9th Biennale of Sydney (1992/93)

The Boundary Rider

15 December 1992 – 14 March 1993
Artistic Director: Anthony Bond

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 9th Biennale of Sydney (1992/93) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘The Boundary Rider’ edited by Anthony Bond.

When I started working on The Boundary Rider in 1990, two years before the exhibition, it was a very interesting time: boundaries were collapsing, the Iron Curtain was coming down, and there was a shift in the economic balance away from Wall Street towards South East Asia. ‘Shifting boundaries’ was the current theory. It was the buzzword that included physical borders as well as those to do with gender and difference and also psychological boundaries. A previous proposal for a biennale that I made in the mid-­1980s had concerned itself with materials as signifiers in modern art with an emphasis on artists working with the forms of design, furniture, architectural models and so on. I wanted to pick up on some of those ‘boundaries’ between art and life and conflate them with current theoretical issues. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it became unmanageable. I’m older and wiser now, and I don’t think I’d attempt to conflate so many ideas again.

Images from the 9th Biennale of Sydney (1992–93)

I think I included the largest number of countries to date in the 1992-93 Biennale, about 35, many of which had never been represented before in Australia. I included mainstream figures alongside emerging artists from beyond the traditional centres. If you’re dealing with ‘breaking boundaries’, you need to expand the understanding of Internationalism. One of the pleasing aspects was that, a long time afterwards, the New York based curator Dan Cameron wrote asking for a catalogue; he just happened to see one in an artist’s studio and wanted a copy. He saw it as a precursor for a show he was working on called Raw and Cooked.

The research trips took me to some fascinating places that are not on the routine curatorial rounds. Michael Schnorr from Border Art Workshop took me along the Mexican border. It was an extra­ordinary thing to be meeting people and experiencing life on ‘the border’. It was no longer a kind of artistic rhetoric; it was actual. These situations shift your perceptions and so the show evolved as a response to the things that I saw.
A memorable aspect of the Biennale was the chance to work with an artist like Doris Salcedo. It was very moving to witness the actual process of producing the work and to see the impact it had on those young Australian artists who worked with her. I’ve had an opportunity to observe that again on two subsequent occasions. When you work with Doris you actually change your whole conception of materiality and come to realise the importance of specific tactile qualities that give the work its resonance. This is not about image or reading the text. It’s about a body language, about specificity of labour and of touch.

Working closely with artists and selecting stimulating spaces for site specific work are effective ways to get really strong new work from the artists. In 1992–93 I did a video walk-around of the sites and sent tapes to artists such as Melanie Counsell and Richard Wilson describing the spaces I was suggesting. As I walked round the space with the camera I would say, ‘I’m pointing up to the ceiling now … you can see it’s probably a bit dark up there, a bit dingy, strong smell of the old lanoline …’ giving them a complete run-through of the location. When Richard Wilson came, he made a work that inscribed my text onto the fire doors that he removed and suspended in the space. He was talking about this disembodied description and how different it is when you are in the actual space.

There were others things that evolved like that. When I had a dialogue with Dolly Nampijimpa Daniels I said, ‘Now I don’t want to show dot pictures of the desert because in the context of this International theme people will think you’re just the token dot­picture-painter. The show is about people showing their place and their life by using objects that they use everyday.’ She came back after three months and said, ‘I’m going to bring my place … all I need is a truck’ and so she brought her humpy. She brought it lock, stock and barrel … oil barrel and tarpaulin and old sticks, and blankets, the works … and she set up camp in the gallery. It was extraordinary: she didn’t go for any mimetic effects either, so when we wanted to put poles in the ground to erect the humpy and we were going to drill holes in the concrete, she said, ‘No, no, no, if the ground’s too hard you fill a bucket with sand and stick the pole in that.’ She was very matter-of-fact … there were going to be no illusions here!

