Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Site-specificity at the 2008 Sydney Biennale

In the previous two posts, I discussed a couple of notable issues surrounding the 2008 Sydney Biennale – gender equality (or rather inequality) and the curatorial decision to include historical artworks amongst the work of current artists. This post is concerned with site-specificity at the Biennale, and will examine the use of the term ‘site-specific’, the works that worked, as well as the use of Cockatoo Island as a venue in relation to site-specificity.

The free Biennale guide boasts that ‘in another first, the Biennale will exhibit more than 30 site-specific artists’ projects on Cockatoo Island’. Having a particular interest in site-specific art, I could hardly contain myself on the free ferry ride. The Island had a great number of artworks (which in the end, took five hours to visit all of them), and I had neatly marked out my route on the map the night before. First stop was TV Moore’s work in the Dog-leg Tunnel. Escape Carnival was made for the Biennale and is an amazing site-specific work. A friend later told me that she had entered through the other, western, end of the tunnel and had surprisingly different experience, for the work inhabits the entire long, dark and dingy tunnel with sound, with a room near (my) entrance hosting a projected image of a man eternally running through the tunnel.

Other site-specific works included William Kentridge’s I am not me, the horse is not mine, which was supposedly made for the space and features projections on every wall, accompanied by a loud and domineering soundtrack (perhaps to the detriment of Shaun Gladwell’s work downstairs). As the work, like most of the art on Cockatoo Island, is housed in an abandoned warehouse, the boarded windows, stains, and the building’s infrastructure become part of the work.

Mike Parr’s work, MIRROR/ARSE, is housed on the top floor of a run-down two-story building. As you climb the stairs from the entrance, ominous sounds welcome you to what I easily describe as a house of horrors. Many of the small dusty rooms, with wiring exposed, holes in the walls and the odd seagull skeleton in the corner, host videos made throughout Parr’s career. The shrieks, screams, moans and crashes that echo throughout the building come from these often confronting videos, which document performances where Parr sews his mouth shut, holds his finger over a candle flame, beheads chickens, and chops off his (fake) ‘arm’, to name a few. If that isn’t enough to turn the stomach, your sense of smell takes a beating too, courtesy of the bathroom filled with buckets of urine; which, on my second visit had formed a skin on the surface of the liquid. On both occasions, I left the building feeling pretty unwell.

Now, I’ve had a couple of discussions with people regarding the site-specificity of Parr’s work. His use of a single title to describe the entire building indicates that even though the videos have been previously shown as single works, the building as a whole is a new work, whereas others believe that the building is a mini survey show. However, I feel it is important to take into account, too, Parr’s use of the building, the derelict structure, the bird remains, the bathroom, and his thoughtfully placed videos, some of which nestle against urinal walls, or sit behind bar-like structures. The videos have been re-presented in a noxious, repellent space that surrounds the viewer with nauseous stench, spine-chilling sounds, and some videos that I honestly couldn’t stay and watch they were so unnerving. In addition, as I made my way from room to room, the ancient dust crunching under my feet with each step, I found my anxiety levels rising. The trepidation I felt was in part due to the fact that I was fearful of what was in the next room, but also the sheer number of videos and sensual beatings; and even though there were fellow viewers in the building, I also felt strangely alone. The work is experienced in the existing site, and my experience of the artwork, which I've just described to you (my emotions, physical reaction, reading of the videos en masse, and total interpretation of Mirror/Arse), was very much determined by the site.

Another work was Vernon Ah Kee’s Born in this Skin, situated in the old toilets, suitably near Parr’s work. Rows of closely spaced toilet bowls line one side of the room, the graffitied, stall walls ripped away and tied up at the end of the bathroom revealing more homophobic, sexist and racist scrawling. The sign outside the bathroom rather diplomatically warns that ‘this room contains written and pictorial images from the industrial period of Cockatoo Island that may offend[;] these are in the form of historical graffiti.’ The statement makes it sound quite tame. The floor on the other side of the divided room is partially flooded, and like Parr’s work, the room definitely makes your stomach turn with its ancient stench. I don’t know if Ah Kee moved the stalls - the dust was disturbed on the floor surrounding the exposed toilets, so it is likely. In the case of Born in this Skin, Ah Kee’s work relates to the site on a number of levels – firstly by using the actual building as the basis of his artwork; by highlighting the ‘historical graffiti’ as it’s described, we are made aware of the island’s history as both a prison and shipyard, and more generally calls attention to the underlying racism that still exists in Australian society no matter how much John Howard or Kevin Rudd denies it. An indigenous Australian, Vernon Ah Kee’s work frequently critiques contemporary Australian culture, particularly the ‘black/white dichotomy’ as he describes it.

Cockatoo Island is a loaded location, unlike the comparatively neutral white walls of the traditional art gallery. It is a fantastic space, and as I wandered around the island, I imagined the wonderful things I could create if given the opportunity to make work there. The history of the Island, along with the physically challenging buildings and spaces make it a hard location in which to place non-site-specific artworks; and unfortunately, while the programme claims that there are ‘more than 30 site-specific’ works on the Island, I believe that only seven works could be confidently identified as site-specific. The works by Jannis Kounellis, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Micol Assael, Vernon Ah Kee, and the before-mentioned TV Moore, Mike Parr, and William Kentridge responded to the site in either a formal, social, conceptual or contextual sense.

Many of the other thirty artworks were completely lost and overwhelmed by the space - if I were one of these artists I’d be pretty pissed off with the curator. For instance, the space in which Emory Douglas’ work was exhibited, was totally inappropriate for his 1970s activist posters, newspapers and films; the space actually worked against these historical items and as a result the important power of Douglas’ images and concepts was lost.

This raises the question: why was the word site-specific used so prominently in the press releases, and programs? Perhaps it was the curator’s intent that more of these works were to be site-specific – but that doesn’t apply to the significant number of historical works on the Island. The programme would have also been printed after the works were finalised so there was plenty of time to change the introductory page. The more likely answer, unfortunately, is that ