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be careful what you wish for

Adam Geczy Since their rise as a global phenomenon in the 1980s, biennales have undergone a striking evolution. They were first touted as offering their local publics a snapshot, or slice, of what was happening around the world, so that one emerged with a general impression of the main preoccupations of contemporary art of recent time. This proved far too arduous, maybe hubristic a task and curators turned to philosophical propositions hopefully germane to the near present moment, into which the chosen artists could be positioned. This too proved rather specious, since most artists were either hanging on the theme by their fingernails or not at all. Now it is neither of these so that art may just be art; ideas have become freeform, while the curatorial dogma lapses into a comfortably torpid, incontestably everything-and-nothing abstraction. The Transfield sponsorship debacle that flared up as the Biennale of Sydney was being launched only served to highlight the extent to which such large and expensive festivals are in the hands of corporate interests. Hence the crisis of the biennale model that has been the topic of much debate amongst critics and curators for the last decade is an integer of a much greater crisis that includes that of democracy itself, and the extent to which it is beholden to large corporations. Now that biennales have abandoned any ambition to make any great claims about what is a dizzyingly diffuse artworld, art can be served up as its own special kind of entertainment, basking in the afterglow of corporate beneficence, whose sole request is that there be someone diligent standing at the turnstile counting the visitors. As perverse as this may at first sound, one could also say that the Transfield sponsorship issue was salutary. Salutary because it allowed the artists to show the public how thoroughly engagé they really were and to give the sense, however remote, that they were independent of the invidious corporate rod. However, “thoroughly” and “really” are perhaps ill-chosen words, since most of the artists who withdrew ended up exhibiting. Others were content with signing a petition, the most bloodless and meekest form of protest, a protest that will always be ineffective if it has nothing to do with the constituency of a marginal political seat. Certainly bitterness eroded the extraordinarily feel-good air that artistic director, Juliana Engberg engendered in press releases and the Biennale’s catalogue. In her essay for the latter she avers that “artists are active philosophers”, which lends an air of high-mindedness to the whole affair, especially for those with no investment in art or philosophy. The simple truth is that art is not philosophy, which is why it is art. Their concerns may overlap but their approaches and the way they are apprehended remain dramatically different. While in any large spectacle there are bound to be works with profundity and complexity, to dignify some of the works in this Biennale as philosophical is equivalent to expecting to be able to discuss John Duns Scotus’ “univocity of being” with Kim Kardashian.1

Nonetheless, Engberg’s catalogue spin drew from the ragbag of Continental philosophy, with conveniently glancing references to Nietzsche, Kant, Baudelaire and Sartre. With the swagger of a seasoned intellectual confident enough to lapse into bathos, Engberg ends the first section with: “But I’m with Seal (and Patsy Cline). We’re never gonna survive, unless we get a little bit crazy. And so enters desire.” Here the artist as philosopher is effectively jettisoned as soon as he or she is named, becoming the whacky, crazy jester, the left-of-field eccentric, the lateral thinking bon vivant. In this examination of the term “desire” we meet Freud, Aristotle, Lacan and Slavoj Žižek. Art is formulated as “the ungraspable, unsayable surplus” that arises from the endless production of desire that is at the core of our being. This is lofty and somewhat open-ended. It is so abstract as to be almost incontestable: we know that art is art because it is not anything else; it is not a newscast or a manifesto, but rather communicates through abstractions and gives us access to what simpler forms of language cannot manage. Art’s interminable ambiguity means it must be interpreted and intuited, and thus its ability to dig us to the quick is also what enables it to misunderstood and maybe ignored. Art embraces the irrational and, yes, offers us views of the world that are different from those conventionalised by social mores and the media (if these haven’t already merged). So after we have walked through the pantheon of august (all male) personages we end up at square one: “I give you art in all its glory.” In the catalogue and in various press statements Engberg enthuses about “joy”, “hope” and “love”. But this air of positivity, in such statements and press releases was so thick that it began to beg a greater query, not least about the diversionary nature of entertainment, and again, what art might best achieve in the present age. As any clinical psychologist is apt to tell you, one of the causes of suicide in all ages is that of the expectation that one should be happy. We live in a secular world in which religious belief is widely discredited, telling us there is no afterlife—and yet in the same breath we are told to be hopeful. We live in a world in which we are asked how we are by people unknown to us, to which we reply positively irrespective of our status. We live in a world where people tell us to have nice day and where cities and countries are rated on their level of happiness. Today’s obsession with happiness occurs at precisely the time when there are numerically more unhappy people than ever lived in the history of mankind, and where this unhappiness is jealously maintained. Curiously enough, the title for this Biennale, “Imagine What You Desire”, is a phrase that conjures its cynical counterpart, “be careful what you wish for”, a corrective that pits desire against its factual consequences. Contemporary society has not only imagined, but realised a great deal of desire (not to mention the hyperbolic proportion of pornography on the Internet), which has had disastrous consequences. This is not to argue that curators should be presenting a vale of death, and a biennale about the

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Contemporary Visual Art + Culture BROADSHEET | 43.2  

June issue of Broadsheet: Presents a major critical analysis of the Biennale of Sydney, international biennales, artist and activist protes...

Contemporary Visual Art + Culture BROADSHEET | 43.2  

June issue of Broadsheet: Presents a major critical analysis of the Biennale of Sydney, international biennales, artist and activist protes...

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