Flashback Friday: 4th Biennale of Sydney, William Wright

Posted on 15 November 2013 in Flashback Friday, News
Ken Unsworth, Rhythms of Childhood, from the series, ‘Memories of Childhood’, 1980–82

Continuing our series of chatting with previous Artistic Directors, William Wright reminsces about the 4th Biennale of Sydney held in 1982.

It’s been 31 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?

The memories became fonder as the project progressed.

At the time I was invited to undertake the 4th Biennale (1982) I had lived outside Australia for the previous twenty-three years. The invitation came as a total surprise, one compounded at the time by the fact that I had never considered being a curator; certainly I would never have considered anything so extreme as selecting and organising a project so extensive as one of the major international biennial exhibitions; so much so I never considered applying for it. Fondness didn’t come into the equation until much later, except at that time for the many exceptional friends and colleagues I would be leaving behind in New York, as I had previously done six years earlier when I left London for New York.

It was January 1981 and my first day on the job was the farthest one could be from a warming memory. I arrived at the allocated office to discover that it was not conducive to the kind of independent research base I had in mind, and, to my astonishment, that I had virtually no staff. Imagine, a little over a year to countdown of a projected Biennale of over two hundred artists (that became 230) and virtually no prospect of adequate organisational support.

Today’s Biennale secretariat might find this an amusing prospect. And this was before the communication luxury of email, even fax, when ear-shattering alarm clocks reigned supreme over a tiring schedule of waking times throughout the nights. ‘Oh dear, it’s three AM, I‘ve got to call Berlin, New York, Basel, so on, again!’

Communication was fraught, but fortunately, due to the intervention of our often inspirational Chairman Franco Belgiorno-Nettis I was soon provided with an independent Biennale headquarters at Macquarie Place, plus three very able staff: Lindsay Maloney, Elizabeth Westwater and, great good fortune, the wonderfully creative Assistant Director, Paula Latos-Valier. Eventually I also had the benefit of several independent volunteer professionals like Graham Bartlett at 2JJJ, our second sound-work venue, the late Till Verellen at Sydney University and the innately innovative Stephen Jones. Above all we had the active support of the great Indigenous Australian curator Djon Mundine.

Our first impressions upon surveying the Australian art scene were very promising, in particular we were impressed by the increasing profile of the work of both tribal and urban indigenous artists and the emergence at that time of many exceptional women artists, who were realizing works of innovation well comparable with the strength of much of the best contemporary work in the USA and Europe at the time. We were very encouraged and confident that the Australians would be more than up to comparison with the exacting standards of the international contingent.

Images from the 4th Biennale of Sydney (1982)

Were there any installations you had a particularly strong personal connection with and if so why?

Yes, quite a few. If I had to select one it would have to be the extraordinary Walpiri earth painting – performance work. It was a contemplative, slow-developing work in several stages, involving voices, body performance and elaborately layered earth-pigment painting. It was both timeless and contemporary and palpably real and became the centre of focus for the many artists and curators from the other countries as well as Australia. Notably, it appealed to the French Commissioner, the very important international Curator Jean-Hubert Martin, inspiring him to undertake his pivotal Paris exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’.

In retrospect I feel that in a number of ways we were advantaged by lack of precedent in those times. This gave us a freedom to extemporise. For example we were able to include small medium-specific biennales within the biennale; such as one of the first-ever video surveys and the world’s first sound biennale, each of which engaged both the visual art community as well as video, cinema, music and popular audiences.

Can you recall any pieces that seemed to grab the public’s attention more than you had anticipated?

Apart from the above, and the infamous, politically opportunistic ‘arrest’ of Juan Davila’s painting Stupid as a Painter, there were so many good works. I’d have to include the spell-binding body performances of the Master of Bhutto, Min Tanaka; the American ‘Centrist’ Miriam Schapiro’s major opus Black Bolero (that was influential for a generation of young, now mid-generation Australian women artists and now resides at AGNSW). Otherwise, Brian Eno’s Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, Laurie Anderson’s iconic O Superman, Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document, John Baldessari’s Blasted Allegories, Kristof Wodiczko’s Sydney-wide Public Projections. These were Biennale of Sydney ‘firsts’, as were the works by Bill Viola, Rebecca Horn, Joan Jonas, Bill Henson, Jorg Immendorf, Georg Baselitz, Marcus Lupertz, Katarina Sieverding, Lucas Samaras, The Italian Transavanguard, General Idea, and innumerable others.

