10th Biennale of Sydney (1996)

Jurassic Technologies Revenant

27 July – 22 September 1996
Artistic Director: Dr Lynne Cooke

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 10th Biennale of Sydney (1996) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘Jurassic Technologies Revenant’ edited by Dr Lynne Cook.

The concept for Jurassic Technologies Revenant evolved in response to issues that were being addressed by contemporary artists, and in relation to the exhibition being presented in Sydney where a lot of contemporary art isn’t frequently seen.  I thought the audience might find the theme interesting given that, historically, Austrailan culture has been very dependent on reproductive technology, for information, for entertainment, and for a view of contemporary developments elsewhere.

Images from the 10th Biennale of Sydney (1996)

Restricting the Biennale to 40 plus artists was a very deliberate decision for two reasons. Firstly, there are literally hundreds of contemporary artists currently discussed in magazines and seen in a wide range of shows, both nationally and internationally.  What is needed at the moment – as it was then – is interpretation.  Rather than simply providing yet more information, curators do a greater service by attempting to find issues, thematics and areas that provide a focus for their exhibitions.  Secondly, it’s more satisfying to have a substantial statement rather than a sample.  By restricting the number of artists, each could be given more space.  In addition, if there are on hundred or more artists the viewer is overwhelmed; it is difficult to remember anything.

One interesting thing in the exhibition was the linking of textiles and technology, and thinking about how textiles involve reproductions in one form or another. I wanted to bring together artists not normally seen in close conjunction, for example, artists as diverse as Emily Kngwarreye, Alighiero Boetti and Philip Taaffe in the one room. It produced a very revealing dialogue. Other memorable moments were certain talks that artists gave, sitting in galleries, surrounded by their own work ­ Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Willie Doherty spring to mind. Willie was talking about an Irish diaspora that doesn’t know Ireland directly and how that related to representations of the Irish situation. I found that very moving and illuminating.

Reflecting back on previous Biennales, I think Nick Waterlow’s 1986 exhibition was very considered and brought more Australian art into an international context. René Block had a very different perspective; he was very intuitive in the way he made decisions. He seemed interested in the unexpected.

I think exhibitions like the Biennale of Sydney are still necessary. There is no substitute for a direct encounter with a work of art; even a virtual work has to be encountered at some level. In terms of a material object no reproduction can substitute for a direct experience of it as a work of art. I don’t think electronic technology has obviated the need for physical, phenomenologically based engagement. Although a lot of work now is electronically based, and there is a lot of discussion and exploration in that field, I find it a somewhat immature area. For me, much of the most exciting work is still physically grounded. Despite the fact that many people are travelling more, the art market remains a great determinant of where work is sent. There still isn’t a huge amount that is brought to Australia, so I think that the Biennale of Sydney will continue to play a very important role.

Another important aspect is the educational outreach, both in terms of what goes on in the exhibition proper, as well as the travel for individual participants that is organised after the opening. Jurassic brought foreign artists to schools, universities and museums elsewhere in the country. That seemed important both for the visiting artists, as it gave them a sense of the country at large, and also for local artists and others who were able to interact directly with these visitors.

Sydney’s Biennale is distinguished by its Australasian audience. Very few people from abroad see the exhibition, so it can be honed and focused towards local audiences. This gives it a particularity that differentiates it from a show like the Carnegie International, which brings a whole stew of international art world travellers to Pittsburgh. The positive side of this situation is that it permits the Biennale of Sydney to function as a more focused concentration on specific sites and their audiences.

Inevitably and necessarily, contemporary art has changed a lot.

More importantly the pool from which artists are drawn for exhibitions today is genuinely broader, more global. On the other hand, real issues have arisen from trying to bring together art made in wildly different situations and circumstances. The question becomes how well does this work travel. What happens when it is lifted out of one context and placed in a very different one? This makes the choreographing of an exhibition increasingly difficult. In the past works that came from a more homogeneous situation could be more readily placed together.

One of the consequences of this development is that exhibitions need to be more self-reflexive. They have to look at their own internal histories and the fact that they belong to a specific genre or typology, and how that relates to a history of exhibition-making. Reflexivity should be part of the exhibition. The exhibition should not be read as transparent, as simply opening up a series of thematic issues that are embedded in the work on display. It has to be understood as an exhibition tout court, rather than merely a conjunction of works of art.

There’s a lot to be said for the single artistic director and a particular vision or interpretation. The more partisan and partial the better, because no exhibition is definitive. Any one vision will be replaced or succeeded by another with a totally different perspective. I feel a series of strong but I different positions is much more challenging and, ultimately, more productive than consensus mentality. Curating a biennale is an enormous responsibility, undertaken with a sense of commitment. Selection by committee is a different matter. Working on a team that occupies a tiny segment of one’s total activity is very different to directing a biennale as one’s primary occupation for a couple of years. The most interesting work in the 21st Century is bound to be heading in directions we don’t yet know about: it will take us by surprise.