4th Biennale of Sydney (1982)

Vision in Disbelief

7 April – 23 May 1982
Artistic Director: William Wright

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 4th Biennale of Sydney (1982) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘Vision in Disbelief’ edited by William Wright.

Earlier this year I was interviewed by Paula Latos-Valier. We spent a little over two hours in an enjoyable ramble across the craggy terrain of the 4th Biennale, its successes and failings, and what follows is a liberal encapsulation of my responses to my own and Paula’s reminiscences and questions.

Images from the 4th Biennale of Sydney (1982)

My involvement with the Biennale of Sydney was unexpected and of unexpected duration.  It began in 1980 when I accepted the directorship and continued well beyond this when, immediately following, I became a member of the Biennale Board of Directors – a position I held in varying capacities for the next seventeen years.\

It all began in mid-1980. I had just returned home to East 20th Street in Manhattan from the State University of New York at Purchase, entering the city as usual via the whispering arch at Grand Central with a requisite readjustive stopover at its renowned oyster bar: a dozen bluepoints apiece and a bottle of best white (co-enjoyed by Hilarie Mais, my then as now companion). Upon arrival at our 8th floor loft I was greeted by a pile of mail including an alarming number of telegrams: four, each from a different member of the Biennale Board and each inviting me to consider returning to Australia to take up the directorship of the next Biennale. I was bemused as to the motivation behind this mysterious collective invitation, especially so given that, while known for my exploits in the art educational sphere, I had up to that time only organised exhibitions of incommensurably small scale and scope as part of my various college programmes. However all became apparent when later the same evening I received a phone call from my old friend, the artist Robert Owen, who was – requisite in those days – an artist member of the Board and who, it emerged had been the instigator. His arguments as to my suitability to undertake the onerous task were detailed and persuasive and upon reflection I became increasingly convinced that the project would relate cogently to the focus of my interests in contemporary art practice; the prospect of a period of extensive revision and research into the emerging visual arts also engaged my imagination.

Australia Council had provided a grant enabling me to spend time in Europe on my way back to Sydney, and I used this as a lead-in to Biennale selection, making and renewing contact with European artists and curators, as in similar consultation I had spent the months prior to leaving New York. It was a process of informing, updating and cross-referencing, a kind of no stone unturned mosaic approach precursive to determining the event’s form and spheres of content. As then, I still regard the Biennale as being central in a greater sphere of informational and educational enrichment, for creative development as much as informing the population at large. It follows, if it is to enmesh with local perception and imagination, that it should, as in most biennales, include adequate representation from the host culture. From the outset I had favoured the notion of an inclusive, of necessity large biennale, one that would meaningfully contextualise a plurality of diverse creative forms in a way that would engage the creative attention of Australian artists, students and public alike. I had not lived in Australia for over twenty-two years but had kept in touch, making numerous visits linked to educational programs and exchanges for Australian artists and students I had initiated and run during the two previous decades. But while my knowledge of Australian art infrastructure was extensive, my awareness of current developments and issues was fragmentary.

Given the intention to represent Australian art as a focal component of the 4th Biennale, I engaged in a program of research and travel immediately upon my return, to familiarise myself with the state of activity in the various regions around Australia. I was naturally more aware of the art of the northern hemisphere than Australia at the time and my desire was to compose a biennale that would encompass a wide range of current practice and interconnections between various visual and aural modalities; innovation in both new and reinvested fields of application. The thing that gave me the most gratification was the way the Biennale 82 intersected with and enriched the diverse terrain of art practice in Australia.

