11th Biennale of Sydney (1998)

every day

18 September – 8 November 1998
Artistic Director: Jonathan Watkins

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 11th Biennale of Sydney (1998) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘every day’ edited by Jonathan Watkins.

11th Biennale of Sydney (1998) exhibition catalogue is available for purchase from our online shop.

When I started planning the 1998 Biennale of Sydney, what I did was draw up a list of artists whose work I liked, who I felt were communicating something poignant or new. It was from that core list that I began to articulate a more global view of current art practice.

Images from the 11th Biennale of Sydney (1998)

The idea for my exhibition was derived very much from artists’ work. It was not so much an idea that I developed out of an extensive cultural theory, to be exemplified through contemporary visual art ­ rather, the content of the exhibition evolved from conversations I had with artists. The very first ideas occurred to me as I was organising a Fischli & Weiss exhibition for the Serpentine Gallery, London, and talking with these two artists a lot about the nature of ordinariness and the ‘everyday’. This certainly catalysed the concept for my Biennale.

I was concerned not to be too literal in my interpretation of the exhibition’s concept … I wanted to consider work that not only depicted the everyday – or represented everyday activity ­ but also work that actually embodied the everyday. I wanted to get away from the idea that ‘everyday’ was necessarily synonymous with what was on­the-street, abject, tough or culturally under-privileged. I wanted to suggest something more abstract, philosophically speaking, and thus encourage the audience to look beyond surface appearances.

My initial ideas for the Biennale were like a kind of block-sketch … or a hunch, and then it was a question of going out to test it in an international context. It was important to have Nikos Papastergiadis’ essay in the catalogue, concerned particularly with the current British scene, because that was the context from which the concept sprang. However I had to see whether or not the idea had correspondence in other artistic communities. Was it as true in Japan … in Brazil … in Africa. in New Zealand? That was, of course, the fundamental point of my research for the Biennale.

Very interesting ideas, from my point of view, developed as I moved from country to country – ideas that I would not necessarily have predicted ­ with a strong emphasis on ecology, the continuing need for inventiveness, an assertion of domesticity and to some extent a recapturing of child-like perception. These relate very much to the idea of directness as a virtue, a desire for direct communication which, again, was one of the keys to the proposition of every day.

My ideas for this exhibition were very informed by the fact that it was going to be in Sydney and it was the Biennale just before the millennium. I wanted to play off the idea of the millennium – referring to it but not mentioning it. Significantly, I think, a lot of work in the show embodied the passage of time, sometimes by making explicit the processes by which the work was made … I am thinking here of work by artists such as Bernard Frize or Germaine Koh which consists essentially of the process by which it was made and thus enables the viewer to apprehend the passage of time

Many of the artists included in my Biennale expressed what it’s like to be in the real world. I think this corresponds to a reassertion of a kind of realism … a desire to communicate what it really feels like ‘to be here now’.

When I think back on the exhibition, there were so many things I loved and they were not necessarily the most spectacular pieces on show. Something I’ll always cherish is the On Kawara installation Pure Consciousness in a local kindergarten. I felt it was at the heart of my Biennale … an invisible, perversely inaccessible part of the show, but absolutely available for the children who could see it, who lived with it. Here were seven paintings by one of the most uncompromising and stringent conceptual artists located in a situation which was as poetic as it was non-specialist.

The part played by Goat Island in the Biennale I’ll also never forget. The experience of that trip on the ferry, which shuttled between the shore and the island, watching Perry Robert’s work fit into the backdrop of the city … listening to the music that Shimabuku had composed with an Aboriginal performance artist and then seeing Goat Island in the light of work by other Biennale artists.

From my point of view, the ‘every­day’ Biennale worked quite well. I had hoped that the environment within which the exhibition was taking place would become part of the exhibition. I would like to think that the Biennale succeeded in that respect. As one moved between the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art, through the Botanic Gardens, a lot of non-art experience could be taken in. The idea of art work no longer being discrete or self-contained but fused with its environment, for me, is crucial. Goat Island epitomised that idea – the idea that one’s experience of a work of art doesn’t equate with the perception of a self-contained object. Rather, it is an environmental experience.

Another memorable moment for me was Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work outside the MCA on the opening night. There in all the confusion about admission – who could or couldn’t be let in to this venue ­ was Rirkrit on the lawn with a tent and cases of beer, screening films … and absolutely anybody could go in. There was a wonderful, informal feeling – and relief! – making this project very special.

It is interesting to me how many people in Australia refer to René Block’s 1990 Biennale as particularly seminal. My impression is that he really got it right in terms of what local audiences needed at that time – to some extent it constituted a required modern art history lesson. From my point of view it’s great that that exhibition had happened. I think there was a lot of overlap between the 1998 Biennale and René’s, in terms of some of the artists included. The idea that ‘Art Is Easy’, emblazoned on the cover of the 1990 Biennale catalogue perhaps wasn’t so far from my ‘every day’ proposition.

It’s fascinating how certain biennales have become lodged in a more popular imagination. There are reverberations, often years later … biennales undeniably have an effect on local artistic communities but it is not necessarily an immediate one.

One important thing, I think, is to get as many artists as possible from abroad to come to Sydney because working alongside Australian artists means that significant relationships are formed. Artists leave and news about what’s going on in Australia then filters through, but in more informal ways. This is one very important role that the Biennale plays ­ far more effective than the most strategic Australia Council marketing campaign. It’s because exhibitions like the Biennale of Sydney happen on a personal level … the dialogue may be informal but chances are it’s more authentic.

It is impressive the degree to which, over the years, the Biennale of Sydney has engaged with what’s happening elsewhere in the world. It has been very relevant. For instance, Leon Paroissien’s exhibition in 1984 captured the mood of a new spirit in painting, until then a very European phenomenon. I think Nick Waterlow’s exhibition in 1986 was also very much a lightning rod through obfuscating conversations about appropriation and early post-modern culture. These were good things for local audiences, even if they weren’t appreciated at the time.

Of late there has been an idea that exhibitions such as biennales are redundant. I don’t think that’s true – the fact that many more biennales are being invented would suggest otherwise. The fact that people are travelling more, and there is more communication and things are more immediate, doesn’t necessarily work against the idea of such exhibitions, but it may change their nature. And consistent with the proposition of every day, there is nothing like confronting the real thing, nothing like having that physical experience of objects in space and the opportunity to see one work of art juxtaposed with another. The opportunity for artists to come together in a particular city and respond to it in a particular way is still very exciting. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t continue to happen in Sydney, as it does lately in Yokohama or Johannesburg. The proliferation of biennales is a healthy sign.

The Biennale of Sydney, like many exhibitions, acknowledges its context. The fact that it happens in Sydney immediately makes it different. I think this difference should be capitalised on. Rather than pretending that a Biennale of Sydney could happen anywhere, I think one has to make the most of the fact that the exhibition is happening in a very distinct landscape.

That said, it’s hard to say where the Biennale of Sydney might be heading in the new century. To a large extent it’s character will be determined by the Board: they will ultimately decide. I do think that the changing relationship between the artist, audience and curators is increasingly important. In a sense, they are all parts of the same machine … collaborators if you like, and the changing relationships must be acknowledged. Audiences, too, see themselves as less passive, as freer, and curators are no longer simply ‘selectors’ … just as artists can no longer be characterised as being especially sensitive creatures, a breed apart. Large exhibitions such as the Biennale of Sydney inevitably must reflect these changes.