12th Biennale of Sydney (2000)

Biennale of Sydney 2000

26 May – 30 July 2000

Selection Panel: Nick Waterlow (Chair, Sydney), Fumio Nanjo (Tokyo), Louise Neri (New York), Hetti Perkins (Sydney), Sir Nicholas Serota (London), Robert Storr (New York), and Harald Szeemann (Zurich)


First published on the occasion of the 12th Biennale of Sydney (2000) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘Biennale of Sydney 2000’, edited by Nick Waterlow OAM.

12th Biennale of Sydney (2000) exhibition catalogue is available for purchase from our online shop.

Every word, every line, every thought is prompted by the age we live in, with all its circumstances, its ties, its efforts, its past and present. It is impossible to act or think independently and arbitrarily. This is comforting in a way. To the individual, the collective experience of the age represents a bond – and also, in a sense, security; there will always be possibilities even in disaster. – Gerhard Richter, Notizen, 1962 

Images from the 12th Biennale of Sydney (2000)

The Biennale of Sydney in the year 2000 differs from its predecessors in several ways. The most noticeable alteration is that for the second time in its 27 year history no single artistic director has been in charge. The inaugural Biennale, held at the Opera House in 1973 and opened by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, was chosen by a committee. This, the twelfth, is selected by a panel of six curators and museum specialists from different parts of the world.

In 1998 the Board of the Biennale formed a think-tank, charged with the task of conceiving an exhibition that would make a clear mark in a year crowded with significant events, each clamouring for public attention both internationally and nationally. One thought was that, in this instance, several good minds might be better than one and that a group of well informed people around the world might produce an exhibition of greater breadth with easier access to both artists and their work than might otherwise be the case. A second thought was that there needed to be a balance between existing and new work, as well as between painting, sculpture and other more traditional mediums and installation, electronic, film and video based work. A third thought was that the exhibition should bring together a multi-generational group of artists whose vision has effected change, from a local to a global extent; and that the Biennale should draw attention to the continuity of vision linking the two centuries.

The Biennale Board accepted all these recommendations and proceeded to invite six key people to join an international selection panel. Each one enthusiastically agreed to participate, which speaks well of the esteem in which the Biennale of Sydney is held. They were Fumio Nanjo (Tokyo), Louise Neri (New York), Hetti Perkins (Sydney), Sir Nicholas Serota (London), Robert Storr (New York), and Harald Szeemann (Zurich). I was asked to chair the panel and to act as a link between the Board and the selection process. Authority without responsibility seemed an ideal position but any such dream role was dispelled rather quickly.  Working with this group of colleagues has been demanding yet rewarding – much time and effort has been devoted to the exhibition despite hectic individual schedules.

The original brief to the selection panel, which I paraphrase, suggested ‘the exhibition concentrate on a select number of living artists whose work has had the most lasting impact and has challenged the status quo over the past fifteen to twenty years. Many will have been outstanding and individual thinkers of this age, whose work has created controversy and caused attitudes to change. They could all be defined as change agents.’

Each member was asked to think globally and put forward a number of artists. Deliberation took place over several months and culminated in two key meetings of the selection panel which took place in Venice in June 1999, to coincide with the opening of Harald Szeemann’s Biennale. Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong it always will) intervened and to my disappointment, at the last minute, I was unable to attend. However Paula Latos-Valier, General Manager of the Biennale of Sydney, was present, Nick Serota agreed to hold the reins, and I was in touch via telephone conference calls. The result was a preliminary list of artists, an outline of works, and a working title Agents of Change. From this solid base the 12th Biennale of Sydney evolved.

The panel nominated a number of key artists as foundation stones – Louise Bourgeois, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Richard Serra. A group was established around the notion of Chaos Theory, centred on Dieter Roth who, though no longer alive, remains influential along with the late Martin Kippenberger, Franz West and Paul McCarthy. Attention was then turned to significant artists from Asia even though some are now based in New York. These include Cai Guo-Qiang, Yayoi Kusama, Mariko Mori, Xu Bing, Yun Suknam, the Philippines collective Sanggawa and Yoko Ono. Artists from Europe and the Americas were added – Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney, Vanessa Beecroft, Sophie Calle, Marlene Dumas, Andreas Gursky, Boris Mikhailov, Juan Munoz, Chris Of iii, Pipilotti Rist Luc Tuymans, Gillian Wearing, Stan Douglas, Gary Hill, Adriana Varejao and Jeff Wall. These artists were considered to be innovators in their respective fields.

Alongside these groupings African-based Seydou Ke’lta and Bodys Isek Kingelez and Iranian-born Shirin Neshat were selected, each of whom has introduced new knowledge through their practice. To complete the survey Australian and New Zealand artists were selected, including a number of important indigenous artists from both countries.

