Posted on 22 February 2017 in News


Mami Kataoka: An Open Interview with Mike Parr, Djon Mundine OAM and Paula Latos-Valier

This conversation, held on 14 December 2016 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, launched an investigation into the Biennale of Sydney’s Archive, together with witnesses and protagonists. Approaching its 21st edition and 45th year, the Biennale considers its role over time, both in Sydney and the region. What can we learn from its achievements and controversies? What is its relevance today?

Mami Kataoka is the Artistic Director of the 21st Biennale of Sydney and Chief Curator at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. Her research for the Biennale’s 21st edition begins with the Biennale’s Archive: for her, a ‘treasure box’ revealing a network of important individuals that have had something to do with the Biennale’s four decades. Introducing the event, she outlines her plan to explore this history through a series of interviews conducted in public, asking, what stories will we hand over to the next generation?

For the first ‘open interview’, Kataoka is joined by Paula Latos-Valier, who has an over 20-year association with the Biennale of Sydney; Djon Mundine OAM, concept curator of The Aboriginal Memorial, first exhibited in the 7th Biennale (1988) at Pier 2/3; and Mike Parr, seven time Biennale participant, whose career runs parallel to the Biennale’s own history.

During the discussion, legendary episodes in art unfold: in the watershed 1979 exhibition, Aboriginal artists participate in the Biennale for the first time; Joseph Beuys’s rubbish-as-art, conceptual readymade falls prey to an unwittingly wielded broom; and Mike Parr comes up against the Hungarian authorities in the year that he also brings live chickens into the Art Gallery of New South Wales for his series of performances in a large black box. In 1982, the riot squad visits the Biennale for the first time, removing Juan Davila’s Stupid as a Painter (1981–82) from Roslyn Oxley’s Paddington gallery on obscenity grounds, while a note in the archive wryly comments that the Biennale of Sydney is the only biennial to take place every three years (1).

The 1988 edition took the moniker of ‘Australian Biennale’ to mark 200 years of European settlement, with the country’s official celebrations adding salt to unhealed wounds of Indigenous Australians, not to mention the country itself. In this atmosphere of contestation, The Aboriginal Memorial is conceived by Djon Mundine: 200 painted log poles standing for each year of dispossession experienced by Australia’s first peoples. The poles, Mundine explains, represent the forest of Australia; trees are memorials of the continent, each containing a spirit. Traveling from remote locations by truck, plane and barge to Sydney, the poles are installed in Pier 2/3 for the Biennale before becoming a permanent display at the National Gallery of Australia.

Biennales, it is agreed, come together on the razor’s edge – it’s do or die, and we need to band together. They enable significant, site-specific work. Their intrigue lives on. Where in the world is Joseph Beuys’s basalt stone?(2)

(1) The first four editions of the Biennale of Sydney took place every three years, with a two year cycle commencing from 1982. Paula Latos-Valier attributes this irregularity to pragmatic factors: organising an exhibition in Australia, at the pace of snail mail.
(2) There is a Moreton Bay fig growing on the northern lawn approaching the Art Gallery of New South Wales – an outlier of Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oak project, planted by curator René Block two years after the artist initiated the project for documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany in 1982. Each of the 7000 Oak trees is accompanied by a basalt stone. The Sydney stone, initially removed by the Royal Botanic Garden Trust, is now reportedly in Denmark.