5th Biennale of Sydney: 1984

Ren Block, planting one of Joseph Beuys' trees in 1984 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Ren Block, planting one of Joseph Beuys’ trees in 1984 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

The fifth Biennale of Sydney brought together the work of sixty one individuals and collectives from twenty countries that spanned several generations. It took as its theme the expression of personal and public political issues, and explored the metaphors and symbols used by artists to express their individual beliefs.

Leon Paroissien set out to bring together artworks that shared similar concerns and techniques had been made in many different parts of the world and away from the traditional cultural hubs like New York, London and Paris. Artworks from Poland, Chile, Brazil and Yugoslavia were shown to share similar themes to those made in major metropolitan art centres.

Gilbert & George, 'Drunk With God', 1983, photo piece, 480 x 1100 cm. Artwork exhibited in the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984), Courtesy the artist and Ludwig Museum, Koln

Gilbert & George, Drunk With God, 1983, photo piece, 480 x 1100 cm. Artwork exhibited in the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984), Courtesy the artist and Ludwig Museum, Koln

“Private Symbol: Social Metaphor” also highlighted the growing importance of photo media to contemporary artists. The works of Karen Knorr, Peter Kennedy, Annette Messager, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Robert Randall & Frank Bendinelli and Gilbert & George showed an energetic engagement with the power of photographic communication. There was a strong figurative thread running through the exhibition as well as a new use of text and imagery.

Paroissien chose to make deliberate juxtapositions of artwork to suggest what he called an “antipodean laboratory”. The fifth Biennale of Sydney also suggested that social engagement by artists was not a mere archaeological relic of the moral indignation that informed the art of the late 1960’s and 1970’s but rather is a much more vital and positive force in contemporary culture. Works by artists such as Anna Oppermann, Juan Davila, Cildo Meireles, Hans Haacke, Anselm Kiefer and Eugenio Dittborn and many others had clear political references which invited viewers to contemplate their own positions on issues as varied as the influence of dreams in real life to sexual politics and economic rationalism.

Left: Cindy Sherman, 'Untitled', 1983, colour photograph, 88.3 x 41.91 cm. Installation view for the 5th Biennale of Sydney Right: Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1983, colour photograph, 87.6 x 57.2 cm. Installation view for the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984)

Left: Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1983, colour photograph, 88.3 x 41.91 cm. Installation view for the 5th Biennale of Sydney
Right: Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1983, colour photograph, 87.6 x 57.2 cm. Installation view for the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984)

There were also a number of important parallel exhibitions. At the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, the first major exhibition of Colin McCahon outside of New Zealand revealed the extraordinary talents of this artist and reiterated Paroissien’s idea to display art that had an “intense vibration between image and sign”. At the S.H Ervin Gallery, National Trust “Dreams Fears and Desires: Aspects of Australian Figurative Painting 1942-62” displayed historical Australian art which revealed the strength and influence of expressionist techniques in the depiction of personal and social alienation. Among the artists included in this exhibition were Joy Hester, Albert Namatjira, Sidney Nolan and William Dobell.