2nd Biennale of Sydney (1976)

Recent International Forms in Art

13 November –19 December 1976
Artistic Director: Thomas G. McCullough

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 2nd Biennale of Sydney (1976) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘Recent International Forms in Art’ edited by Thomas G. McCullough.

When I was invited to do the 1976 Biennale exhibition it was an opportunity to get away from the earlier emphasis on painting. The first Biennale had taken place at the Opera House three years before and the Board wanted the 1976 exhibition to be a curated exhibition and to happen in the state art gallery. I was known for the innovative Mildura Sculpture Triennials of the 1970s, so in this sense the theme was already set. There was an expectation of a shift away from formalist object­sculptures, because the Mildura events had already moved well away from the formal, romantic works of the 1960s. Artists who were extending three-dimensional ideas beyond the pedestal into installations, earth-works and performance art were regularly showing in Mildura by the 1975 Triennial, and I consulted them on new concepts, contacts and ideas for the upcoming Biennale.In 1976 I visited only two countries while preparing for the Biennale, as we didn’t have much money. I was only allowed two weeks overseas so I decided to focus on a Pacific triangle (the first Biennale had quite an emphasis on Asia). New Zealand, California and Japan were selected for their ambience of experimentation that would suit Australian attitudes to sculpture and art generally.

Images from the 2nd Biennale of Sydney (1976)

One of the pieces that still resonates over 20 years later is Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture which was installed in the Domain (and later acquired by the National Gallery in Canberra). I found Fujiko a most engaging person and a very thorough planner. The fog sculpture was a difficult proposal with great engineering requirements. High-pressure water was pumped through very, very fine nozzles to create mist. The hydraulic problems were tremendous as Sydney water required metal gauze filters that would not break up (we couldn’t use paper filters because of the water pressure). This piece took a great deal of planning and expertise, yet it was such a simple concept – water pumped through pipes in a park. It was a pivotal concept and questioned the whole idea of sculpture being a set, static form. Fog Sculpture was kinetic; it changed form. It was temporal; it only happened for a certain length of time. And it was attractive to the public as well as to other artists! This was noticeable when a non­exhibitor, Ellis D Fog (a psychedelic nom-de-plume), put on a light show at night playing colours through Fujiko’s sculpture, using laser beams – possibly for the first time in the visual arts.

We also had a representation of Joseph Beuys’ work in the 1976 exhibition (for the first time in Australia). Beuys’ attitude to art was liberating; that everybody is capable of being an artist … that one lives art … that even speaking can be a form of sculpture. Art is not just for dealers, connoisseurs and curators, but must touch the people as a whole. His idea of breaking those barriers down was a very central one in the 1970s. Many other artists incorporated this socio-political aspect too – for instance, the British artist Stuart Brisley. He worked with very accessible, common materials – pine framing, a saw, hammer and nails – and he built this fantastic-looking cage in nearby Hyde Park. He tapped and hammered and sawed. Everybody loves to watch somebody working. But all the time he was talking to passers-by who became increasingly curious. So his wooden structure was not an end in itself: it was the performance … the making of sculpture.

Stuart had already worked in English mining towns and involved ordinary, working class people in the art-making process. In Sydney he ‘educated’ office workers coming down for their lunch … he even slept inside his sculpture at night. You have to be a little bit mad to do things like that. There were drunks around, and times when he was threatened, but he stuck it out.

The day Stuart eventually caged himself in completely, people still brought him food but talked less to him, and aggression appeared – though there was great sympathy for him among some. Why would an artist do this? It raised the question: what is art about and why do people do it? Then at the nominated hour we all went down to see him break out of the cage. After nailing himself into the metaphorical ‘art corner’ he then broke free and stood up on top of his shattered cage as a throng of people cheered.

It was a great, glorious moment in that Biennale. As an avid photographer of sculpture I visited Stuart often and took a lot of photographs. Some of that documentation was very pleasing and I have since donated all my slides and papers to the La Trobe Library, Melbourne. Going back 25 years, my main criticism of the 1976 Biennale of Sydney is the lack of documentation. I didn’t have many essays published or artists’ statements printed in the catalogue which I’m looking at now … it even smells awful!

Unfortunately I did what I thought was pretty groovy in 1976, using one-colour ink on a cheap cardboard cover and spirex-bound pages of brown paper inside. I felt it was more in keeping with the arte povera spirit of the exhibition, but it meant that all of the illustrations are a dull monochrome, printed on cheap, sepia paper. I did a great disservice to the 1976 Biennale by not putting together a big, glossy book on the exhibition (even though I really did not have the time, money or resources to do so). The exhibition deserved commemorating, the artists deserved better representation, but at the time this poor publication seemed adequate and it saved a lot of money.

Of course in those days, there were no computers; I had to have eighty individual biographies manually typed out, catalogue pages separately typeset and there was also endless proof-reading at each stage. If only we could have emailed the artists around the world instead of putting letters in the mail and waiting for replies. Months and months often went past in silence – Italy seemed to go up in smoke at one stage and it was very difficult contacting Europe, apart from Germany. The British and Americans were fast, the Japanese were great, and the New Zealanders were falling over themselves to get into the exhibition, making it seem good fun. The trouble with the Europeans began because of the lack of communication, so it seems ironic that the next Biennale was called European Dialogue!

