Top Ten: Sydney Biennale 2012

Biennale(s) seem to demand the spectacular. We seek out something with a wow factor, and like the circus freaks we secretly wish to witness we gush over technical mastery and audacity. After waiting for two years, we want each show to be more than the everyday, more than just a good exhibition. But what if there was a biennale that refused to do this? What if there was a biennale that quietly slipped into town, showed numerous artists that were not already in the top ten and then quietly left again. Too many people have told me the current Biennale of Sydney “all our relations” disappointed. But with a catalogue of some of the smartest writing I have read alongside art for a long time, (Brian Massumi and Erin Manning add new layers that demonstrate the importance of movement, event and materiality in the face of the withdrawn object, alongside Latour’s compositionist manifesto that withstands repeated re-reading) I’m starting to be suspicious that this exhibition is much more than the languages and experiences that usually surround such ventures allow. This year’s top ten is a list of the works that infiltrated my thoughts, small gestures that I became fond of, things that took time (whether or not I thought they were yucky or nice). These are the works that remain.
1. Almagnl Menlibayeva (Kazakhstan) and Bahar Behbahani (Iran) Ride the Caspian 2011.
Two channel HD video, colour, surround sound, SYNC video, 11:46
Woman becomes fox while men sit in suits with water lapping at their shoes. The oil wars are here.
2. Jess MacNeil (Australia) The Shape of Between 2006.
Digital video 16:9 HD, Blu-ray, Stereo, 12:59 mins (infinite loop). Sound by Marcus Kaiser.
Space is formed across a tense surface of negotiation. There is no resolution, boats move, people adjust their weight, the audience shuffles a little and a breath of wind breaks the surface of the water.
3. Jananne Al-Ani (Iraq) Shadow-Sites I 2010.
Location still from single-channel, digitised Super 16mm Film, Stereo, 14:20 mins.
This is a record containing horror. Spaces are marked by sound and slowly become shadows. The omnipotent gaze that we tend to attribute to Google rises again above the surface of lived experience, ants crawl and I feel a tug, a fear of the known unknown.
4. Fujiko Nakaya (Japan) Living Chasm – Cockatoo Island 2012.
water-fog, SUS foglines with 1000 nozzles, high-pressure pump and motor system, four electro-magnetic ball valves, anemometer and timer control system.
A huge sense of achievement as i find myself floating on a gantry above the earth. In the clouds everything is fine. The air is moist, my camera will not work, but I’m here, up high and face to face with a cave in which someone a long long time ago found themselves shackled to a wall.
5. Liu Zhuoquan (China) Where are You? 2011.
glass bottles, oil paint, Chinese paint and sealing wax. dimensions variable.
Part of the fear of a new country is learning to live with the wild. These snakes would not let me sleep, if I shut just one eye they would move, shatter their jars and (just as Sigorney Weaver predicted) escape their containment.
6. Alex Finlay (Britain) Swarm (ASX) 2012.
wooden beehives, audio. dimensions variable (sound engineering by Chris Watson)
Another example of containment but this time the energy was livid. Hundreds, thousands of lives were at stake. The power of a single phone call could change the course of the world. What the bees know is that it is exactly a year since the USA narrowly avoided default.
7. Eva Kotàtkova (Czech Republic) Theatre of Speaking Objects 2012.
mixed media installation, performance. dimensions variable.
The objects were silent when I visited the second time, I liked it better this way. The collage, the musing, the playful whimsy of collage and line. And the library perfectly organised but inaccessible. Visible yet hidden, legible yet in need of translation. Should be called the theatre of disobedient objects.
8. Peter Robinson (Aotearoa) Gravitas Lite 2012.
polystyrene. dimensions variable.
Robinson makes heavy objects float and light objects sink. The weight of air was measured inside a massively confined space, larger than could be imagined. I choked on the memory of off cuts stuck to the carpet belonging to the ‘man in the hat.’
9. Erin Manning (Canada) Stitching Time – A Collective Fashioning, 2012
fabric, magnets, buttons, thread and metal wire. dimensions variable.
The tenacity of conversation mixed with uncertainty. For the first month I avoided it completely. I don’t like floaty fabric, I tend to run quickly from anything that wants me to ‘interact’. I don’t like to behave. So how to engage a work that simply refused to talk to me? I looked to the edges. Pia Ednie-Brown’s cottonbud protective layers, Lone’s patient and careful analysis of buttons, and Erin’s gracious intimacy over tea allowed me in, just a little. Afterward I thought more about events, stillness and affect beyond the object. If matter vibrates I don’t need to be clothed by it, I don’t need to touch it. I can be alongside it, taking in its words. No need for more.
10. Guido Van Der Werve (The Netherlands) Nummer Acht: Everything is going to be alright 2007.
16mm transferred to digital video, colour, silent, 10:10 minutes
There are other solo dances that I prefer, and i wanted darkness. Its meditation was disturbed by the caribou watching behind me. They needed to find another room.
11. Phil Hastings (USA) Steadfast 2009.
High definition video, variable 7 minute loop.
Really on the list because it reminded me of a work by dear friends. A house withstands a wave. Again and again. The torture for this house is slowed, nearly stationary water becomes force, turbulence, motion. Liquid becomes solid.
12. Nicholas Hlobo (South Africa) Inkwili 2012.
rubber, ribbon, hosepipe and packaging material, 300 x 1200 x 400 cm
More water. The creature lets out a final gasp. Tied, tangled in the waste of a harbour so polluted the fish are toxic and starved by a complete disregard for its need for constant hydration, this lost thing begged for compassion.