Archive for May, 2010

What’s the big idea?

I’m not sure yet. I do know that I’m really enjoying thinking about it.

I also know that I’m flying back to Phoenix tomorrow morning, arriving the same time I leave (?), which is baffling.

All the ideas and sights here at the Sydney Biennale will continue to resonate for some time, chiming together and separately as I replay them for myself, creating new and different compositions — fragments of and variations on David Elliott’s symphony.

I plan to continue writing about what I saw and experienced here in Sydney even after my return to Arizona. After all, I haven’t even told you about Lawrence Weschler’s talk yet, and it was one of the most beautiful moments of the Biennale.

So more to come, but in the meantime, here are some “bright idea” images from Cockatoo Island, to which I returned today in a vain attempt to see everything. The giant light bulbs — they’re about four feet tall — in the photographs below are part of the island’s Power Station, where they currently serve as the backdrop for Hiroshi Sugimoto’s installation (which is far more lively and inspiring than was his keynote speech, unfortunately; not only did several jet lagged Americans doze off intermittently while Sugimoto was cataloging his achievements and tchotchkes, but a couple of hardy young Australians behind me snoozed all the way through the second half).

First, an image from the installation itself:

And second, the giant light bulbs:

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 16, 2010 at 1:47 pm 2 comments

Pictures of Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island is a book all by itself. It sits in Sydney’s Harbour, about a 20 minute ferry ride from the Circular Quay. (Side note: the ferry is free, as is the entire Biennale. Mind blowing.) I’ll take the cheater’s way out here and quote Wikipedia for the factual stuff, the crux of which is this: “Cockatoo Island is a former imperial prison, industrial school, reformatory and gaol. It was also the site of one of Australia’s biggest shipyards during the twentieth century.” Here’s the URL for further reading (as you may have noticed, I have yet to master the trick of making a URL a live link on this blog, and since I am my own tech support, this is as good as it gets. If I could, I would fire me as tech support. Instead, I just shake my head at myself and mutter darkly.)

A telling note from the Biennale (free) guide about “Safety on the Island”: “We ask that you mind your step and beware of hazards. Please do not walk backwards — there are occasional uneven surfaces, voids, trip hazards and cliffs.”

Here’s what the island looks like as you approach by ferry:

And here is some of what there is to see on the island:

From the top: Artist Cai Guo-Qiang and “Inopportune: Stage One”; Peter Hennessey’s “My Hubble (the universe turned in on itself)”; Fiona Foley’s “Bearing Witness”; artist and Biennale keynote speaker Hiroshi Sugimoto in the Power House, where his “Lightning Fields” is installed; a visitor takes in a sculpture in Rodney Glick’s “Everyone” series; Isaac Julien’s video installation”Ten Thousand Waves”; Serge Spitzer’s “Molecular; walking from site to site on the island; and finally, the snack I chose from the Cockatoo Island snack bar (delicious).

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 15, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Power, poverty, equality and freedom (also coffee and cookies), Part II

Yesterday F.A.R.’s Bruce Ferguson spoke on a panel titled “History, Experience, Truth and Empathy.” It’s a mouthful and a brainful, but he acquitted himself admirably. To begin with, anybody who is willing to acknowledge that the art of writing frequently involves productive procrastination gets automatic points, extra points when that procrastination involves reading Chatwin’s “Songlines” and watching “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.” And the conclusions Ferguson reached in the paper he ended up writing were elegant and substantial.

First, he wrestled the title into submission by adding “s”s to each of the unfathomable nouns, making it “histories,” “experiences,” “truths” and “empathies.” In other words, instead of one Truth, there are many truths, and instead of one narrative, many narratives. Next he defined what it is to be empathetic (at the very least, it means to be NOT sociopathic or psychopathic — Imperialism, he noted, was psychopathic in its construction of the other as not just inferior but worthless). And third, and perhaps most important, he pointed out that empathy is not a substitute for action. Reading “The Kite Runner,” for example, does not change the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, or American policy there.

“I would call for works of art that are empathetic but productive,” Ferguson said in conclusion. “I would call for an art that is about current and future injustices.”

Ferguson’s talk was a kind of prelude to the panel this morning, titled “First People, Diaspora and Fourth Worlds.” Biennale Artistic Director David Elliott started things off by telling the audience that there’s no one discourse, and no one perspective, and the panelists went on prove him right, in ways both intended and unintended.

The standouts on the panel were Claudio Dicochea (I admit  I’m biased, but unbiased sources agreed) and Canadian artist Kent Monkman.