Thinking about changing attitudes, themes and the presentation of contemporary art, I have just one other broad observation. I felt that the 1976 Biennale was a great apex of achievement for those visual artists who were not painters. Leaving Mildura after the 1978 Sculpture Triennial, I went on to do the first Australian Sculpture Triennial in Melbourne in 1981, so it really looked as though sculpture was going to continue receiving the attention it deserved into the 1980s. However, subsequent Biennales were differently selected and both of those Sculpture Triennials were eventually abandoned, so the swing back to the usual interest in two-dimensional artforms was obvious. I would like to see a built-in guarantee that there is a fair slab of every Biennale that deals with other aspects of the visual arts than painting and drawing. Other important surveys also should take this oversight into account if they use ‘art’ in their title.

When I think further about the relevance today of the Biennales, there are a number of interesting points. First, even back in 1976, we were trying to address the idea of people going to art in galleries, etc. Getting art to people via the postal service was one of the exhibits that Terry Reid presented in his Art In The Mail project. He was posting stuff all over the place from Sydney, like the movement originating in Europe called ‘Fluxus’ where art-in­the-mail suggested an alternative to mounting complicated art exhibitions. The concept was that ideas could be put down on a postcard or into a letter. Now that’s an appropriate tool for a certain kind of art and certain ideas work well that way -and the same applies to the electronic media of the 2000s. They’re just other palettes for the creative mind to use. As a museum man I believe that ‘the original’ needs to be shown, and needs to be interpreted. The problem with email and the web – and I love them for their convenience – is that you’re experiencing them effectively on your own. That’s an advantage of the new communications, but that’s also their problem. I’m a great believer in festivals and live activities, and the Biennale is like an international meeting place or living conference of artists and critics. Every time you bring people together a new chemistry comes into being … the activity changes in itself making the whole greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Twenty-five years ago the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a different place to what it is today. In the mid-1970s it also had very exciting curators working there: Daniel Thomas, Frances McCarthy, Bernice Murphy and Robert Lindsay. They were talented individuals but I think their employers placed too much emphasis on traditional things like the Archibald Prize to give them the scope to experiment. On the other hand, I was appointed as a youngish ‘Guest Director’ in his 39th year, and felt very much like a country hick from Mildura. But I had a concept for that old building coming to life with international forms of art that would go beyond the walls of the Art Gallery and into Hyde Park and the Domain for the first time ever. I had these little drawings for illustrating my talks with the AGNSW Trustees, when I needed to persuade them that there weren’t going to be blocks of stone just sitting around. There would be ‘happenings’ for the people, and performance artists would do extraordinary things that would attract the great international arts audience …

I also needed to involve their curators as much as possible because I had virtually no staff. It was Tom McCullough, full stop, for most of 1976 and one really had to get on with the professional staff of the gallery. Luckily, my colleague Peter Laverty, who was their director, was quite happy to step back quietly – he did not interfere one bit throughout the whole exhibition and I was able to build great bridges with the staff and designate areas in which to install specific works that I believed related to each other. The AGNSW curators then got in touch with the artists I nominated to present work, and they jointly organised the final installations according to my overall plans. Really, this laid foundations for the ongoing Biennale project, which began virtually in 1976, as far as the Art Gallery of New South Wales is concerned.

One memorable moment in 1976 wasn’t about the art at all: it was the Official Opening, which triggered the artists’ walkout. Gough Whitlam, a Prime Minister we all loved, had opened the first Biennale in 1973. The political scene had changed dramatically since the ‘coup’ took place on the 11th of November, 1975. Gough’s Labor Government with its generosity towards the Visual Arts Board (which was one of the Biennale’s sponsors) fell and Malcolm Fraser’s conservatives took over Australia …

These were fiery times. Artists felt very strongly about politics and the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. It split some families, but the 1976 Biennale of Sydney itself went off like a rocket and shook the art world. It caused great divisions and certain people never forgave me for putting together an exhibition called Recent International Forms In Art. The formalists somehow assumed that the word ‘sculpture’ was being tampered with and that ‘this performance stuff really isn’t art and it certainly isn’t sculpture’. It caused a great schism and I guess by the end of the 70s you were in either of two camps: the formalists (aligned with the conservative English school and Anthony Caro’s followers) and the other camp which some sculptors referred to as ‘the lunatic fringe’. The strange thing is that the lunatic fringe didn’t die out or get lost. Performance and video, for instance, are very much part of the whole art scene today.

Contemporary art has not changed all that much, I suppose, and certainly not nearly as much as it changed in the 25 years before 1976. I thought the decade of the 70s in Australia was really very revolutionary. I thought that we were on a wave of invention and if you look at the 50s and the 60s, they bear almost no relation to the 70s. There are lots of things happening now that I see simply as ‘swings and roundabouts’ … the post-modernist attitude of recycling or re-inventing, rather than inventing. At that time things were ripe for experimentation and the great works of 1976 were groundbreaking. Think of an artist like Stelarc. When I went to Tokyo and first met this friendly, helpful Greek-Australian he was working in Japan because they wouldn’t let him legally investigate his own body in Australia. The Biennale photographs of his Suspension still make my blood run cold. Later he came to Melbourne quietly, and I saw him actually suspend himself in an old lift-shaft, using only his skin for supporting points for small hooks. I then realised how transforming and cathartic his work could be.

One of the sad things about revisiting the 1976 Biennale is to remember some of the artists who are my age (some are now dead) and to think of how rich that whole 70s era was. The affection which I felt for lots of those artists is still very real to me, and I like to visit a few of them – Marr Grounds for instance, who made an instructive and amusing Art Bit Installation under some stairs inside the Art Gallery of New South Wales. How the hell he talked the guards into letting him bring his dog into the building each day is still a mystery!

I think that most artists are very valuable members of their society. They’re ordinary people basically, but I do believe there is occasionally magic in what they can achieve. The truly creative artist helps less gifted people, like myself, to learn more about everything in life, and even a little about the future as well.