspaper criticism of contemporary art,
Artspace, one of the host venues for the Biennale, put out its own little
booklet of critical writing. Called In the Everyday: critical and
Theoretical Speculations on the 11th Biennale of Sydney, its well worth
the five bucks. 

In the Artspace book, Jill Bennett points out that art doesn't have to be
about representation and signs and all of the things art theory
specialises in at all. Art is also a kind of creative productivity with
things, in the world. Returning to working with the materials of everyday
life has been a strategy for artists who are "jaded by postmodernism". By
"playing dumb" they come up with a smarter, if less articulate, kind of
practice for art. 

Far from being a renunciation of what is now the modern tradition of art,
everyday art returns to one of its key moments -- minimalism. The 11th
Biennale includes work by Carl Andre and On Kawara, two of the giants of
postwar modern art. On Kawara is represented by two simple books that
record people he met and places he went. Its a puzzling work, in which the
distance between art and everyday work is completely collapsed -- except
for the documentation of that collapse, lovingly preserved under glass. 

As David Carter once suggested, there were two kinds of postmodernism, the
wild and the cool. While Watkins reproduces the currently fashionable
antipathy for postmodernism, he is more at odds with its cool than its
wild expressions. Wild postmodernism was deeply interested in the
everyday. Cool postmodernism turned its back on anything so messy, and
refined a purely formal way of thinking about art. 

Rex Butler is a fine example of what came of cool postmodernism. Not
surprisingly, he is unimpressed with the 11th Biennale. What he finds
lacking is "aesthetics, taste, judgement", which he claims are
"unspeakable words in today's art world." 

"It is through its encounter with the other that art tests itself and
discovers what it is made of", Butler asserts. This idea of how
understanding arises is a core dogma of European critical thought. Watkins
has quite clearly proposed a more 'English" and indeed 'empirical' way of
thinking about art. Art need not confront anything as an other. It can do
just as nicely by making itself up as it goes along out of whatever is
lying around. 

Butler asserts that the everyday "arises as an effect within art". Watkins
would have it more the other way around. Art arises as an effect within
everyday life. Its not about looking out from the gallery into the world,
its about making any and every experience over into something different.
Art is different from everyday life, but it is not other to it. 

Charles Green offers the more telling criticism that Watkins' show is an
"evasion of popular culture and, even worse, the cinema". This I think
would be a more productive way of thinking about the limits of how Watkins
would have us think about the everyday. 

The everyday in the 11th Biennale is a world of knitting wool and dirt and
wood veneer shelves and dented garbage bins, but it isn't the world
saturated in the images of the mass media that so fascinated wild
postmodernism. Watkins has an answer to cool postmodernism, but he has
simply ignored its walk on the wildside, which was very much about the
media as an integral part of the everyday. 

The anxiety that I think Watkins is wrestling with is that if the everyday
is about media images as much as things, then there is no separate world
called Contemporary Art anymore. Art, media and the everyday would be
blended together in a way that challenges the institutional foundations of
the art world as much as the haughty pretensions of art theory. The more
radical side of postmodernism is evaded rather than answered. 

The everyday is about mute actions that may leave traces, but somehow
escape any attempt to account for what they mean. The art of the everyday
is about perception, experience, feeling. The art theory of the everyday
is about making distinct and different ideas out of each and every
distinct and different encounter with art. 

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