Monkman, a Toronto-based artist of Cree ancestry, works with themes of colonization and colonization of sexuality, all of which began when he started examining the depictions of North American aboriginal culture in the paintings of artists like Alfred Bierstadt, Paul Kane and George Catlin. To counteract the straight white male gaze that produced those images, Monkman created his own alter-ego artist: Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, who can be summed up in one word — fierce. “Miss Chief rampages through art history,” Monkman said, “borrowing liberally from Poussin and David,” among others.

Here are links to a couple of good articles about Monkman’s work, from Canadian papers:

Miss Chief exists both as the artist in the paintings Monkman produces, often depicted almost naked and in high heels, painting her own versions of what she wants white men to look like, and as Monkman’s performance persona, a statuesque figure whose Indian/stripper costumes were inspired by none other than the original cultural cross-dresser Cher. But there are serious undercurrents to Monkman’s work, beyond the obvious ones of racism and traditional homophobia. “The European point of view didn’t understand that there could be plural sexual identities, plural gender identities,” Monkman explained. In creating Miss Chief, he is rescuing from obscurity the idea of the man-woman, or “berdache,” who once had an integral, respected place in native society, and restoring that figure to a position of power.

While several of the panelists questioned the very idea of marginalization — who’s doing the marginalizing, whose center are we talking about, etc., all indisputably good questions — Monkman’s approach was slightly different. “At the margins,” he said, ” there is freedom to find beauty in the dustbins of other cultures.”

Dicochea, a Mexican-born artist living in Phoenix, began his presentation by thanking the First People of the Land, a custom that has been almost universally observed at this Biennale, and expressing the hope that the Biennale participants will take the custom back to the U.S. and Mexico and Canada with them. His explanation of his contemporary iterations of eighteenth-century casta paintings, which were on view earlier this year at Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, was lively,  smart and clear. Like his paintings, Dicochea seems to operate on several levels at once, including both that of critical theorist and that of pop-culture fan-geek; his whole face lit up when he described who Wesley Snipes’ “Blade” character is and what kinds of powers he has. Of Blade (the vampire) and Buffy (the slayer), Dicochea said, ” I thought it’d be really romantic to have both of them together,” and you know that while he recognizes and intends the absurdity of that statement, there’s also a part of him that means it in earnest. “These are chimerical, mythological,” he said of his historical-celebrity-mutant hybrids, “but there is something real going on.”

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 15, 2010 at 2:39 pm 1 comment

Biennale snapshot

I’m heading out to the second day of the opening week forum in a few minutes (first up: Claudio Dicochea on a panel titled “First People, Diaspora and Fourth Worlds”),  but wanted to share a few things before I go.

First, just want to make clear the scale of this thing. The chair of the Sydney Biennale said in his introductory remarks that the scope is BIG, as big as the enormous Roxy Paine sculpture out in front of the MCA, and it needs to be. There are seven venues in all, scattered around the Sydney Harbor area, and taking everything in is near impossible. Some of the best conversations I’ve overheard have been people coming back from the same venue and talking about the different things they saw, then vowing to go back again to take in what they missed. Cockatoo Island, for example, is a treasure trove of hidden delights, made more delightful and more complicated by the fact that you can’t always tell the construction work taking place on the island from the art (see this Sydney Morning Herald article, the best line of which comes from one of the workers on the island:

Second, the range of languages and concerns at this Biennale is kaleidescopic, with strange and beautiful bits of overlap. A panel yesterday on materialism that featured American artist Fred Tomaselli and Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso (google them both, I urge you — you won’t be disappointed) underlined the profound differences in the way they talk about their work: Tomaselli hyper-intellectual, with brain and mouth going a mile a minute (three pages of notes in my notebook), and Gyatso so quiet and modest as to be almost soporific (a third of a page of notes in my notebook) as well as the similarities in their work, which is sublime, collagist, personal and universal — and, ultimately, in their approaches. “I try to be a serious artist,” Gyatso said, and he could have been speaking for Tomaselli as well. “I try to deliver the message in a playful way.”

Here’s a picture of the Roxy Paine sculpture “Neuron,” to give you a sense of the kind of big we’re talking about:

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 14, 2010 at 11:28 pm Leave a comment

Power, poverty, equality and freedom (also coffee and cookies), Part I

“The first illegal aliens to arrive were the pilgrims and the conquistadors.” —Enrique Chagoya

Today was the first day of the two-day Biennale of Sydney Opening Week Forum, titled “Power, poverty, equality and freedom (and how we relate to art…).” According to the press release, “the Forum relates to the core elements around which the 17th Biennale of Sydney — The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age — has been built.” What those core elements are exactly and how we define them might have been difficult to discern from the various panels and panelists, but the presentations and discussions were, for the most part, interesting regardless — even if it did feel a little odd to be standing in the Art Gallery of New South Wales nibbling cookies, sipping coffee and shmoozing before a panel on poverty and power. (I’m not complaining. I like a nice cookie as  much as the next person. I’m just saying.)

