Aleksandra Mir

Quirks of Art

Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, Oct 2002
By Ann Lenny Low

15 May - 14 July 2002
Biennale of Sydney, 43-51 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo NSW - Australia

Submarines, ballerinas, aliens, Patty Hearst's apartment—Lenny Ann Low previews Biennale 2002.

Contemporary art. Hah! What is it good for? If you answered, "Absolutely bugger all" then this could be the art festival for you.

The Biennale of Sydney is an international modern art smorgasbord that evokes reactions ranging from pure excitement to bewilderment and the occasional "Hey! My grandmother could do better with a wooden stick and a pile of gravy".

Featuring 57 artists from 21 countries, including Britain, the United States, Japan, Belgium, Finland, Germany, China, Norway and a healthy contingent from Australia, the Biennale is a highly influential event in the contemporary art world.

Previous Biennales have featured coffins filled with dirt and trees courtesy of Yoko Ono, and naked ladies sitting on horses at the Art Gallery of NSW.

If those items didn't pique your interest, then brace yourself for this year's line-up which includes screaming grandmothers, global tongue-licking and white women pretending to be black ballerinas. The good news: most of it is free. This year's festival, the 13th Biennale, is titled (The World May Be) Fantastic and, according to organisers, it explores conspiracy theories, imagined lands and reality splintered by fantasy. Artistic director Richard Grayson, who is the first practising artist to take the artistic director reins, believes it will allow visitors to discover alternative realities, escape the everyday and have some fun at the same time. He says even the sceptical viewer will be enticed by the "scary, weird but also immensely life-affirming" 61-day program.

"You know when you're a kid and you're drawing and you're all bound up in the concept of the super zirgon ray blaster or the really big house or the super-fast car?" asks Grayson. "Well, this is all about that space in which we just imagine possibilities."

The Biennale will commence next week at seven Sydney venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the AGNSW, Object galleries and the Sydney Opera House. A bevy of established artists, rising stars and white-hot whiz-kids are currently hanging, building, morphing or throwing their work around in order to meet the deadline. Accompanying the artworks is a robust public program featuring lectures, artist talks, video and film programs, performance and forums. It all kicks off on Wednesday at 11am, when Japanese artist Yutaka Sone will emerge from the Opera House to roll a pair of giant foam dice down the building's front steps.

Biennale's reputation for attracting the leading lights of the modern art world is well established. This year, the art stars include British installation artist Mike Nelson who creates fake, frequently haunting environments that often suggest a threat or sense of menace. Nelson was shortlisted last year for the prestigious Turner Prize.

Other highlights include two May 19 performances at the Opera House's Studio by US multimedia artist and film-maker Eleanor Antin. She'll be appearing as the fictitious retired black prima ballerina Eleanora Antinova and introducing screenings of the "archive" film The Last Night of Rasputin which shows her dancing at her prime.

Antin, who says she is "jealous of the past", has created other personas including the heroic nurse Eleanor Nightingale and the Soviet-Jewish silent film director Ifgadne Antinov. Her early work has included collecting blood samples from famous poets (Allen Ginsberg was among the donors) and creating a photographic series documenting the journeys of 50 pairs of boots.

Chris Burden is another American artist attending Biennale. His previous projects have included lying under a sheet of glass for two weeks without moving and asking a friend to shoot him in the arm for a short film. His Biennale exhibit at Object galleries features enormous bridges constructed entirely from Meccano.

And elsewhere on the program you'll find Japanese-born Miwa Yanagi at the AGNSW, whose giant photographs depict the visions of a group of girls aged between 14 and 20. Yanagi asked the girls to imagine themselves 50 years into the future and the results were startling. Minami saw herself as a successful theme park company president in a fluffy pink-and-white animal suit, while Yuka imagined herself hurtling along a freeway in the sidecar of a motorbike driven by her young lover.

