13th Biennale of Sydney (2002)

(The World May Be) Fantastic

15 May – 14 July 2002 (extended dates until 28 July at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Customs House venues)
Artistic Director: Richard Grayson

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 13th Biennale of Sydney (2002) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘(The World May Be) Fantastic’ edited by Richard Grayson.

13th Biennale of Sydney (2002) exhibition catalogue is available for purchase from our online shop.

After ‘Lights out for the Territory’, a man sent me an X Ray of his brain tumour. He’d superimposed it over a map of London and was trying to heal himself by walking out its routes through the city. lain Sinclair, interviewed by Fortean Times, issue 147

Images from the 13th Biennale of Sydney (2002)

In late 2000 I had a studio residency at Artspace, Sydney, making new work for some forthcoming shows. At the same time the Biennale of Sydney was undertaking a number of public consultations about possible directions and models in which I became peripherally involved.  So when I got a letter from the Biennale asking for an outline of my ideas or approach for a projected exhibition I knew that the same request was being sent to other people around the country and therefore didn’t think this was the moment to sit down and write something ‘that would get the job’, as that outcome seemed unlikely. Rather I used it as an opportunity to put down in writing the description of a hypothetical exhibition I had long wanted to see. Called (THE WORLD MAY BE) FANTASTIC, this would focus ‘on practices that use fictions, narratives, invented methodologies, hypotheses, subjective belief systems, modellings, fakes and experiments as a means to generate work. The exhibition concentrates on projects and approaches that are fantastic, partial, various, suggestive, ambitious, subjective, wobbly and eccentric to normal orbit … I suggested that:

These practices reflect in turn on quotidian cultures and dominant belief systems, suggesting that they too are not inevitable, but are mutable, contingent, developing, hallucinatory, slippery, and various.

My long-held fascination with these concerns had been significantly expanded through the seven years I had spent following the evolution of the work No Other Symptoms – Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky by my partner Suzanne Treister. This complex CD-Rom and publication project operates as an archive from an imaginary institution of the future -The Institute of Miltronics and Advanced Time Interventionality -dedicated to the life and works of the dead Rosalind Brodsky, born 6 June 1970, who joined the Institute when she was thirty five. Brodsky operates as an imagined (semi) alter ego to the artist. She may or may not be delusional and has left records indicating that she believes that she can time-travel and she goes back to the Russian Revolution; has analysis with Freud and Jung, Lacan, Klein and Kristeva when they are at the height of their practices; and tries to save her grandparents from the Death Camps of Nazi Germany. Sometimes Brodsky gets history and fiction confused, for instance when she accidentally manifests herself on the set of Schindler’s List, the time machine confusing it with the real thing. Other times what we think of as fictions turn out to be true in her world -The Brigadier from Doctor Who is the guide and factotum for the Institute. Brodsky also travels into the future to the Martian settlements. I had written about the project a few times and the work’s use of narrativity and fiction, interwoven with detailed fakes, and facsimiles of the ‘real’ world I found fascinating.

Witness by Susan Hiller was also in my thoughts. I encountered this work on the dimly-lit upper floor of a derelict chapel in London. The work consists of a circular cloud of small transparent speakers suspended from wires through which the visitor walks, listening to the sounds of hundreds of voices speaking different languages. When you focus on an individual voice you realise they are relating stories of contacts and experiences with Unidentified Flying Objects. It is a work that speaks not only of a specific cultural event (UFO contacts) but, through this, seems to address the human nervous system’s need to believe in something outside of itself. For me, there is always a question of ‘unknowability’ in Hiller’s work. She refuses to allow something to be easily assimilated or digested, instead she collides readings and methodologies to open up areas of new possibility between previously accepted attitudes or systems. Her work often focuses on different approaches and readings of culture which she works with almost as if they are concrete, raw material, rather than ineffable constructions and systems. In a 1985 text (reproduced in her 1996 Tate Gallery catalogue), she writes:

These incoherent insights at the margins of society and at the edge of consciousness stand as signs of what cannot be repressed or alienated, signs of that which is always and already destroying the kingdom of law.