The first panel of the day, “Poverty, freedom and rights,” kicked off with a presentation by Steven Loft, a Mohawk-Jewish Canadian — or “Jewhawk,” as he put it — whose fundamental question was this: Why is it so difficult for art historians and institutions to accept other art histories? He was followed by Leah Gordon (see first post), the co-curator of the 2009 Ghetto Biennale in Haiti, who described what happened when she and some Haitian sculptors decided that because the artists of Haiti can’t get to the Biennale— in other words, they don’t get selected for the big international art shows — they would bring the Biennale to the Haitian artists. Among other things, she said, a lot of the visiting artists were forced to consider their own privileged position.

Enrique Chagoya touched on some key history of the American Southwest, noting that after the Mexican-American War, “hundreds of thousands of Mexicans became Americans overnight.”

“We have a new name (today): illegal aliens,” Chagoya said. “In most countries, you are called undocumented immigrants.” Chagoya called the illegal aliens his heroes, “today’s pilgrims,…bringing a great contribution to the United States,” and said that in the codices on view at MCA, he is paying tribute to illegal aliens. And, he reminded the audience, “you can become an illegal alien overnight.”

The final presentation of the morning panel was given by Amareswar Galla, originally from India and living in Australia, who talked about his work in Afghanistan and about how “we must liberate ourselves from the colonial mindset.” The big question we must ask now, of Galla and of ourselves, is “How?”

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 14, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Angela Ellsworth – Before the 2010 Sydney Biennale

Angela has always been a superstar in our eyes!  Now that she’s become an international superstar with her Meanwhile, back at the ranch performance and installation Seer Bonnets: A Continuing Offense at the 2010 Sydney Biennale, we thought you might enjoy these links to documentation of a few of her early projects that took place at the Arizona State University Art Museum:  

Club Extra – solo exhibition (2000)

Wall Ticklers – group exhibition nooks and crannies (2001)

Actual Odor – performance at Token City and Dis/Funtional reception (1997)

waist/waste room – performance at Art on the Edge of Fashion reception (1997)


May 13, 2010 at 10:05 pm

The man behind the magic

A few things about David Elliott, the artistic director of this Biennale:

When he is called upon to talk about the Biennale in front of an audience, as he has been several times in the past few days, he tells the assembled crowd that he feels a bit redundant doing so, since the art is all here for us to see now. Then he goes on to say something passionate and brilliant, almost as an aside.

He says that what he liked about his trip to Arizona was the desert, and the Mexican food.

He says that when he is asked to name his favorite work in the Biennale, he is fond of replying “Two Faced Cunt” (a work by London artists Jake and Dinos Chapman).

He’s a snappy dresser, in a not-fussy way. “That’s a smokin’ jacket,” said one man on the ferry as Elliott passed by . “My undertaker’s jacket,” Elliott responded. Suitable for the burial of the Age of Enlightenment.

Below, Elliott being interviewed for television at the MCA, and Elliott reflected on the ferry ride to Cockatoo Island.

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 13, 2010 at 5:34 am

Sister wives in Sydney

If you’ve ever met artist Angela Ellsworth and her wife Tania Katan, you will not be at all surprised to learn that they have taken Sydney not by storm but by equal parts talent and charm.

The first performance of the media preview day, on the first floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art, was Ellsworth’s “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” As cameras whirred and clicked, eight sister-wives in their modest prairie-pastel dresses and bouffant-with-long-braid-attached hairdos danced a serious Electric Slide that was almost sinister in its precision and lack of emotion — and eerily without music, as if the women were repeating steps the origins of which they no longer remembered.

I’m not sure what general knowledge of shows like “Big Love” is here in Australia, or of Mormonism in general, but with or without the background, the crowds were mesmerized by the spectacle itself. (I did hear a report of one well-heeled woman who was simply annoyed that she couldn’t get through the crush of people and on to the next gallery, but there will always be at least one of those types at an international arts festival. They tend to miss entirely what David Elliott referred to in his opening comments as “the symphonic effect” of  all the various pieces and venues taken in concert, and one wonders why they’re here at all.)

