5th Biennale of Sydney (1984)

Private Symbol: Social Metaphor

11 April – 17 June 1984
Artistic Director: Leon Paroissien

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘Private Symbol: Social Metaphor’ edited by Leon Paroissien.

The theme of the 5th Biennale of Sydney was my response to a succession of international exhibitions I had seen in Europe: The Aperto’ section of the 1980 Venice Biennale (shown in the Magazzini del Sale), Westkunstin Köln in 1981, and in 1982, the Venice Biennale, documenta, and Zeitgeist, a major international survey shown in the recently restored Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, in the same year. Common to these exhibitions was a focus on the resurgence of figuration, with an emphasis especially on so-called Neo-expressionist painting. Bill Wright’s 1982 Biennale of Sydney surveyed for Australian audiences many of the newly prominent artists spanning expressionist and other figurative tendencies, and I found myself questioning the category labels being applied to work that was quite dissimilar in its intent.

Images from the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984)

I became interested in the interaction between context, form and content in some of this work, in the continuing issue of the socialisation of images, and in the work of other artists not included in these shows. Artists whose work had figurative motifs, but was informed by a tradition of abstraction, were bracketed together with artists whose work drew on aspects of conceptual and political art that had evolved in the 1960s and 1970s. Such work displayed a newly intense vibration between images and signs, whether in traditional media such as painting, or in photography, installation and video. Often similar concerns could be found in the work of three generations of artists: social issues expressed through an evolved personal language of signs.

It was also apparent that such work had appeared spontaneously in non-metropolitan art centres. While I knew a little of what was happening in countries outside Western Europe and North America, travelling to research the exhibition, especially in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, amplified my interpretation of the theme.

Some of the most significant moments in working on the exhibition occurred in discussions with young artists who had never been in a major international show, and with artists in countries such as Poland, Japan and Chile where, for different reasons, the opportunity of exhibiting abroad was an infrequently provided opportunity to intervene in the mainstream of contemporary art activities internationally.

I was equally fascinated by an emerging generation of American artists whose work embraced social themes, but using media such as photography, text and installation in new ways – artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Mike Kelley (who was at that time yet to show in New York, and whose visit to Australia instigated the next phase of his work).

The Biennale of Sydney has established a reputation for being selected by curators who exercise great control and who are given freedom by the governing body and the institutions in which the exhibition is exhibited. There is also an absence of pressures from dealers to include artists currently prominent in the art market. This freedom to include young artists, possibly projecting them into a more international arena, has become one of the hallmarks of the Biennale of Sydney.

The 1979 Biennale took Australia back into a strong relationship with Europe, exposing Australian audiences to what had been happening in Europe during the previous decade, when artists and their audiences had focused on New York. René Block’s 1990 Biennale also, in part, revealed multiple historical paths in putting the ready-made in context. However that Biennale, and every other exhibition, has brought to Sydney an except­ional range of work by young artists.

Over the years of the Biennale of Sydney’s life, information about international contemporary art has become more and more accessible. Audiences have travelled much more, and are relatively well informed. In an age when Internet imagery spans every conceivable form – literal and virtual – contemporary art is seldom likely to engage purely through its ability to confront. Competing interests (even non-art museums show contemporary art), and the great number of biennial exhibitions in Australia and abroad, now put far greater pressure on curators to justify the rationale for mounting such massive exhibitions. Unlike Europe, Australia does not have a potentially huge audience for contemporary art within easy travelling time of its main venues, and Biennale of Sydney attendances – although high on a per capita basis – are still small compared with the numbers attending major historical shows in Australian museums.

However, there is no substitute for the physical presence or material form of the works of art, and even people familiar with international contemporary art through travel may enjoy extending their experience if the concept and realisation of an exhibition are challenging and engaging.

Major exhibitions, historical as well as contemporary, must now acknowledge the presence of generally informed audiences, but ones that may be unfamiliar with the work of preceding decades or with the contemporary context in which the work was created, and respond with appropriate strategies, without suffocating contemporary art’s fundamentally resistant spirit.

The idea of an exhibition spreading throughout a city was initially a very exciting concept. The first Melbourne International Biennial in 1999 adopted and modified the model of the Venice Biennale by establishing ‘national pavilions’ in various art institutions throughout the city. While the central exhibition was vigorous and achieved considerable critical approval, the attempt to capture the whole city with ‘pavilions’ was generally found to be the weakest aspect of the event. Similarly, the city-wide spread of the 1999 Australian Perspecta exhibition of Australian art dissipated much energy that such exhibitions are capable of discharging. Such a geographic spread depends on a strong core exhibition, with a meaningful theme behind the juxtaposition of works.