The 1988 Sydney Biennale was special in that it took place in the year of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations and for the first time was able to tour to Melbourne. Under the auspices of the Australian Bicentennial Authority the exhibition displayed a rich range of Australian art over half a century. The show looked thematically at the historical context for the development of a number of key Australian modernist artists whose work was presented alongside their peers or inspirations from around the world.
This curatorial strategy made it possible to show seminal Australian artists like Sidney Nolan alongside Lèger, who had so positively influenced him, Nolan having seen Lèger’s work in the 1939 ‘Herald exhibition’. Another example of this strategy was to exhibit Balthus, in relation to images by a younger generation artist, Julie Brown-Rrap, who had referenced his work. Coherent relationships between ideas expressed in this part of the world, with corresponding ones from artists of similar generations in Asia, Europe and the Americas, created a rich dialogue. Through the inclusion of remarkable precursors and their work, the seventh Biennale of Sydney expanded the meaning and understanding of the present by clearly articulating, the way ideas from so many parts of the world connect.
Perhaps the most remarkable single work in 1988 was the Aboriginal Memorial installed at Pier 2/3. This massive work originated through Djon Mundine, then art advisor at Ramingining. It consisted of one memorial pole for each year of white occupation of Australia. Each took the form of a traditional hollow log coffin. The 200 burial poles have been on display since then at the National Gallery in Canberra, their permanent home. They have since been exhibited, to considerable acclaim, in Germany and Russia. Also at the Pier was a large installation of blood paintings by Hermann Nitsch whose video tapes provoked a second visit to the Biennale and confiscation by the vice squad. As it happened simulated blood was equally controversial and Arnulf Rainer’s crucified teddy bear provoked demonstrations by local teddy bear societies.
Specially programmed to mark the Bicentennial Biennale exhibition, a Japanese art and performance festival, Close Up of Japan, was presented in Australia for the first time. It featured traditional drummers, butoh dancers and the Suzuki Company of Toga, as well as an enormous outdoor installation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Imai. The 1988 event brought one hundred and nine artists and collectives from fifteen countries together in an exhibition which spanned nearly fifty years.