Ellsworth’s magnificent “Seer Bonnets: A Continuing Offense” occupy an entire gallery on the first floor of the MCA, where their sheer numbers (there are perhaps a dozen; I didn’t count exactly but I’m willing to bet that Ellsworth knows all too well, as each one required endless hours of construction) and their distance from origin unleash a power that was only hinted at when a few of them first appeared on display  at Scottsdale’s Lisa Sette Gallery.

I vividly recall the first time I saw Ellsworth’s work, in a long-gone downtown Phoenix art space, and in particular I remember her pearl-tipped corsage pin masses, random elegant growths that were at once organic and artificial, and altogether seductive. It’s profoundly satisfying to stand in a gallery on the other side of the world and watch as Ellsworth talks to the Australian media about the current incarnation of those corsage-pin masses. To come back to David Elliott’s musical metaphor, Ellsworth has taken a shiny, haunting little melody and worked it into a cycle of songs with sophistication, depth, and staying power.

After the performance of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” we kept running into sister wives out of costume but with their bouffant hair intact, as they were scheduled to perform again in the evening and that part of the “do” was too difficult to re-do. They are mostly graduate students, some imported from Arizona, some culled from the local art schools; seeing them out and about and drinking in the Biennale provided a refreshing companion impression to the rigid, almost sleep-walk nature of their morning “Slide.”

Some sister wives out of context:

Sister wife Eleanor (yes, art fans, that is Enrique Chagoya in the background, with his wife, artist Kara Maria.)

A sister wife takes in Australian artist Rodney Glick’s work.

Sister wife Brooke at the snack bar on Cockatoo Island.

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 12, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Aunt Millie and Malangi

Here’s Millie Ingram, a.k.a. Auntie Millie, at Cockatoo Island, Sydney Biennale:

And here is the Enrique Chagoya codex on display at the Biennale that shows indigenous Australian artist David Malangi wearing a Mexican hat:

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 12, 2010 at 2:08 pm

If it’s Tuesday, it must be media preview day

The chair of the Biennale said this morning, in his comments to the media before we all swarmed through the Museum of Contemporary Art to take in the sights, that the Biennale is like a kind of art United Nations, creating and sustaining connections. After a day of watching people from around the world greet each other like favorite relatives at a family reunion and then introduce old friends and acquaintances to new people, I would have to agree.

I would also have to agree with David Elliott, the Biennale’s creative director, who said in his remarks this morning that he considered his competition to be the sunlight glinting off the water of the harbor just outside the MCA and the bats swirling around like a vortex in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, and to say that Elliott has given the bats a run for their money. This “End of Enlightenment’ show,” as Elliott dubbed it, contains moments and pieces that will, as promised, invite visitors to “connect the dots” in their own pattern, and change the way they see the world.

Much of what I saw is still percolating through my heart and my brain, but the pieces that rise to the surface at this moment are Bill Viola’s 2008 video installation “Incarnation,” and  Isaac Julien’s video installation “Ten Thousand Waves,” which premiered here at the Biennale. Julien’s installation occupies the second floor of a building on Cockatoo Island, a former penal colony where, today, hundreds of art media types traipsed off the ferry and through dilapidated buildings to meet the artists and see their work — but not before an official “Welcome to Country” by Auntie Millie, a.k.a. Millie Ingram, representing the Aboriginal elders.

According to Millie, The purpose of the Welcome to Country ceremony is “to make people feel good.”

“People can’t just enter your home,” Millie says, and by home she means Australia. “The owner has to invite people in.”

Millie and I talked a little after the welcome, and she told me that she’s been to Flagstaff, on a trip with her sister, where she noticed that all First Nations people look related; she and her sister spotted someone there who could have been their brother. Her sister is the first Australian Aboriginal ever to graduate from Harvard, with a master’s degree in education. She  is now back in Australia, where she can’t get a job. “This country has a hell of a long way to go,” Millie said.

Millie’s words are a stark reminder of what Elliott said in his opening comments — that the indigenous peoples of the world saw the dark side of the European Enlightenment. That thread weaves through much of the art on display here, from a collection of memorial poles by Yolngu artists from Australia’s Northern Territory to the work of Enrique Chagoya. Chagoya notes that in his “Illegal Alien’s Guide to Political Theory,” one of two codices on display at the MCA, he painted a picture of indigenous Australian Yolngu artist David Malangi and put a Mexican hat on him, or, as Chagoya puts it, he “made him a Mexican.” Strange and funny how the dots connect.

Illustrations to follow, as well as an account of Angela Ellsworth’s “Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” the mesmerizing performance by Ellsworth’s stately, sexy sisterwives that kicked off the media preview.

– Deborah Sussman Susser

May 11, 2010 at 8:07 pm

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