Delving wholeheartedly into the imagined world (and possibly appealing to the minimalist home renovator) is American Vito Acconci and his futurist architectural designs which are reminiscent of shopping centres in space or playground equipment made from molecular structures. Acconci has an interesting pedigree. In the 1970s he filmed himself plucking hair from his stomach, hurling soapy water into his eyes and hiding his genitals between his legs. You can see his work at the AGNSW.

There's a strong Australian presence at Biennale this year. Local exhibits include Simryn Gill's town of fruit, Peter Hill's Museum of Contemporary Ideas, photo-realistic sculpture of a child by Patricia Piccinini and Queenslander Robert MacPherson's series of paintings created by the artist in the guise of an 11-year-old boy.

David Haines and Joyce Hinterding's separate exhibitions depict electronically created universes, Luke Roberts is introducing audiences to the mysterious spiritual leader Pope Alice, and South Australian photo-artist Darren Siwes will show a series of ghostly images in which his well-dressed figure appears to be haunting churches, houses and country streets.

And if you thought Christo's mission to wrap the world was bizarre, check out Chinese artist Cang Xin, who wants to lick the world. Images of the artist applying his tongue to the Great Wall of China, the footpath outside London's Houses of Parliament and the ground near the Colosseum in Rome will be on show at the MCA.

Belgian artist Panamarenko's lovingly welded submarine—looking like a fat metal patchwork fish or an underwater caravan—is outside the AGNSW. British multi-media artist Susan Hiller is suspending a vast cloud of shiny metal speakers from the MCA's ceiling to broadcast people's true stories of UFO contact and American Jeffrey Vallance is presenting a waxwork Richard Nixon holding his own notorious tape recordings at the MCA.

For a brush with celebrity head to the AGNSW for a glimpse of the work of British painter Dexter Dalwood. His canvases, painted entirely from imagination, portray the swimming pool where Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones was found dead, Patty Hearst's apartment, terrorist Ulrike Meinhof's bedsit and Stalin's war room.

So, why not dive in? The Biennale of Sydney 2002 offers the extraordinary and the bizarre; an open invitation to visit the strange nether regions of our own minds.

"There's going to be stuff that fascinates and intrigues and there's going to be some stuff that people bounce off," says Grayson. "But my feeling is there's a whole load of things that on one level or another are going to grab people."

The exhibitors

Simryn Gill

Born: 1959 in Singapore, Sydney-based

Showing: A Small Town at the Turn of Century (MCA)

What you'll see: A series of photographs of people wearing tropical fruit on their heads in a variety of locations including living rooms, golf courses, streets, beaches and harbours.

What's it about Simryn?: "[My photographs] are absolutely real, they're not constructed. They're real people in real settings mostly in their homes or places they chose to be. There was a review recently ... which read them entirely as, 'Well you could just look at them and laugh or you could actually stop and think, 'Wow, so who are these people and what is their relationship to each other?'"

Aleksandra Mir

Born: 1967 in Poland, Swedish citizen, New York-based

Showing: Hello (MCA)

What you'll see: A site-specific six degrees of separation-style chain using photographs and personal histories from ordinary people.

What's it about Aleksandra?: "Everybody's story is equally important, so the little suburban birthday party celebration is as important as Liz Taylor getting married. So far my visits to people's homes in suburbia, looking at their photo albums and listening to their stories, has taken me to the 1890s, as far as four generations back, to Hong Kong and Hollywood and back to Sweden—where I'm from. It's a bit like Alice in Wonderland."

Mike Nelson

Born: 1967 in England, based in London and Edinburgh

Showing: A converted shop in Potts Point

What you'll see: Behind an ambiguous shopfront surrounded by backpacker hostels is a realistic, though slightly decayed, reptile museum, complete with glass-fronted tanks for snakes, lizards and other reptiles. The ceiling is low, the corridors are narrow and there are no museum guides talking about the exhibits. The exhibits have gone. What's it about Mike?: "We want people to wonder whether they've got to the right place when they get here. It's a dead place, a scuzzy environment. The reptile museum is the place you go to last at the zoo to frighten yourself. This place is whatever people perceive it to be when they visit, but it involves metaphors for fear."