Flashback Friday: 5th Biennale of Sydney, Leon Paroissien

Posted on 08 November 2013 in Flashback Friday, News
Gilbert & George, Drunk with God, 1983

Leon Paroissien was appointed Artistic Director for the 5th Biennale of Sydney, held in 1984. Bringing together 61 artists from 20 countries, Leon recently shared a few of his memories from that time.

It’s been 29 years since you were Artistic Director of the Biennale of Sydney. What are some of your fondest memories from your time working on the exhibition?
Some of my most vivid memories of working on the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984) are of my visits to artists, especially in countries where the visual arts were considered potentially subversive and artists had few opportunities to exhibit locally, let alone in international exhibitions. This included not only Communist states such as Yugoslavia and Poland, but also countries that were at the other extreme of the political spectrum and under military dictatorship, such as Chile. Through contacts provided by Chilean-born Australian artist Juan Davila, who was represented in the 5th Biennale, I met critic Nelly Richard and a group of artists whose work was richly encoded and layered against the grain of the dominant ideas of art and its social meanings. Nelly was one of the most interesting interpreters of centre/periphery dynamics at that time, and brought the dialogue of Latin American critical contexts into Australian debates – which were very different at the time. Nelly ultimately wrote for the catalogue and Chilean artists Gonzalo Díaz and Eugenio Dittborn were in the exhibition. Dittborn was subsequently represented in many exhibitions abroad.

Another fond memory of working with an artist on inclusion in the exhibition is mixed with recall of a sense of dismay at the possibility of a tragedy unfolding at the moment the exhibition was realised. The occasion was the opening of the Biennale satellite exhibition of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, held in the Power Gallery of the University of Sydney and curated for me by Wystan Curnow. McCahon had during his career travelled once to New York and once to Australia. Although the New Zealand Government had donated a major work, Victory over Death 2, to the National Gallery of Australia in 1978 in anticipation of its 1982 opening, McCahon’s recognition as an artist at the time was largely confined to New Zealand. He came to Sydney for the exhibition but didn’t arrive at the opening of this first significant international presentation of his work. McCahon had gone for a walk, become disoriented, and was discovered in Centennial Park the next morning. Colin McCahon died three years later, but recognition of his work outside his native New Zealand has continued to grow since that first showing of his work in Sydney.

Every time I walk in the gardens on the northern side of the Art Gallery of NSW I check the height of an indigenous fig tree that was planted as part of a work in the 5th Biennale, but has no sign indicating this. On my invitation, German artist Joseph Beuys was to travel to Sydney, plant a tree, and install a basalt column, as one of a series of ecological actions he had begun for documenta 7 two years earlier, involving the planting of 7000 oak trees. Beuys had requested advice on an Australian tree for the Sydney context to replace the European oak. The Botanic Gardens, the government authority for the gardens beside the Gallery, suggested a fig tree and agreed to its planting, but wouldn’t give approval for the stone to remain in place indefinitely. Beuys became ill and couldn’t travel to Sydney. The tree was planted by René Block, the Biennale Commissioner for West Germany (and later, Artistic Director of the 8th Biennale of Sydney (1990)). Joseph Beuys died in 1986.

I assumed that the significance of the tree planting would reverse the decision regarding the basalt, especially when it was adjacent to the Gallery. However, the stone was later removed and put into storage. On a subsequent visit to Sydney, René Block took the stone back to Germany.

Were there any installations you had a particularly strong personal connection with and if so why?
The inclusion of two works by Anselm Kiefer was particularly significant for me. I had been so struck by work I had seen in exhibitions in Europe, where he had recently come to prominence. He had then just turned 39, but I considered his work deserved in-depth representation in Australia. I obtained his approval for a Biennale satellite exhibition that I had proposed should be held in the Chapter House of St Mary’s Cathedral, just near the Art Gallery of NSW. Negotiations eventually broke down and I had to be satisfied with including the two works in the main exhibition in the Gallery. The Art Gallery of NSW later bought two major works by Kiefer in 2006.

Can you recall any pieces that seemed to grab the public’s attention more than you had anticipated?
Text-based works by American artists Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, photo-based works by Cindy Sherman, and Robert Longo’s paintings were of great interest, especially to artists and collectors. All four were then in their thirties, and for many Biennale visitors this was their first encounter with these artists. Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) bought one of the five Sherman works from the exhibition, now a very good representation of her work of the period.

Do you still attend the Biennale? 
I have experienced all Biennales since then. In recent years I tend to avoid openings and visit the exhibitions, including major exhibitions abroad, a number of times, enjoying an exploration that is less interrupted by the social scenes of openings.

From 1984 until now and assuming you’ve attended a Biennale of Sydney since then, what has been the biggest change in the event that you’ve noticed?
Despite its now venerable position in the world calendar of such exhibitions, the Biennale of Sydney is still not funded to a level comparable with its peer events, something not widely recognised by visiting curators and artists, or by Australians for that matter. However, the event has developed to astonishing proportions in spite of its limited means, winning a special place amongst biennial and triennial international exhibitions of contemporary art worldwide. I have memories of the tiny office staff of the Biennale in its early years. People teasingly called it a triennial because the first three were held in 1973, 1976 and 1979. These days I am especially impressed by the administrative support that now expands periodically to meet the demands of such a major event – one that opens every two years at the scheduled time. I must admit that I thought the incorporation of Cockatoo would be a real hazard, then delighted to be on ferries full of varied audiences, some of whom had probably never been to a contemporary art exhibition, let alone a Biennale, in their lives.

Images from the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984)

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Image: Gilbert and George, Drunk with God, 1983. Artwork exhibited in the 5th Biennale of Sydney (1984). Courtesy the artist and Ludwig Museum, Cologne