My own work as an artist has increasingly addressed the ways that we construct and understand the ‘objective’ world. A few years ago I finished a series called ‘Alternative History Paintings’. These were text-based works that put together different statements of historical ‘fact’, but reversed them: ‘The Incas beat the Spanish’, or ‘The Corn Laws weren’t repealed’. The statements were to do with personal history as well as the grand narratives of history. These, I hoped, would suggest an alternative world that floated behind the one we occupy: a world that is engendered when the child starts questioning what would have happened had its parents never met (a proposal in one of the paintings). This, as every child knows, is tremendously scary and tremendously exciting.

These were the triangulation points from which the ideas and structures of (THE WORLD MAY BE) FANTASTIC developed.

In 1962 Philip K Dick published The Man in the High Castle, a novel describing a world where the Axis powers won World War Two. In constructing the story, Dick often consulted the I-Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of divination, to determine outcomes at crucial moments of the plot and to generate alternative scenarios. In the novel, there is a character called Abendsen who is writing a novel called ‘The Grasshopper lies Heavy’, a text that has the premise that the Axis powers didn’t win the war. Abendsen is using the I-Ching to help construct this projected alternative world. The one he comes up with is pretty close to the world that we, the readers, inhabit but not in all respects – for instance in the Grasshopper world President Roosevelt is followed by President Tugwell, who didn’t quite make it in our history.

Over the last couple of decades modelling the ‘counter-factional’ has become a recognised academic tool for historical investigation, albeit without the use of the I-Ching, where methodologies and logics are tested through attempts to model the effects and outcomes had, for instance, the American Revolution failed, or Germany won World War One.

At some early point in life we become aware of the weird, shaky fragility of the stories that we move through, for instance at school, when history teachers went to considerable lengths to describe how histories of the Eighteenth Century divided into ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’. However most of the time we do not pursue the idea that ‘the objective’ exists as a description – an imposed pattern, shared fiction or consensual hallucination – as it does as the ‘real’. It is only when we return to previous attempts at arriving at objective descriptions of the world – such as Bishop James Ussher’s dating of the moment of creation to 22 October 4004 BC through an analysis of the generations in the Old Testament (a date later refined in the Nineteenth Century by Dr John Lightfoot of Cambridge University as being 23 October at 9 in the morning 4004 BC ) – that we are made freshly aware that our idea of the objective world is an agreed hypothesis. Most of us now regard the Bishop’s date as profoundly and utterly wrong-headed and counter-intuitive: a fiction. On the other hand fundamentalist Christians still use it as the date the world started. In this reading the fossil record is either put there by the devil with the intention of misleading (a trap that Western liberal rationalists seem to have walked right into) or it is made up of the remains of animals that drowned in Noah’s Flood. Fictions can also trigger our awareness of the fragility and contingency of the events that have (seemingly) bought us to where we are now. Stories by science fiction writers, and more recently an episode of the Simpsons, move the counter-factional departure point back into deep time. In the Simpson episode Homer is accidentally and repeatedly transported back in time, and his clumsy crushing of passing insects and flowers, or his sneezing at dinosaurs in the Jurassic age, means that the Springfield he keeps returning to is fundamentally altered. And with Homer’s repeated visits and repeated stumblings and accidents we see thousands of different outcomes … D’ Oh!

At the moment contemporary physics in the form of second wave string theory (or M theory … don’t ask) is proposing a matrix for Homer’s many worlds – a universe that has eleven dimensions which generate an awful lot of alternative space/time possibilities.

