17th Biennale of Sydney (2010)

THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age

12 May – 1 August 2010
Artistic Director: David Elliott

View images from the 17th Biennale on our Flickr pool

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’ edited by David Elliott.

Situated in the heart of Sydney, in a land that has traditionally regarded distance as a disadvantage, the 17th Biennale of Sydney will celebrate the beauty of distance by including art from around the world.

But why should distance be good or beautiful?

Distance allows us to be ourselves despite the many capacities we share. We are all the same, yet different and it is our differences that make us – according to the circumstances – beautiful, terrifying, attractive, boring, sexy, unsettling, fascinating, challenging, funny, stimulating, horrific or even many of these at once.

More importantly, the idea of distance expresses the condition of art itself. Art is of life, runs parallel to life and is sometimes about life. But, for art to be art (a medium of numinous, sometimes symbolic power), it must maintain a distance from life. Without distance, art has no authority and is no longer special. As art depends on the beauty of distance, beauty in art – a resolution of energy, thought and feeling in aesthetic form – depends on distance as well. Beauty itself can, at times, be terrible as well as alluring. Art can reflect the sweetest or strongest of emotions, it can also express the most traumatic events but, unlike life, nobody gets hurt.

Contemporary art is one of the most important activities in which we can be engaged. If it is any good, it balances enjoyment with wisdom by offering creative, free and open perspectives that are desperately needed in complicated and dangerous times.

The subtitle of the 17th Biennale of Sydney – ‘Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age’ – explores the affirmative power of art in the face of unprecedented threats: conflict, famine, inequity, environmental despoliation and global warming. This subtitle is inspired by experimental film maker, anthropologist and musicologist Harry Everett Smith (1923–91), whose compilation of historic recordings, the Anthology of American Folk Music, appeared in 1952 at the height of the Korean War and Senator McCarthy’s political witch hunts in the USA. Drawing on blues, jazz, gospel, Cajun and other forms of folk music from people of many origins living across the USA, Smith mapped a modern world that had radically different values to the rapidly proliferating mass consumer culture around him. By doing this, he provided guidance and inspiration for generations of future musicians and listeners. (A program of concerts, performances and events will coincide with the exhibition.)

The 17th Biennale of Sydney will not be broken into sections but will focus on contemporary realities through several thematic ideas:

First Peoples and Fourth Worlds refers to the work of both first and diasporic peoples who have survived suppression and marginalisation. Disdained and persecuted by modernity, these peoples have maintained traditional frameworks for looking at culture and the world, which have nevertheless been strongly affected by this interaction. They are also finding new aesthetic languages that are not based on any sense of marginality to express themselves.

From the Panopticon to the Wunderkammer explores the deep chasm between ideas of ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’. One of the most damaging fantasies of modernity was the idea that there could be a universal view to encompass all people, phenomena and things within set categories. Many museums were founded on such convictions. This view is also made evident in the punitive institution of the Panopticon, the rationalist, Enlightenment prison in which one governor could see all the inmates in their cells from a single, fixed, authoritarian viewpoint. This approach is contrasted with the earlier, more fluid Cabinet of Curiosities, a prototype of the modern museum, which brought together disparate items from different origins as objects of delight and wonderment. In a reversal of history, this Biennale will be a contemporary Wunderkammer, allowing the audience direct experience and enjoyment of a wide range of art that is not categorised in any hierarchical way.

Of Gods and Ghosts takes aesthetic, social and political transcendence as its central theme, looking at memory, belief, history and desire to highlight links between present and past in unusual ways. Continuities of human experience through time are examined – not within a hidebound framework of ‘tradition’, but in terms of how they have evolved to be expressed in contemporary life.

A Hard Rain is concerned with works of a documentary nature, which examine or reflect the current state of the world.

The Trickster is a figure appearing in virtually all cultures – as either god, spirit, man, woman or anthropomorphic animal – and who plays pranks or disrupts normal rules of behaviour. By using the tactics of masquerade, feint and the absurd, the Trickster subversively inserts himself under the skin of pretension to assert the power of art and make a serious point.

Art is both a representation and an embodiment of views of the world, created out of the responsibility of an individual or group. In a sense all representations are political – they express attitudes towards history, culture, relationships and power – yet this does not mean they are all good art. Ideas of beauty and quality in art also, inevitably, reflect back on the world itself and on the different systems of value sustained within it. The making of good art is never a passive act and, more often than not, both the quality and the beauty of a work are expressed in its timely self-consciousness and critical distance.

Quality in art has many faces and can be found in different manifestations across the world. By providing a unique experience of a wide range of good art, THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age will celebrate and express the power of art, as well as its creative richness.