19th Biennale of Sydney (2014)


21 March – 9 June 2014
Artistic Director: Juliana Engberg
Read the Artistic Director Foreword
19th Biennale Exhibition Report

19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) exhibition catalogue and guide book are available for purchase from our online shop.

Visit the 19th Biennale of Sydney website

The 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire presented the work of 92 artists from 31 countries free to the public over a three-month period. Curated by Juliana Engberg, the exhibition was presented at various partner venues including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Carriageworks, Cockatoo Island and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Other works and events were experienced at various locations throughout the city, including Henrik Håkansson’s epic, episodic film and orchestral performance work, THE END (2011 and 2014), which was presented at Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay.

This year, more than 623,000 visited the Biennale partner venues, including nearly 125,000 from overseas, the highest international visitation numbers recorded in the Biennale’s 41-year history. In addition, audiences also experienced outdoor works by Nathan Coley on the Eastern Apron of Cockatoo Island, and the building exteriors of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, as well as numerous performance works in public spaces.

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How marvellous is the little bust of ‘Socrate’ as imagined and carved by the French postman Monsieur Cheval, now translated, photographically, into a kind of free-floating relic of civilisation by the French artist Aurélien Froment. ‘Socrate’, the artisanal object, is too good to be anywhere but at the beginning of this book. The Greek philosopher Socrates – kept alive by Plato in his dialogues, Xenophon in his symposia, and Aristotle in his metaphysics – has a rightful place as an original conceptualist and originator of a history of imagination.

The various portrayals of Socrates by his pupils are respectful and reverential; they give a sobering account of his philosophical interrogations. For something more vivid we must look to the not at all flattering caricature of Socrates, a satirised vision of a shambolic airhead, by the dramatist Aristophanes, that is both far more entertaining and revealing.

In The Clouds, Aristophanes has Socrates say:

… it is indispensible to get one’s thoughts into a state of suspension and mix its minute particles into the air which they so closely resemble. If I had remained on the ground and investigated the upper regions from there, I would never have made any discoveries – the earth exercises too powerful an attraction upon the moisture contained in thought.

Intended as comedy, derisive of philosophical dialectics, Aristophanes’s text is nevertheless, unconsciously or not, a lovely evocation of the philosophical mind seeking, grappling, visioning – imagining a world beyond the prosaic grounded life.

Much of the interrogation of the imagination, from its early description in Greek philosophy as being phantasmic, mimetic, dangerous and unreasonable – anti-rational – and, if we take the mythic, Promethean view, a rebellion against the divinity of the gods, has been devoted to making it Platonic and sensible – anchored within the senses and what can be perceived, exorcising its more demonic aspects. In so doing, something of its power got lost in translation.

So much so that Friedrich Nietzsche would, in The Birth of Tragedy, berate Socrates for being a despotic logician who denies the rhapsodic, ecstatic, chaotic and dark excesses of the Dionysian tradition, before rescuing him, somewhat, by reminding us that in his confinement Socrates would postulate: ‘Is that which is unintelligible to me necessarily unintelligent? Might there be a realm of wisdom from which the logician is excluded? Might art even be a necessary correlative and supplement to science?’

Before Nietzsche, it was Immanuel Kant, following on from David Hume, who allowed that ‘the free play of the imagination is something which is in itself desirable, which in itself gives pleasure even when it does not give rise to judgment’.3 From this free play Kant established the concept of the sublime, emerging from the imagination, free of its self-imposed rules of beauty.

In the pages to follow Daniel Palmer evolves a spritely account of the sublime from then until now, so I need not expound it further here, except to observe that the emergence of the sublime pivots on a moment of transference between divinity and humanism. It is a profoundly important creation in establishing the human relationship to the moral, awesome and transcendent. The concept of the sublime shows humankind prepared to face the ineffable, to deal with majesty and survive terror by taking delight in and controlling it. Once humankind, now rational, moral and therefore unfearful of God, can control and take pleasure from the sublime – nature as might – then it can also permit its darker desires to emerge.

Kant laid the groundwork, but it was Nietzsche who sought to fully unleash abolished Dionysian hedonism, which Socrates, the despotic logician, had sought to consign to the ancients. Nietzsche was hopeful that his übermensch was up to the task of not only gazing with awe upon a misty, sublime mountain, but standing upon it, its conqueror. Gott ist tot!, declared Nietzsche’s ‘Madman’, now plunged into a fearful responsibility of self-will and self-control.

After Nietzsche, and entering into wild imaginings, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud complete the task. The modernist fate of self-determination, with its dangerous, unhinged excess, is inaugurated in this volume by Edward Colless, continuing the dark thoughts, seeking rapture and exalted states. In the spirit of Baudelaire, in this Biennale artist Gabrielle de Vietri grows a garden of Les Fleurs du mal, so that we might wander amidst its desiring and malevolent thoughts.

Swings and roundabouts. Come the twentieth century, imagination eventually gathers reason back to itself, but with a twist. Jean-Paul Sartre, who devoted a tremendous amount of his energy to investigating the imagination, believed that it makes its own meaning and therefore demonstrates the freedom of consciousness – a freedom over time and space, and independent from the objective restrictions of the perceived world. This history of imagination has, ultimately, been a struggle between the divine and the secular.

In philosophical terms, the marshalling of imagination comes to be understood as central to our capacity to consider what is possible: a combination of reason and visualising which gives us the facility to discover, invent and strive towards original concepts – to generate something. To our contemporary minds this is a duh! moment, but it has taken quite a lot of aha! moments to get there.

But I’m with Seal (and Patsy Cline). We’re never gonna survive, unless we get a little bit crazy. And so enters desire.