In choosing to look at art practices that use and explore ‘fictions, narratives, invented methodologies, hypotheses’ and so forth, there was (and is) no intention of claiming that these are central in ‘contemporary art’, either for the work happening around us in the here and now, or in a period rather more widely defined. In fact one could construct a history in which such approaches have been notable for their marginality or at least non-centrality for a considerable time. One of the drives of Modernism can be seen as the gradual abandonment of issues and narratives outside those of the art work itself. For instance Cezanne starts interrogating the way that the painter constructs a picture, registering the hesitancies of sight and the construction of the image, rather than producing a work that refers to the complex cultural narratives of history or religion. High Modernism continues this interiorised interrogation as to the matter of the art object, Greenberg positing ‘flatness’ as the concern above all of a painting. When I was at art school in the seventies, to describe a work as ‘literary’ was a damning criticism, locating the work’s intentions as reactionary and old fashioned. In this context the aesthetic discourses generated by Duchamp’s readymades are easier to assimilate than the mischievous hermetic obscurities of his The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors. Even (The Large Glass). However, the forces that drive the desires of reference and reckless invention seem to have their own need to be, and much of the work linked to ‘Post Modernism’ can be read as a way to try and embed the seemingly mute art object within a matrix of reference and illusion no less complex and baroque than the narratives that lie behind The Large Glass or Renaissance Christian iconography. Even then, this intention is buried and obscured, and contemporary discourses are still not entirely comfortable with such agendas.

Despite this, such arcane approaches have embedded themselves in the narratives that have constituted Modernism and Post Modernism without becoming a fully historicised component. Indeed the way that they maintain their disruptive shifting values is particularly charismatic and attractive. Such practices, by their very nature, problematise totalising forces and theories and refuse to be recuperated into seamless trajectories (which makes writing about them an interesting pastime). There are discernible (if occluded) trajectories through the histories of Twentieth Century and Contemporary Art, sometimes articulated in reference to the relationship between the visual arts and literary models and movements. We can easily trace direct links between the Surrealists’ interest in Raymond Roussel, the inventor of the man machine, to Alfred Jarry’s The Passion Considered As An Uphill Bicycle Race, to Pere Ubu and the writer’s invention of Pataphysics, through to Duchamp’s fascination with, and use of, the pataphysical in many of his major works based on invented rules and codified chance operations – the physics of the love gas, the roles of the Bachelors and the ‘mallic moulds’, the measuring unit of the three standard stoppages – his invention of his alter ego Rrose Selavy, and his later, fictional, withdrawal from practice. From here we can progress, if we wish, to the OuLiPo Group or to the detailed and influential literary constructions and fictions of Borges. Panamarenko – an artist in this exhibition – is an honorary member of the ‘College de Pataphysique’, along with Duchamp and lonesco.

Alternatively we can trace the spiritual or religious eschatologies underpinning the blunt abstractions of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Barnett Newman or plot the patterns and linkages between the utopias/dystopias and generative modellings of the Futurists to the dissonant pirate science fiction gay utopias of William Burroughs alluded to in the works of Mike Nelson, and the biomachine exoskeleton galactic futures of Stelarc. The very first Utopia the book by Thomas Moore – was presented as the ‘real’ record of a real land, complete with a map of the layout of the island and with examples of the alphabet that the inhabitants utilised. Or we can take from the Dadaists and even the Bauhaus, the idea of systems and generative strategies which, differently inflected, can suggest an almost Ta lmudic fascination in the substrata of the visible world, or become the building blocks of immense new futures.

There is a short story by Borges (‘The Aleph’) in which he talks of a writer called Daneri, who … ‘had in mind to set to verse the entire face of the planet, and by 1941 has already dispatched a number of acres of the State of Queensland, nearly a mile of the river Ob … and a gasworks to the North of Veruca.’