The process of creating an exhibition, particularly one of this complexity and with six curators based in different parts of the world, requires flexibility, durability and ingenuity, as well as openness and trust. This was necessary because several artists on the original list including Maurizio Cattelan, David Hammons, Gabriel Orozco, Doris Salcedo, Sigmar Polke and Richard Serra, were for a variety of reasons unable to participate and because the global focus and generational balance as well as a range of different practices had to be maintained. Robert Storr described the outcome as ‘an assorted assortment – or curatorial readymade – but a lively group in the end’. Nick Serota comments in his interview that: ‘when you bring together a group of people with very diverse backgrounds you can have a much more interesting conversation, and hopefully that will be reflected in the experience of the visitor at the Biennale; that is to say that you get a much richer show. I think one of the great strengths of the exhibition in 2000 will be its diversity.’ There is certainly remarkable painting, sculpture and photography as well as electronic media.

As the exhibition took shape it became obvious that the working title Agents of Change was no longer appropriate for the range of artists and projects selected – especially as some of the younger artists included in the show have had as yet little international exposure. As a title the directness of Biennale of Sydney 2000 became more appealing – it epitomises the broad range of ideas and concerns included in the exhibition unhindered by any particular curatorial impediment. This Biennale looks at the work of one millennium as a way of moving forward to the next.

Since its inauguration in 1973 over 1000 of the world’s most remarkable artists have been represented in twelve Biennale exhibitions. Much important work would never otherwise have been seen in Australia. The Biennale has been instrumental in creating both a critical awareness and an informed understanding of the minds and motivations of contemporary artists. One way this has been achieved is through lectures, workshops and discussions with visiting and local artists, curators, writers and museum specialists. This Biennale features a number of talks involving luminaries outside the visual arts but in related creative fields such as film, food, architecture and design, and the sciences.

One of the most remarkable manifestations of the past quarter century has been the emergence of Aboriginal art into the international arena. The first time that Aboriginal artists were included in an international exhibition was in the 1979 Biennale of Sydney Subsequent Biennales have also included their work, a highlight being the Aboriginal Memorial in the 1988 exhibition. This consisted of 200 hollow log bone coffins which are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

The Biennale of Sydney 2000 includes the work of Aboriginal artists from both rural and urban settings, from the bark painting of John Mawurndjal to the photographic and film imagery of Destiny Deacon. Australian representation alongside this work includes Ken Unsworth, whose river stone sculptures made such an impact at the 1978 Venice Biennale; disquieting photographic sequences by Bill Henson; Fiona Hall’s Gene Pool garden which reunites species from Gondwanaland; bronze and wax sculptures and woodcuts by Mike Parr; and Gwyn Hanssen Pigott’s delicate ceramic forms. New Zealand representation includes a body of work by the late, much lamented Rosalie Gascoigne; Lisa Reihana’s video installation Native Portraits and a range of congruent objects; the performance group The Pacific Sisters; and Bill Hammond with a series of iconic paintings often representing upright bird-like sentinels guarding a lost world.

The international selection panel has chosen artists from most parts of the globe, many disciplines and several generations, as well as a number of artists being seen in Australia for the first time, as should always be the case. These include Luc Tuymans from Belgium with a range of enigmatic and powerful paintings, Adriana Varejaõ from Brazil whose post-colonial two dimensional surfaces literally burst at the seams, and from the United States Doug Aitken with a haunting signature video piece Eraser and Paul McCarthy with the remarkable new baroque setting for his multimedia installation Painter. Others who are prominent elsewhere but seldom seen in Australia include Yoko Ono, Matthew Barney, Gary Hill, Marlene Dumas and Jeff Wall. Ground-breaking electronic media artists including Matthew Barney, Stan Douglas, Gary Hill, Shirin Neshat and Pipilotti Rist are also represented.

This Biennale highlights a remarkable range of different painting styles in the work of Gordon Bennett, Marlene Dumas, Bill Hammond, John Mawurndjul, Chris Ofili, Gerhard Richter, Ginger Riley, Sanggawa, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Luc Tuymans and Adriana Varejao. Luc Tuymans explains these differences, in relation to portraiture, in a recent interview (Modern Painters, Autumn 1999): ‘If I were to paint you, your face would be longer. It’s unavoidable. I might try to go against that, but still in the end there would be distortion. And that’s what painting is: in a sense it is distortion. So it’s as inadequate as any other form of memory. But the strange thing is that it is memorised differently, because it is rendered in paint, and also through a person. For that reason people will always react completely differently to a painting than to a photograph or a film, or any other medium.’

The continuity of art is one of the themes explored by the Biennale’s selection panel as relevant to the new millennium. Bryan Robertson, who produced the memorable Australian Painters exhibition in 1961 when director of London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, comments on this premise in his introduction to his Critic’s Choice exhibition at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum: ‘ancient art, classical or medieval art is for me not remote or dead but totally alive forever, making a continuous whole with the best of art made yesterday or today. All great art lives in a continuous present.’ There are now only artificial divides between robust contemporary art and that of the past. The last century thrived on the ideology of progress and hierarchy, with one movement succeeding another and one centre dominating the periphery. That will not be the case in the new century. The Biennale of Sydney 2000 presents, in the words of Gerhard Richter, “the collective experience of the age” through the vision of a number of artists, so necessary as an antidote to existing hegemonies.