Would that I had a little carved bust of Sigmund Freud by Monsieur Cheval, but alas, I lack it. What a perfect bookend to ‘Socrate’ it would be. But that is the thing about desire, it should remain unrequited in order to motivate action. Or as Slavoj Žižek says: ‘Desire’s raison d ’être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.’

Freud undoubtedly owns the point at which the Aristotelian philosophical concept of desire as movement – as animal locomotion, or motivation – transfers to the concept of psychological desire in a libidinous way and becomes a key, if quixotic human drive. But it is Jacques Lacan who defines it as a surplus, and Slavoj Žižek who runs with it.

Following Lacan, even if we can articulate our desire, there will remain a surplus extra desire: a furtive, unsayable desiring that cannot be named or grasped. This desire lives under consciousness, additional to the formulated, beyond the articulated – named – truth. Desire is what remains after need is subtracted from demand. Desire, then, is like a bubble, that pops out of, and floats away from an examination of an obvious objective. Desire delayed, or extended. Art, I believe, is formed in this desire bubble. It is generated from that ungraspable, unsayable surplus.

And so we come to the helix of our title, You Imagine What You Desire, which combines, in entwining activity, our capacity to consider what is possible, yet not to be able to grasp, or even know it completely. In this title is held potential, and it is this idea of potential that delivers to art its raison d ’être. This is the reason I suggest that artists are active philosophers, inasmuch as they continue to propose problems through which they work in hopeful, surplus ways, expecting their desire to perpetuate yet another problem, to rebuild desire – ad infinitum.

The 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire offers itself as a grand multiplicity. It is in its nature multiple, and contains within itself a set of singular multiplicities. Each project, each work, is a summation of its own history – philosophical, psychological, aesthetic – to this point in time, and adds to the collective imagination and desire from which it has come. It is, as Alain Badiou suggests, an example of the amorous procedure which is art.

There, finally, it can be said: art is desire, active desiring!

The title, You Imagine What You Desire, transfers this amorous procedure, this desiring, from the art to the audience. Each visitor comes with their own summations of history, as well as a collective consciousness, in search of those singularities that open up to further potential. In general, I believe visitors are attracted by and come to art in order to test their own desiring, and to be, even if temporarily, part of its amorous procedure, which in turn sets their own imaginations alight.

Some look for joy, others sadness; some for puzzles, others answers; some for sexiness, others for the Platonic; some for abstractions and others anthropologies; some for serenity, or excitement; some for the self and some for the other. The questing is huge and various; we cannot pin it down to a small theme.

Many viewers just wish to be in the immensity or intimacy of art in order, as Gaston Bachelard, following Baudelaire, would say, to grow their inner grandeur.9 And as guest philosopher Elizabeth Grosz writes in this catalogue: ‘art draws to itself a people to come. It is a mode of incantation for the future, song-lines for a people that do not yet exist. That is the politics of art: not what it represents, but how it invokes a people, how a people come to find itself addressed by an artwork.’

For me the act of curating is to be an agent on behalf of art, the artist and the audience’s desiring; to make a proposition which sets in play choices, proximities and itineraries of encounter that create frissons and thoughts through a set of artistic repertoires that hold and grow history and knowledge as imagined. To allow art its power of nascent, intuitive delivery that both is desire, and demonstrates desire.

For the 19th Biennale of Sydney, I have allowed the feeling of various spaces to guide some of these itineraries of encounter. Cockatoo Island proposes to me the trope of the ‘island’ – an imaginary, anticipated place, as it has been in literature, philosophy, art and entertainment. The island is a destination, a fantasy location, a fun-park; a utopia perhaps, and with it, a dystopia. Out on the island I have commissioned and placed a variety of projects that play up these ideas: a fun-ride, ruins, a waterfall, a village, a gizmo factory, and many other phantasmic sounds and spaces. Recognising some of the layered history of Cockatoo Island – its power generation, shipbuilding and incarcerations – I have also sought to create energy and kinetic movement through sculptural devices and a certain feral atmosphere. To me the island is a wild, desiring place where a happy anarchy can take hold.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, an air/water venue as I read it, I situate the more liminal, libidinous, liquous items, many of which use the psychological language and semiotics of surrealism, or the energetic movements of colour abstractions. Sometimes both conjoined. This is a space that moves from darkness to light, from movement to stillness. It holds invention
in its taxonomies.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for me an earth/fire space, a sense of collectivism and societal rupture, and a hoped-for encounter with change, is explored from the alchemical, tabula rasa images of protest, to Promethean fire plays, storytelling, emerging cultures and intimate human encounters. It is a place for the joyous celebration of the human as innocent, naked and stripped back, and reimagined through collective endeavours. Forgiveness becomes a powerful self-determination.

At Carriageworks – previously used as a film studio, and incorporating the world of theatre and performance – artists investigate the languages of cinema and stage to find in them dream worlds and dream works that link to the psyche. Frozen moments, baroque folds, the bubble of the Hollywood musical and scenographies of the sublime are all encountered here.

The works at Artspace take joy in flights of fancy and allow freedom to find its way through the agency of migratory birds and chance unions, and strange encounters with time travel. Throughout the city centre and in various outdoor sites around Sydney, occasional apparitions appear to create moments of estrangement from normal operations. And at Pier 2/3 we come to THE END, a finale of epic proportions in honour of a humble creature, a metaphor for the self.

During the 19th Biennale of Sydney, large neon words will illuminate the facades of a number of venues, shining out through the day and into the night: YOU IMAGINE WHAT YOU DESIRE – YOU WILL WHAT YOU IMAGINE – YOU CREATE WHAT YOU WILL. Borrowed from their author, George Bernard Shaw, and now set free, by Nathan Coley, as a set of floating evocations, they invite artists and audience alike to activate their own desires.

Images from the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014)

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