The traffic between ‘the real’ and the ‘not real’ is of course osmotic. Sir John Manderville published Manderville’s Travels at the end of the Fourteenth Century. To us, it is a work of fiction and fable, with its reports of one-eyed people in the Andaman Islands and dog-headed people in the Nicobar islands – Manderville also locates paradise, but rather charmingly says he cannot say any more about it as he has not yet been there. Certainly by the Sixteenth Century ‘to Manderville’ had become a colloquialism for lying and exaggerating. However Columbus planned his 1492 expedition after reading the book, Ralegh pronounced every word true, and Frobisher was reading it as he trail blazed the northwest passage. So the ‘false’ maps gradually segue into the maps that we now accept, but these too are open to constant revision.

The relationship between the description of an event and the way that the event is understood seems to be both self-explanatory and at the same time hugely mysterious and problematical. To describe a world is to pull one into being, and it is this protean force of description and of mapping that links the approaches of art with those of science, the occult and paranoia. Discerning patterns in turn implies larger patterns, and we are bought into the ‘everlasting emphasis on macrocosm and microcosm’ that lies at the heart of occult systems (Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment) as well as those of art and of science. Rewinding the tape even further, some evolutionary psychologists suggest that the way we map one set of events through overlaying our understandings and expectations of another separate set of experiences may be a crucial element in human development. For instance many modern hunter gatherers reason about the natural world as a social being and see the landscape as socially constructed. E Gellner (in The Plough, Sword and Book: The structure of Human History, Collins Harvill 1988) argues that the seemingly strange associations and analogies made in the thought and language of non-Western traditional societies reflect a complex and sophisticated cognition which serves to accomplish many ends at once. It is the ‘singlestrandedness, the neat and logical divisions of labour, the separation of functions’ characteristic of modern Western society which are anomalous and which need to be explained. (This precis is taken from The Prehistory of the Mind, Steven Mithen Phoenix London 1998.) Although the approaches that concern (THE WORLD MAY BE) FANTASTIC may not be ‘mainstream’ I do think that there are developments that give them a particular force and interest right at this moment.

The first development is in the field of thinking which has articulated and reflected art and its approaches back to itself for the last thirty or forty years, loosely described as ‘post modern’. Although difficult to crystallise, there was a feeling by the eighties that ideas of the simulacrum and the determined contextualisation of a work as an expression of ideological and political networks had problematised the transformative and ontological agendas of art to such an extent that it seemed nearly impossible to do anything much. The only room left was for a constant repositioning and re-examination of art’s inability to do other than reflect on the histories and conditions of its own production and consumption. ‘Content’ became increasingly impossible, and the arguments for the validity of this position are/were compelling.

One way of coping with this impasse was a reactionary dismissal of what was usually witheringly described as ‘French’ theory – thus indicating its essential foreignness, untrustworthiness, fancipanciness and lack of Anglo-Saxon commonsense – as some academic plot hatched only to keep academics in tenured positions and keep honest down-to-earth artists unemployed and marginalised. The intellectual paucity of such a position was manifest just looking at the people who expressed it.

Another reaction was to concede the power of the argument and to engage in a constant endgame of abstruse cerebral delicacy. This increasingly produced practices that had currency solely within their own terms of reference, closed system choreographies that symbolically celebrated their own disenfranchisement. Although possessing an intellectual purity that appealed to many, and though the role of radical martyr to the inevitable erosions of capital and history was attractive, such positions became increasingly pointless and not a little smug. This approach later transmogrified into making works that seem to function almost entirely on a symbolic level, where a sign occupies the space that was once that of ‘art’ but proclaims its abjectness and inability to fulfil what once may have been expected of it. Another strategy is a sort of ‘haute modernism lite’, which seems to hope that through mimesis of avant garde forms the intentions can also be regained

