Biennale Archive Stories #2
Mami Kataoka: An Open Interview with Vivienne Binns OAM, Deborah Kelly, Julie Rrap and Ann Stephen
This conversation was hosted by Artspace, Sydney on 6 April 2017, as the second ‘open interview’ in an ongoing series investigating the Biennale’s Archive, as the organisation approaches its 21st edition and 45th year.
For this talk, 21st Biennale of Sydney Artistic Director Mami Kataoka invites past participants and observers of Biennale of Sydney editions to tell stories spanning 1976 to 2014.
Curator and historian Ann Stephen first ‘got the Biennale bug’ on reading an interview in the second issue of Lip (1) with 1976 Biennale participant, Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya, that has stayed with her ever since. In it, Nakaya recounts her decision to wait before turning on her Fog Sculpture on the opening night of the Biennale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, wishing to give space to demonstrators who had gathered to protest then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. “I waited until Fraser got into the museum to put the fog on, because I thought they had their message that they wanted to convey at a certain moment. Afterwards I put my fog on. It didn’t interfere with people’s message, it made another environment for them.”
From here, the conversation examines the climate of crisis, questioning and community action in Australia in the 1970s and later, starting from the interim between the second and third editions in 1976 and 1979 – a period in which the Biennale was strongly addressed by artist groups organising around issues of representation of Australian and women artists in the Biennale, or the inclusion of others that didn’t necessarily fall within what might be called high art. Not only this, but ‘bread and butter’ issues around fees and contracts for artists.
The nature, conditions, politics and tensions of exhibiting in a Biennale are discussed across different generations: from Vivienne Binns’ role as co-organiser of the 1979 publication Sydney Biennale: White Elephant or Red Herring? and her three-year ‘artist-in-community’ project Mothers’ Memories Others’ Memories exhibited in the 1982 Biennale, to four-time participant Julie Rrap’s Australian/international experiences and reflections on speaking out as an artist, and the painful backdrop to the 2014 Biennale as recalled by Deborah Kelly, brought into such sharp relief by her utopian project.
As Kataoka concludes, it is inspiring to think of the threads of negotiations, efforts and contributions of artists and other contributors that have been formative part of the long history of the Biennale, as a platform for much more than just art.
(1) Lip magazine was a feminist art journal published in Melbourne from 1976 to 1984
Vivienne Binns OAM made an explosion on Sydney’s art scene in 1967 when works such as Vag Dens and Phallic Monument were exhibited at Watters Gallery, the former going on to become an icon of feminist art in Australia. In the fifty years since, her work has queried the nature of art as a human activity. A strong voice in 1970s and ’80s efforts to improve conditions for women artists and artists generally, including the heated discussions surrounding the Biennale’s third edition in 1979, her renowned artist-in-community project Mothers’ Memories Others’ Memories, 1979-1981, was exhibited in the 4th Biennale in 1982.
Deborah Kelly, an artist well-known for her politically motivated and multifaceted body of work, instigated the collaborative project No Human Being Is Illegal (In All Our Glory), for the 19th Biennale in 2014. The large-scale collage portraits, realised through a process of communal creation and exchange, are emblematic of Kelly’s embrace of art’s place in a social, political and civic continuum of activity. Advocating for openness, the work celebrated collectivity and heterogeneity at a time when individual and institutional implication in Australia’s refugee policy was being publicly discussed, with the Biennale at the centre of debates.
Julie Rrap is a signature artist in Australia in the field of representations of the body, a sustaining interest and project for Rrap that dates back to her involvement with body art and performance in the mid-1970s. Her photography, painting, sculpture and video has been included in four Biennales over three decades – 1986, 1988, 1992 and 2008 – charting the artist’s engagement with a politics of the body that embraces feminism as a living practice and tool for liberation. Rrap served on the Board of the Biennale from 2004 to 2007. She has contributed to several review panels over the Biennale’s history and was a member of the selection panel for the 13th Biennale Artistic Director, Richard Grayson.
Dr Ann Stephen is the Senior Curator of the University Art Gallery and Art Collection at the University of Sydney. As a curator and art historian, her work has focused on modernism, contemporary art in Australia and conceptualism, including exhibitions and publications on the work of Ian Burn. Stephen’s longer association with Burn began in 1977 as co-editor (with Charles Merewether) of The Great Divide, a ‘critique of Australian culture under capitalism’ that included arguments against the international blockbuster-type exhibition. With Burn, Binns and many others, she contributed to Sydney Biennale: White Elephant or Red Herring?: a compilation of commentary on the 1979 edition.