It is difficult to talk of individual works that stand out retrospectively from the vantage of eighteen years hence but I might nominate the large earth painting/performance work of the Walpiri group (Lajamanu) in the central void at The Art Gallery of New South Wales. Beside its sheer mesmeric presence it had the effect of interposing the dimension of cultural time, with an impact on the many artists who came from other countries; the experience of exhibiting alongside tribally integrated artists of such deep and extensive cultural memory was profound. Others which come to mind are Mary Kelly’Post Partum Document, John Baldessari’s Blasted Allegories, Mike Parr’s Parapraxis III, Brian Eno’s Memories of Medieval Manhattan, the performances of the Japanese Bhutto master Min Tanaka, and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s sardonic projections onto various strategically chosen buildings across central Sydney, including the facade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. With over 220 artists included it is inevitable that I will fail to mention most, but I would cite the works by Laurie Anderson, Katharina Sieverding, Rebecca Horn, Susan Rothenberg, Bill Henson, Lucas Samaras, Fiona Hall, Bernhard Blume, Ken Unsworth, Miriam Schapiro, Philip Guston, Michael Snow, General Idea, Terry Allen, Jorg Immendorff, Georg Baselitz, Francesco Clemente, to name a few among an equally deserving cast of many.

Another feature which distinguished the 4th Biennale was the way we opened it out, into and across both Sydney and Australia, via an extensive, well orchestrated outreach program of forums, lectures and events. In Sydney alone there were six full weeks of external events beyond the eight venue exhibition and soundwork programs, and visiting artists and critics were contracted to visit other cities and towns across Australia. The rebound energy resulted in an unprecedented level of attendance and involvement at the events and forums. It is vital to its ongoing success to fully comprehend that the Biennale is not just an exhibition; its scope and diversity are critical factors for nourishing artistic development as much as wider audience engagement. I have listened recently with some dismay to people reiterating the view that small is beautiful, a show tailored only to engage the enthusiasm of the culturally committed few. I daresay one of the most satisfying aspects of the Biennale 82 was its scale/scope, its energy, its public engagement, and its flow-on of debate and conjecture.

When I arrived back in Sydney in late 1980 there was a palpable sense of both expectation and healthy suspicion surrounding the Biennale. The artist community was alive and energised, with more fervent discussion between artists and factions in Sydney than exists now. The reasons for the present complacency may be that we no longer live in a bipolar system of world power but exist in a less resistant, overtly corporatised social environment, blanketed by a pall of accommodating conservatism. Nearer home – for art – this is characterised by career-option negativism on the part of many of our more prominent art critics who fail to account for the fact that the critical core of any period’s artistic endeavour is distinguished by radicalism and innovation. This is compounded editorially in our public media by an unwillingness to embrace society’s counter views, which are usually not published when offered, resulting in a general aura of futility.

Apart from Transfield’ continuing sponsorship throughout its 27 years of existence, the Biennale of Sydney has been consistently restricted due to inadequate local support. For years it was bolstered by support from the participating countries (often up to 60%) and consistently it had to survive on below 5%, now nearer 10%, of the operating budgets of Venice, Sao Paulo, Kwangjiu and other peer events abroad. What at this juncture does the Biennale need? It is always well managed so, apart from more enlightened and courageous art critics in the public media, it needs money.

It may be considered remiss if I fail to mention the abortive arrest, by the NSW vice squad, of Juan Davila’s now legendary work Stupid as a Painter, an event in itself which became an autonomous cause célèbre, briefly railroading everyone’s attention away from the work of every other artist. Fortunately – for the exhibitions – we had at the time a culturally engaged and courageous Premier, Neville Wran, who saw through the whole charade at a glance and ordered it returned with the now legendary declamation: ‘the police have no business meddling in matters of art, give it back’. Another fortuitous occurrence, of a more optimistic tenor, came in the form of a radio station 2JJJ and its presenter Graham Bartlett, who provided a unique and far reaching sonic venue for our contemporary sound/music component, additionally providing a program of historic sound works from the time of the Futurists to the (then) present.

Unquestionably the Biennale of Sydney has been pivotally influential in the development of contemporary art practice in our country, intrinsically so, while spawning a number of other seminally important events in its wake such as Australian Perspecta, the Adelaide Biennial, the Asia Pacific Triennial and, recently, the all too briefly extant Melbourne Biennial. The Biennale has brought more important artists, curators and critics to Australia than otherwise ventured here throughout our entire post-1778 history, and (largely) because of this event, begun in the isolation of 1973, our own artists are better known and increasingly included in the programs of art museums and galleries world-wide, no longer victims of cultural seclusion to the great extent that we once were.