A third possible reaction was for artists to say yes, we accept the premises and the outcomes of these positions: we agree that the grand narratives are no longer reclaimable, that the position of author may be nearly impossible, that the transformative agendas are compromised and that the real no longer exists: we agree that we are in fact in the midst of a maelstrom of simulacra … but let’s pretend for a moment that this is not so. Let us knowingly and wilfully operate along the fiction that it may be possible to write the grand narrative Victorian novel or generate worlds and bodies of work. Such a move would allow ‘content’ to operate as a game or construct rather than as an inalienable teleological truth. This sort of approach is prefigured in Borges’ love of the ‘old fashioned’ narratives of Stevenson and the Father Brown stories of J B Priestly, or his proposition that to rewrite Don Quixote identically hundreds of years later is to generate two totally different texts. It fits Borges’ delight in looped logics and systems that the writer who should have identified so many of the conditions identified as ‘post modern’ – think of Baudriliard’s use of Borges’ story of the map of China that was so detailed and accurate that it covered and replaced China should also suggest useful stratagems to operate within these conditions.

The increasing centrality of the dialogues of the ‘post modern’ in the intellectual life of the West coincided uncannily with the collapse of the command economies of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. This demise has had, and will have, effects that we can, as yet, only start to guess at. The psychic geographies through which we move have been irrevocably shifted. An immediate outcome has been to unanchor ideas of the ‘alternative’ from the real. No matter what you felt about the reality of Marxism, the existence of states based on its philosophies gave a concrete charge to propositions of an alternative or radical change to the everyday structures of the West. With the failure of the validating engines of ‘historical inevitability’ and dialectical materialism, a central forum for the alternative has disappeared, leaving all such propositions seemingly equivalent, shimmering and fantastical in the air, be they based on the workers’ ownership of the means of production or the hidden hand of the illuminati and messages from Sirius in the processes of history.

This withering has been mirrored by the dull grey triumphalism of the current rhetorics of Western capitalism and economic rationalism. Increasingly things and activities are viewed in terms of function and ‘use value’ and a constant enervating reference is made to ‘commonsense’. However the current universality of such criteria makes it hard to imagine other ways of doing things or to articulate other functions, and it seems impossible to see an edge or end to its hegemony. Lack of possibility and dull pragmatism have increasingly shaped artists’ (and arts institutions’) intentions and expectations of their practice. Such pervasiveness encourages an interiority, as it seems impossible to be ‘outside’ it, to imagine territories beyond the border, instead it is as if you have to disappear below the surface, enclosed in a sphere of your own making.

Such a seemingly hermetic act does have an electric political charge, even if not a linear directed one. Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita, a tale of the devil coming to Moscow, talking cats and other shenanigans, at the height of Stalin’s power, and just this act of fantastic invention suggested territories beyond the reach of state or political power. Such ‘bringing into being’ helps position the subject as the opposite of a (passive) consumer and instead makes the subject a generative force. In many such productions there is a sort of crazy power to the process which we find disturbing, as if the sources of energy are barely contained. These productions often seem recalcitrant to ‘use value’, and they are not necessarily overtly political, analytical or able to be articulated in terms of received code or discourse, be those discourses social or aesthetic. But I would suggest that because they do not fit comfortably within these received, attenuated discourses, ironically, this is where their ‘usefulness’ lies.

The tessellation of subjective world views, the confusion and layering of codes, generative taxonomies, and the potential slipperinesses of identities, newly demand our attention through developments in science and new technology, where previously secure definitions of the real and the non-real, and the fantastic have become increasingly porous and osmotic. Only a very few people can even begin to understand the basics of contemporary physics, (and I am not one of them), but even the dimly perceived existence of these concepts makes for a background buzz of information that destabilises our understanding and suggests that the working of the universe may be, to all intents and purposes, counter-intuitive and irrational: much as a crazy fiction. On a more local scale the fact that our lives have shifted into the electronic has destabilised previous certainties. Money now exists as a series of magnetic pulses, on the Net my identity is unverifiable and therefore elective, contingent on my ability – or desire – to maintain a continuous fiction, and war for most of us has blurred into Hollywood and video games. Even our rhetorics for this arena are fantastic and removed from what may constitute an objective understanding. We proclaim a ‘World Wide Web’, but were the map of that world printed it would bear no resemblance to Mercator’s projection, as it would exclude much of the globe: there are still fewer phone lines in Sub-Saharan Africa than there are on Manhattan Island. Even those who do not use computers have had their model lings of the world shaped by these technologies. When the footage of Osama Bin Laden seeming to claim responsibility for the World Trade Centre strikes first came into the public domain, an immediate issue was whether the tape was ‘real’, or some electronic Lord of the Rings manifestation of the reality desired by shadowy American intelligence agencies. Back to Baudrillard world: Photoshop (TM) has done more to deconstruct our faith in the ‘real’ than decades of monographs and lectures.

