3rd Biennale of Sydney: 1979

Peter Kennedy, 'November Eleven, no. 1, 1979 (detail). Installation view of the 3rd Biennale of Sydney (1979) at The Art Gallery of New South Wales

Peter Kennedy, November Eleven, no. 1, 1979 (detail). Installation view of the 3rd Biennale of Sydney (1979) at The Art Gallery of New South Wales

The third Biennale of Sydney involved over one hundred and thirty artists and artist groups from nineteen countries, and included special segments devoted to recent European drawing and photography which toured nationally. This Biennale explored the influences and links between Europe and Australia, and questioned the predominance of New York as the international art centre. The exhibition showed of a lot of post-object work, which along with many of the major European artists of the moment, were seen that year for the first time in Australia.

Some of the artists exhibiting were: Marcel Broodthaers, Gerhardt Richter, A.R. Penck, Daniel Buren, Christian Boltanski, Valie Export, Hanne Darboven, Hermann Nitsch, Mario Merz and Armand Arman. There was also some exciting performance work from Marina Abramaovic and Ulay, Jürgen Klauke, Ulrike Rosenbach and others. They made an enormous impact on local audiences. Many critics visited Australia for the first time to see this event among them Giancarlo Politi and Helena Kontova whose visit resulted in coverage of the Biennale then and in subsequent years in Flash Art.

Philip Dadson, 'Triad 3', 1979

Philip Dadson, Triad 3, 1979, performance, marching bass drum, cymbals, metronomes and penlight torches. Performance for the 3rd Biennale of Sydney (1979) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

An important and exciting curatorial precedent that was set by this Biennale was the inclusion of work by Aboriginal artists. The work of Malangi, Bungaway and Milpurrurr from Ramangining Central Arnhem Land was integrated for the first time as part of a contemporary art exhibition.

The late 1970s was a period of considerable political debate and polarization, with artists’ taking stands on issues such as equality of women’s representation and the percentage of Australian art required in international exhibitions. Public demonstrations and marches coincided with the third Biennale and the exhibition became a backdrop for sometimes heated discussion. The struggle surrounding it accelerated the formation of the Artworkers Union; an organisation for art workers intent on protecting artists’ rights. The controversy surrounding the exhibition reached the whole art community and sparked discussion on future needs. A small grass roots publication, ‘Biennale of Sydney: Red Herring or White Elephant’ captured the essence of the debate and today gives considerable insight into the spirit of that time. It was no coincidence that a year later in 1980 the Art Gallery of New South Wales organised the first national survey of recent Australian art, Perspecta, which was henceforth shown in the alternate year to the Biennale.