6th Biennale of Sydney (1986)

Origins Originality + Beyond

16 May – 6 July 1986
Artistic Director: Nick Waterlow OAM

Artistic Director Foreword

First published on the occasion of the 6th Biennale of Sydney (1986) in the exhibition catalogue titled ‘Origins Originality + Beyond’ edited by Nick Waterlow.

In the first Biennale in 1973, nine or so of the 15 countries were Asian, so more than half the participation in national terms was Asian. Looking back, this now seems visionary. Tom McCullough’s Biennale in 1976 focused on the Pacific Rim. Ten years later in 1986, with post­modernism rampant, the premise was to ask the question, the death or resurrection of originality? At the time appropriation was overly dominant, and the intention was to look at the nature of the postmodern world and a reliance on preceding imagery, as well as at related and supportive thought structures. Alongside this was work that was not based on appropriation, but that was closer to certain modernist ideals. So, essentially, it presented a critical survey of postmodernism in its many guises. Naturally you can only critique something if the work itself is present. Some of the most memorable works for me were by Eric Fischl, Bruce McLean, Stuart Sherman and Rosemarie Trockel: but there were many many others too.

Images from the 6th Biennale of Sydney (1986)

Stuart Sherman’s performances at the Performance Space were extraordinary.  And there was a Japanese artist Hiroshi Hori, who did astonishing work at the same venue.  Also part of that country’s New Generation, Katsuhiko Hibino looked at images from all over the world and brought them together in a very dramatic way.  Kuniko Kisanuki’s remarkable Butoh dancing, in front of Magdelena Abadanowicz’s strange burlap figures based on the female form, was utterly memorable.  And it was wonderful to have the very rare opportunity to show Cy Twombly in Australia.  There was amazing sculptural work by Magdalena Jetelova, both at the Pier and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and there were wonderful woven mythical figure pieces by Indian artist Mrinalini Mukherjee.

Australian artists made memorable contributions, amougst them Colin Lanceley, Tony Coleing, Richard Dunn, Tim Johnston, Hilarie Mais, Ramingining Performance Group, William Robinson and Michael Nelson Tjakamarra.

The extraordinary thing still about the Biennale of Sydney is that it always brings to Australia remarkable artists who have yet to be seen in this country.  There is not that continuity of exhibitions that you have in London, Tokyo and other large, metropolitan art centres in the western world. In 1986 artists like David Salle and Eric Fistula were represented and they had not been seen here before the Biennale exhibition. Kounellis was in the 1986 Biennale and had hardly been seen here. Kiefer also had some terrific painting and Miriam Cahn presented a remarkable installation of her drawings and books.

Glen Baxter was a godsend; his image used on the cover of the catalogue, It was Tom’s first brush with Modernism, encapsulated the meaning of the exhibition for me and the general public. Likewise, Malcolm McLaren’s version of Manet’s Déjeuner sur I’herbe for the pop group Bow Wow Wow seemed to cause as much controversy as the original! Works such as these attracted a totally different audience Biennale and to the artists’ talks as well.

It is worth remembering that Biennales have often brought work to this country, which subsequently entered public collections, that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. This has been another long-term contribution. Works by Richard Deacon and Jannis Kounellis were purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and William Tucker by the National Gallery of Victoria, and their inclusion in the Biennale assisted their purchase; these are just a few examples.

I do think the Biennale has had a major impact on the community as it has enabled people to see work that otherwise they would not; it has helped develop an understanding of what is happening around the world in every arena from painting to new technologies. I also believe the public has become better informed not only about contemporary art generally, but how effective and varied Australian art looks in an international setting. This has been one of the most significant benefits. It helps to appreciate the qualities of work from your own country when it can be seen alongside peers from elsewhere and I think that the Biennale has given both the public and artists greater understanding and therefore confidence about what has been happening in Australia.

Origins, Originality + Beyond provided the opportunity, through texts by Rosalind Krauss, Jean­François Lyotard, Hal Foster, Thomas McEvilley and Thomas Lawson amongst others, to examine comprehensively the postmodern arena, forcefully represented by so many of the aforementioned artists in the Biennale itself, as well as through the related forums and other public programs, reinforced by the presence in Sydney of many of the artists such as Bruce McLean, Laurie Anderson, Malcolm McLaren, Wolfgang Laib and Thomas Lawson, and writers such as McEvilley.