Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sydney Biennale Favorites

Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017

I was drawn to the chapter of the Sydney Biennale on Cockatoo Island by the press pictures of Ai Weiwei’s The Law of the Journey (2017). The installation looked curious and topical with its references to the refugee crisis, but I couldn’t have anticipated the power of the work awaiting me. I find Ai Weiwei’s work to be highly conceptual and therefore, at times, it can leave me cold. But this wasn’t my experience of The Law of the Journey, also making for a pleasant surprise.
Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017
The 60-meter-long inflatable rubber boat stuffed full with identical anonymous inflatable figures made in a factory in China that also makes the vessels for transport of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean is breathtaking. It is so much more than an intellectual concept. Approaching the boat from a side room, we are overwhelmed by its sheer size. The PVC vessel towers above us demanding our attention to the magnitude of the problem that it represents. As we walk along the sides, it’s as though we are transported across the seas with the occupants. Some of the figures lean in, others lean out, others over and still more crouch down as if seeking protection from a giant wave. The figures are identical—rubber and faceless, clearly fabricated from the same mold. While they were all male in form, I didn’t get the sense that the work was gendered, that the refugee crisis is by definition a male crisis, but rather, the repetition and unidentifiable figures reinforce what the artist says in the publicity material: this is a generic crisis.

Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017

As visitors walk around the monumental installation, along the edges of the platform on which the boat sits, quotations from well-known writers from different centuries and different parts of the world remind us of our connection to those who suffer on these journeys. Kafka is quoted: “We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours.” And Nawal El Saadawi, “I kept falling like an object thrown into a limitless sea, without shoes and without a bed, slashed by the waters when it starts to sink, and by the wind if it starts to float. Forever sinking and rising between the sea and the sky, with nothing to hold on to except the two eyes.” Even if we have not been to sea, have not fled war, violence and civil unrest, we all have the experience of being cast adrift from the familiarity of everyday life.
Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017 
High on a viewing platform at one end of the installation we see hundreds of figures in the bottom of the boat, figures lying down, their heads conjuring images of children caught in the bottom of the boat. The artificial lighting placed high above on the ceiling of what was once a shipbuilding workshop gives some figures a copper colouring. While the transience of the humans in search of another life is emphasized through the inflatable forms, the copper toning of those in the light gave them a permanence, like cast bronze statues. From certain angles, the light givesw the impression of the sun shining on the figures at the end of the day, the tired bodies rocking with the boat on the waves. The new perspective given by height and illumination was, for me, an invitation to contemplate the ongoing phenomenon of dangerous sea crossings by people looking for a better, safer, life.
Yukinori Yanagi, Landscape with an Eye (2018)
Another installation that I found particularly compelling was Yukinori Yanagi’s Landscape with an Eye (2018) in which a video of a giant eye is suspended in the old power generating room of Cockatoo Island's industrial complex. Inside the iris, footage of H-Bomb tests invest the eye with a whole new level of meaning: vision is transformed into desire and destruction for war, power and coercive manipulation. It was also interesting to note how difficult it was to see the piece because the space was dark and not immediately welcoming. Next door in the Rectifier Room, Absolute Dud (2016), a one-tonne replica of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 hangs from the ceiling, a force waiting to explode. The two pieces take on an enormously complex significance: a Japanese artist is presenting these icons of Western destruction on an island originally used for convicts. And the story digs deeper when we see that the two pieces about the misuse of energy and power are displayed in power supply and conversion rooms, that is, in spaces where energy is itself transformed. The layers of meaning in these potent works feel as though the explode all façades, even as they quietly communicate with their environment.
Yukinori Yanagi, Absolute Dud (2016)
Though there was a lot more than these installations to see on Cockatoo Island, I want everyone to catch the ferry to the other side of the Parramatta River and see these two as an imperative.

Cockatoo Island, New South Wales

The old dry dock

The Sydney Biennale did much more for me than open doors to new and exciting works, but this year, I was thrilled to discover Cockatoo Island. Not being a Sydneysider, I don’t know if this is a place that the locals have visited, are at all the time, or are already tired of.
The Old Gaol

The island has a fascinating history from the colonial to the industrial. In the 1840s it was used as a prison for repeat offender convicts—the promise of shark infested waters surrounding Cockatoo Island removed all need for high security fences and the like. The convicts were put to work building more prisons, and quarrying the sumptuous Sydney yellow sandstone for use in buildings that were going up at the time around the city. Today it’s possible to wander through the prison buildings just as they were when abandoned around 1870. Most striking about this phase of the island’s history is that the walls of the buildings are intact, some even complete with graffiti. However, today, the gorgeous sandstone walls don’t begin to capture the harsh conditions of living inside them. Although I didn’t see them, there are apparently isolation cells under the barracks that are now covered in moss and grime where the repeat offenders were cast when they committed yet more misdemeanors. Maybe these spaces have held onto the injustice of imprisonment, but above ground, the golden stone glowed under crystal blue skies on the early autumn day that I was there.