Digital space also seems a nourishing environment for the construction of particular subjective worlds. It does this in two ways: firstly, by individualising each person’s experience. Digital TV means that each person has their own communion with the program they are watching; the social dimension that broadcast TV provided – where you could talk of last night’s programs in the playground or the pub – has evaporated. Electronic games and computer spaces continue this atomisation with an intense individualised experience specific to each interaction. Secondly, the Web provides the possibility for new, specific groupings made up of individuals linked by interest, be that in E-bay, fascism, weird sex or hydroponic gardening, allowing communities of difference to grow and link. This encourages promiscuous dialogues questioning that which may be considered authorised and ‘real’ and the unauthorised and ‘not real’. Certainty fades fast in electronic worlds.

These developments provide a context in which to consider the works that make up (THE WORLD MAY BE) FANTASTIC. However I hope that the works do not contain or illustrate themes, as the exhibition is intended to work as a proposition rather than as a diagnosis.

This holds true both for each work’s relationship to the ideas I have outlined here and to the show as a whole. It is a hypothesis. It does not claim that these are the artists and practices who are ‘setting the pace’ right now. Or that this is the best art from around the world of the last two years. Or that the work represents movements that are defining the future (or the present) as Biennales often tend to do. Nor is the exhibition ‘global’ – although artists from different countries are represented. I did not think the global approach useful, desirable or, in this case, achievable right now: intellectually, logistically or financially. Large global art exhibitions tend to have a flattening effect, to homogenise, in bizzare contradiction to their intended aims and certainly an anathema to a project that desires to look at ‘approaches that are fantastic, partial, various suggestive, ambitious, subjective, wobbly and eccentric to normal orbits…’

This Biennale intends to provide a platform for certain works by certain artists at a certain time. The thesis of the exhibition is intended to function more as a table that allows these things to be shown, explored, and considered, than as an envelope which contains and covers them. Keeping true to the aims and intentions of the exhibition, this list of works and artists is one of many versions of the exhibition that could have taken place, of shows with different artists and different work exploring similar concerns.

Each artist participating in this version of the show (as would the artists in other versions of the show) brings with them a cosmology, a system of thought or action that serves to lever open other possibilities and worlds in the fabric of the one which surrounds us. The drive to make models and generate alternative narratives is buried deep in the configurations of the nervous system which makes us ‘human’ even if these acts seem to have no immediate ‘utility’. Many of the productions and works in this exhibition, although de facto existing in the ‘art’ world – and therefore largely codified and self aware – have that strange autonomy and gravity that we find in ‘primary’ productions, those acts of imagination and creation that people do for themselves in their bedrooms or in their sheds, which seem to be individual and pathological as much as cultural. Chris Burden’s bridges remain lumpy and problematic in this context as do Henry Darger’s strange imaginings of the adventures of the Vivian Girls, even though one exists easily in the exchanges of the modern Western art world and the other lived in a basement withdrawn from general society. His world view could have provided subject matter for Veli Grano’s biographies or Hiller’s mapping’s of UFO contact. The cosmology’s are often obdurate, perverse; the works polymorphous, expansive and energising, and all serve to problematise and make fantastic the worlds that we build around us.