We were inundated with so many truly amazing artists as perhaps never since, a great many of whom came to Australia and engaged in direct face to face contact with Australian artists and students in other venues, art schools and universities across Australia; a major part of what it was all about. The overriding intent was one of nation-wide contact and interaction well beyond the host city of Sydney and to a very large extent it succeeded.

When attending Biennales since are you able to switch off from ‘work’ mode and enjoy it purely as part of the audience and what have been the highlights for you?

A pivotal but potentially perplexing question: when you are in the intensive mode of ‘curator’ you are addressing the art of the world, the broader dynamics of the creative estate, and there is a necessity to engage conflict, also to be inclusive beyond your personal passions and dialectics. The direct answer is yes, but as the non-curatorial visitor I tend like many to be more judgemental.

One of the major determining features of the Biennale of Sydney is that it is independently curated; this gives it a distinctive status; like the art it shows it is a fully individual creative exercise and over the forty years of its existence there have been many very impressive Biennale of Sydney exhibitions, hence some great Artistic Directors. While I’m well aware of the three that occurred before mine in 1982, I did not see any of them. Of those I have subsequently experienced directly I derived much insight and renewal of understanding from many, especially from Tony Bond’s Boundary Rider as well, inclusively, as those curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Lynne Cook, Nick Waterlow OAM, Jonathan Watkins, Leon Paroissien and Rene Block.

From 1982 until now, what has been the biggest change in the event that you’ve noticed?

Most of the modalities artists utilise were well in place before the 80s but, inevitably, shifts in social issue, population, globalisation, endemic commodification, technological and other process redevelopments have resulted in changes in value and creative expectation.

Though, a point of recognition, one of the gifts of working in those more rustic early days was that Biennales were very few: basically there was Venice, Sydney and São Paulo, so as a result there was far less competition in selecting and securing the work of the best artists worldwide. Indeed I recall that in 1981 there was only one artist I wanted to include who was unavailable. Whereas now there is such a taxing welter of similar international events as well as ubiquitous art fairs and this is no longer feasible. As a result artistic consummacy has given 
way too often to the availability of more easily assimilated production.

It can be informative to refer to the lists of artists at the back of the early Biennale catalogues to see how many there listed have maintained significance; in its totality this represents an impressive representation of the best and most challenging art of its time; something vitally expansive that was introduced into the comparative consciousness of art in our country, to our everlasting creative and cultural benefit.

Images from the 4th Biennale of Sydney (1982)

Related Links: Flashback Friday: 5th Biennale of Sydney, Leon Paroissien Flashback Friday: 6th Biennale of Sydney, Pier 2/3 Flashback Friday: 7th Biennale of Sydney, The Aboriginal Memorial Flashback Friday: 8th Biennale of Sydney, Warhol, Koons and more Flashback Friday: 9th Biennale of Sydney, Anthony Bond Flashback Friday: 10th Biennale of Sydney, Douglas Gordon Flashback Friday: 11th Biennale of Sydney, Goat Island Flashback Friday: 12th Biennale of Sydney, Yoko Ono Flashback Friday: 13th Biennale of Sydney, imagination run wild Flashback Friday: 14th Biennale of Sydney, in Pictures Flashback Friday: 15th Biennale of Sydney, Highlights Flashback Friday: 16th Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island Flashback Friday: 17th Biennale of Sydney, BIG art  Flashback Friday: 18th Biennale of Sydney in numbers

Image: Ken Unsworth, Rhythms of Childhood, from the series, ‘Memories of Childhood’, 1980–82. Installation view of the 4th Biennale of Sydney (1982) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph: Jenni Carter