While prisoners were being used as slaves, on another part of the island, a dry dock was being built: it’s still possible to see where the sandstone cliff was blasted to excavate the site that would become tailor made for ship building and repair. And then in the early 1900s, the powerhouse was completed to keep pace with the development of shipbuilding, as it shifted from wooden to steel vessels. The dockyards then swung into gear during the war years when the island was used to construct aircraft, naval boats, before all building operations ceased in 1991. And so, Cockatoo Island was home to the best and the worst of Australia’s history.

Art or Industry?

In spite of its history, the revitalization of Cockatoo Island is impressive. It’s a difficult and undulating history to memorialize, but the Biennale encouraged visitors to see the industrial structures themselves as artworks, and thus, to look differently at the penal and industrial history. Rather than giving long explanations of what used to take place in various spaces or bemoaning the brutality of these activities, visitors are invited to wander around the buildings, noticing the machinery, walls, floors and remnants of the past. Thus, the past is integrated into the present and kept alive rather than the present replacing the past, or worse, creating a memorialization that asks visitors to look back to a long distant past. The journey around the island offers a discovery that unfolds as visitors engage in activities that are already in their present.

I was on Cockatoo Island for the biennale, but there are other activities – from concerts, and exhibitions, to cultural festivals, camping sleepovers, maritime activities, through places to stay on vacation. That is, a wide range of activities invite a broad public to explore the island and its history. This is, I think, a bringing together of art and industry, art and history to embrace and extend public knowledge of the past, and engage all of these various players in the present.

Of course, what’s missing from Cockatoo Island —somewhat surprisingly given Australia’s conscientious naming of the rightful owners of the land on every public occasion—is the aboriginal history. The island is thought to have been used as a fishing base for the Eora people who built bark canoes from the red gum trees that once covered the island. Isn’t that interesting? The one history that is nowhere to be found on the island, the one history of which there is not a single physical trace, is that of the aboriginals. I don’t doubt this is because the overseers of the convict punishment and building work made sure to erase all trace of existing life on the island. It may also be that I didn’t visit the part of the island where aboriginal settlement was, however, from what I could see, for all the careful integration of the past into an understanding of the present, it’s a past that begins well short of the real history.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Frank Stella, Untitled, 1965 @ Art Gallery of New South Wales

Frank Stella, Untitled, 1965

I had the privilege of giving the lunchtime lecture at the beautiful Art Gallery of New South Wales last week. And for those who missed it, I talked about one grey painting, Frank Stella’s abstract work, Untitled from 1965. Even though Stella’s impetus was to find a form of abstract art that would remove it from all reference to art history and to the world in which it was produced, the historian in me couldn’t resist starting off by thinking about what was happening in 1965 in the United States. The country was falling further and further into the chaos of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King led the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in a push to bring voting rights to the fore, while the space race and the cold war were bubbling away in the background. Given the repetition of parallel lines in the form of a square on Stella’s canvas, at first glance, it looked as though he was successful in his plight to remove painting from all reference to the world.

However, as critics over the years have noted, these pre-Minimalist works are not without trace of their creation. Stella left his mark, not only in the form of grey parallel lines, but in what might be seen as the most vulnerable place on the canvas: the slither of canvas left blank in between the bands. While the width of the bands is determined by the size of the stretcher bar, thus removing decisions and personal motivations of the artist, he did not paint the bands with the use of masking tape. Up close, the wavering line of the artist’s brush moving down the pencil-drawn edges reveals the human hand, thus the fallibility, that has created the image. In addition, those spaces, however slight, allow for the possibility of chance, unpredictability and ambiguity.
Frank Stella, Untitled, 1965
At a distance, the work takes on new properties
Standing back from Untitled from 1965, we recognize that the thin line of canvas left blank is key to the movement and pulsating energy of the canvas, as well as the dynamic play of our eye as it moves in and out of the receding tunnel created by the greys. The blank space—that Stella has likened to the space between the cars of the New York subway—both connects and separates the receding shades of grey. The space where no paint appears, the uneven sides of which are defined by the movement of the artist’s hand, are in fact the most critical spaces on this canvas. And when we bring the bands to life as we attempt to capture the entirety of the painting in a single look (the impossibility of which ensures we stay before the canvas trying nevertheless) a reference to the world outside of the bands emerges. These challenges to perception and our constantly altering vision in front of Untitled (1965) gives it a dimensionality that both reinforces and undermines the purity of its abstraction.

In 1964, Stella famously declared of his paintings: “What you see is what you see.” By championing purely formal concerns, he was ostensibly reacting against the rhetoric of subjectivity and romanticism with which abstract expressionism had been charged. However, the vibrations of the grey house paint, their subtle unevenness, and the spatial transformations generated by the patterning produces an optical ambiguity that ultimately gives rise, as Stella conceded, “to emotional ambiguities.” Today, over fifty years later, these ambiguities are even more apparent. In a post-Minimalist era when, one might argue, art has reached the aspirations of Stella’s one time radical vision, the artist’s intimate relationship with his painting and the possibility created by the places he chooses not to touch, are sumptuous and filled with the romanticism for which abstract expressionism was chided.