Inaugural Biennale of Sydney (1973)

The Biennale of Sydney

November – December 1973

Founding Governor: Franco Belgiorno-Nettis AC CBE

Founding Governor Foreword

First published on the occasion of the Inaugural Biennale of Sydney (1973) 

Since 1973, and for more than a quarter century, the Biennale of Sydney has been an event of great importance for contemporary art in Australia. Over the years it has contributed to changing audience attitudes, influencing art, fashion, design, and contemporary culture. There is a new maturity making Australia part of the globalisation process in a much wider context.

I am an engineer. Transfield is a company with an Italian connection, engaged in all aspects of construction. From a local competition – the Transfield Art Prize early in the 60s – the Biennale has grown to become one of the great festivals that contribute to the quality of life we enjoy every day.

Images from the Inaugural Biennale of Sydney

My love affair with Venice, where I have been a frequent visitor for years, is the source of inspiration for the Biennale. How do you break the isolation of Australia, which I felt strongly myself in the early 50s? How do you inject that flavour of international extravaganza, originality and explosive vision that you see at gatherings in Venice, in the Giardini, in the Corderia, in the Arsenale, with their centuries of tradition? With the concept of an event such as the Biennale in a city so vibrant, so eclectic and now so multicultural as this great city, the city of Sydney.

Italy was very much alive in the early 1970s – there were many parts to the Venice Biennale, not only the avant-garde in art but also in furniture and design. Such an event was exactly what Australia needed, a link to the world. To break the tyranny of distance, Australia needed some sort of connection. I felt it was important to do something about opening up Australia and that is why I felt a Sydney Biennale could follow on the example of Venice. That was my great inspiration.

You have to start somewhere – and so I began with the Transfield Art Prize for contemporary Australian art which had already played an important role in the 60s. I now made it into an international event making Sydney part of the avant­garde art movement which so much influenced our life. I had the chance of meeting young artists in that period – prolific, rebellious artists – and I was intrigued by their originality. I saw the possibility of a dialogue to open the door to a much wider audience. The artists of many countries became ambassadors in a two-way traffic between distant and far away places.

The first Biennale of Sydney started with a modest trial at the Sydney Opera House, in the Exhibition Hall, and already then we had artists not only from Europe and America but a large representation from the closer area of South East Asia. It is often said that Australia is part of Asia but the distance was much greater then.

Thinking back on the first Biennale with which I was closely involved, there were about 37 artists and, without really planning it, a link with Asia was established. Over half the countries represented in the 1973 Biennale were Asian countries, including Japan, Thailand and the Philippines. The second Biennale, three years later in 1976, also focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

In this respect, in forging new links, we were ahead of our time and I think we really opened new ways of seeing Australia.

I see the first Biennale with nostalgia – the poster of John Coburn on the first catalogue and the presence of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, with his wife Margaret on the opening night. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘this is another first – the first Biennale of Sydney’.

We opened the gate for a new chapter in the history of art in this country, as we do with every new Biennale – so many nations, so many artists from distant lands, critics, visitors, all breaking the distance of these shores, forging new ties and bringing Australia closer to the rest of the world. This is a great continent with few inhabitants and one of the oldest civilisations, and now Aboriginal art is exported and well known outside Australia.

Aboriginal art has been a powerful presence in our Biennales and some very important pieces were seen for the first time in our exhibitions. In 1982 the largest indoor sand painting ever created covered the floor of one entire gallery at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. And in the Bicentennial Biennale in 1988 we brought together 200 burial posts, the Aboriginal Memorial, a moving tribute and the highlight of the Biennale at Pier 2/3.

Many people ask how a company that is involved in civil engineering came to link itself to contemporary art. But the fact is, as an engineer with a keen interest in science, I have always seen a clear link between science and art. They may appear on opposite sides of the fence, but they are very much a continuum. One of the world’s greatest inspirations is Leonardo, a man of unlimited versatility. He was a great scientist and a great artist. Leonardo is at the apex of human endeavour and represents the best of human genius, art and design, engineering and construction. I like to believe that the Biennale of Sydney, like every biennale in the world, links all these elements, introducing innovative technology and communication, as well as new ways of seeing the world.

Engineering is science and art is also engineering. There is no doubt in my mind, when I talk about invention and inventors, that the greatest progress has been in engineering. Today our standard of living – and I include in this communication, exploration and technology – reflects the inventiveness of engineering. But in all aspects of human creativity the artist is the greatest wellspring. Therefore, we should give artists the maximum chance and latitude to express their ideas. This is for me the heart of every biennale.

Art has no boundary and we should not put up fences. The Biennale of Sydney should always open the gates to newcomers, to the experimental and to innovative technologies. Originality remains the distinctive power of the human race.