And there was the Border Art Workshop, a wonderfully scruffy bunch who had come from the USA and who ended up working with the kids in western Sydney. They were out working with a group at Cabramatta getting them to talk about their experience as boatpeople. Then they went up to Darwin and actually saw people come off the boats and got video footage of one of these boats being burned on the beach at Darwin. When they brought it back and showed it to the kids at Cabramatta it turned out that it was the boat one of them had arrived on. She was born on board and had been named after the boat. It became a real emotion loop for them. The children then made an exhibition at Cabramatta shopping centre, including videos and oral histories. Nobody had been able to get stories out of these people before, but the kids had a way of instilling confidence. Since that time I’ve had these youngsters ringing me up and asking for help to tour the exhibition. They wanted it to be seen nationally and get other children involved … and I’ve helped as much as I can.

It’s spin-ofts like these that make the Biennale of Sydney experience worthwhile. And these can happen long after the event. For instance, young artists who have assisted visiting artists have since gone abroad to study with them. These relationships endure and are enormously important. In 1992–93 we tried to match volunteers and skills with artists’ needs to make up dedicated teams and this worked really well.

It is important, then, that the Biennale exhibition is not bound within the museum model and it’s not just a matter of diversifying venues. Rather, it is about bringing people here to work. In the visual arts there’s a real sense of community and while Australia seems to be at a distance, this is not insurmountable. For instance, if you’re able to work with 40 or 50 artists, you should be able to bring them all to Sydney twice, first to research the site and local context then to install or even produce the work. Ideally you would have three or four artists here for residential periods of a couple of months; this is the sort of thing that really breathes life into the Biennale and it is something that can be incorporated into the marketing of the exhibition.

Themes, attitudes and presentations of contemporary art have changed over the 27 years of Biennale exhibitions. Interestingly, some of the exhibitions captured a particular Zeitgeist. In 1982 the new image painting was very much on everybody’s lips. The 1979 Biennale was a kind of summation of the pluralism of the 1970s when people were moving from an American to a European focus. And then in 1986 there was the origins and originality debate that attempted to capture the debates about appropriation at the time.

In 1992 I tried to capture a certain spirit, but conflated too many ‘zeitgeisty’ things in one show. It was more like three shows .. interestingly, my more recent exhibition Body was a response to this.

Thinking about the proliferation of biennales around the world and the future of the Biennale of Sydney, I don’t think Sydney should settle for any set model. The crucial point, I would have thought, is to ‘reinvent’ it every time. I think a higher level of site specificity would be invaluable … having artists coming here to work.

What has distinguished the Sydney Biennale until now has been having a single curatorial vision. It doesn’t always work, but the strength of a singular vision and the capacity of a curator to work closely with artists they believe in are the best ways to get great art happening. Increasingly, Sydney got control of the Biennale by getting rid of the commissioners and the imperatives associated with foreign funding agencies and so on. I think that has become a great strength; it would be a pity to walk away from that now. Other countries are picking up on the Sydney model just as we are losing confidence in it, which is ironic. For once, we got there first and we must have the courage of our convictions.

The Biennale also gets energy from the community. In the late 1970s, for instance, you had the anger after Whitlam’s dismissal, you had the new energy of the Art Workers Union and the impact of feminism in Australia. There was a context for all the arguments raging against ‘fine art’, ‘high art’, and within this an international exhibition of the ‘great artists’ was something of an anathema. That kind of anxiety produced a lot of tension around the exhibition and created fierce debate, something that has lapsed a bit since. That is not the Biennale’s fault but reflects a degree of cultural lethargy in Sydney. In 1992 I tried to get a different kind of public access by arranging a symposium that would have significant academic relevance. The symposium should be an important part of the Biennale. There is an enormous hunger here in Sydney for conferences on visual arts and there are at least a dozen conferences a year, but this is a special context for contemporary art.

There has been some loss of confidence in contemporary art in recent years that has been a direct result of negative publicity in the popular press. We have had critics who have adopted editorial policies to debunk new ideas and to destabilise the institutions who strive to facilitate and promote contemporary practice. We are in a new millennium now. It seems to me we only need a small trigger to completely overturn the current dire situation. The MCA and the Biennale appear to be so fragile in the face of community indifference but Sydney is one place that should embrace the new, the stimulating, the difficult and take risks. It’s just a matter of finding the switch that could persuade people to take a chance with new ideas. Unfortunately, the media are encouraging a deadly, backward-looking, boring and negative view. Somebody has got to put a bomb under them … there is something wrong with the editorial policies here, horribly wrong, when a lust for failure replaces fresh optimism and curiosity.