3rd Biennale of Sydney (1979)

European Dialogue

12 April – 27 May 1979
Artistic Director: Nick Waterlow OAM

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 3rd Biennale of Sydney (1979) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘European Dialogue’ edited by Nick Waterlow.

The concept and themes of the 1979 exhibition evolved from the range of new work that was coming out of Europe, that hadn’t been seen in Australia, which I knew about before moving to Australia in 1977.There had also been a couple of major American exhibitions here so there existed more of a need to show the European avant-garde in relation to Australia. The exhibition did bring a lot of post-object work that hadn’t been seen before as well as artists like Marcel Broodthaers, Gerhard Richter, Hanne Darboven, Mario Merz, A R Penck, Valie Export, Daniel Buren and Armand Arman. There was also some terrific performance work from Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Jürgen Klauke, Ulrike Rosenbach and others.

Images from the 3rd Biennale of Sydney (1979)

The 1979 Biennale caused quite a stir and it made people sit up; there were even demonstrations. Contemporary art became a very hot item. There were great expectations then, because not much work from the rest of the world was seen in Australia, and the anticipation was extraordinary. But in 1979, the feminist movement and the Left united and they wanted greater Australian representation, and in particular more women in the exhibition … 50% Australian representation and 50% female representation. I had to walk a tightrope, and they were a very persuasive bunch.

In the end there was a very sizeable Australian representation, but it was not possible in the whole Biennale to include as many women as men. The Australian representation however did achieve this and I remember very well the impact. One work for example, Feathered Fence by Rosalie Gascoigne, epitomised for the visiting Europeans the psyche of the Australian landscape and it helped them understand it more effectively. There were people, however, who didn’t see it as purely educational. The exhibition became very controversial.

Over time the 1979 Biennale has been an extraordinary catalyst. For instance the struggle surrounding it accelerated the formation of the Artworkers Union, an organisation for artworkers intent on protecting artists’ rights. Many critics visited Australia for the first time, Giancarlo Politi and Helena Kontova for instance, which resulted in much coverage over the years in Flash Art. The controversy surrounding the exhibition reached the whole art community and really got people discussing future needs. Partly as a result of all this, a year later in 1980 the first national survey of recent Australian art, Perspecta, took place. There were many memorable moments in that 1979 exhibition and, for me, many projects have stood the test of time. It included Aboriginal artists, which was the first time they had been shown in an international contemporary context. Mario Merz was unforgettable, in every way. When he arrived in Sydney the first thing he wanted was a python for his work, so we had to dissuade him from that. There are many hilarious stories of Mario: when he was in Melbourne he was taken to a theatre-restaurant and he got up on the stage and had the audience in convulsions; he mimicked the actors who didn’t know how to handle it at all. In Sydney he created an extraordinary piece, Objet cache toi, that dominated the whole of the entrance court of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. There was also Tadeusz Kantor, a remarkable Polish artist and dramatist, who ran the Cricot Theatre, some of whose sculptural work was also part of his theatrical piece The Dead Class.

Other highlights included Daniel Buren, who had never been to this country before; Marina Abramovic and Ulay and their remarkable performance work, and a film loop with them both naked – Ulay with an erection; provocative performance pieces by Jürgen Klauke and Ulrike Rosenbach; paintings by Stephen Buckley, Louis Cane, Howard Hodgkin, Laszlo Lakner and Gerhard Richter; and terrific work by Mike Parr, Peter Kennedy, Tom Arthur and Rosalie Gascoigne, among others. Another very particular piece was that by Nikolaus Lang, which combined Aboriginal ochres from South Australia with European pigments – literally a bringing together of two cultures, a real dialogue. This work is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

Casting my mind back over the eleven exhibitions over twenty five years – three of which I did – I can say that each Biennale has been a particular and different achievement. Joseph Beuys, for example, appeared for the first time in Australia in Tom McCullough’s Biennale in 1976 with that wonderful piece Eurasia, the work with the dead hare. And the first major showing for Anselm Kiefer was in a Sydney Biennale.  Bill Wright’s Biennale in 1982 introduced people to extraordinary Aboriginal sand painting for the first time.

Since 1979 the themes, attitudes and presentation of contemporary art have changed greatly. One of the factors, of course, has been the development of technology and many exhibitions of contemporary art around the world now include electronic and digitally manipulated work. The resulting experience is quite different. But strong painting continues to be created and performance has been an extraordinarily energetic element in the history of the Biennale, and it still flourishes.

In the early years of the Biennale, artists were very concerned with certain social and political issues but that’s changed a bit too. The post-modernist movement and the appropriation of existing images changed the focus of many artists, but now the modernist/ post-modernist nexus has broken open again.

In spite of the amount of travel, electronic communication of images and information transfer that is so much part of today’s world, I still think the important thing about these events is the way the art world is brought together. It is the experience of sharing that people from all over the world want. The Venice Biennale is such a beautiful place to meet, as indeed is Sydney. There is also always work that wouldn’t come to the fore if it wasn’t for this or that particular event. In 1999 in Venice, for example, it was the work of Doug Aitken. It is also important to be able to see the work of artists from countries you don’t hear that much about.

Now that there is a proliferation of biennales, it is crucial to consider what another Biennale of Sydney can offer: how will it be different to others? You need to keep ahead of the game and be very clear-headed. At some point one could focus on performance or on painting, or one could look at using artists as curators. You need to be constantly inventive and not work in the same old way. Biennales have a place, but directors and organisers need to be aware of what’s happening in the entire field. It’s essential to ensure an event like the Sydney Biennale retains its pre-eminence and that it makes people want to visit Sydney which, after all, is an extraordinary location. It is very important that it continues as there is still relatively little opportunity to see recent work from the rest of the world regularly in Australia.

Another necessary thing about this event is that it grows out of Australian soil. There must also always be a significant range of indigenous Australian work in it. Rather than creating an exhibition that might have been put together from any other part of the world, I think people coming to Australia expect to see work that they wouldn’t otherwise be confronted by; it also gives artists and the Australian public the chance to see the culture of their own country in a broader context.

The Biennale of Sydney is distinct in many ways from similar events around the world. For a start, the use of Pier 2/3 as a venue has given it a very close relationship with the harbour setting. It is also the event responsible for showing Aboriginal art for the first time in a contemporary international context. Many parts of the world still experience relatively little art from Australia and other parts of Asia, so it is essential that Australia corrects the imbalance. It is fair to say that the Biennale of Sydney has helped with this and it has created memorable exhibitions that have uniquely showcased artists from this part of the world with their international peers.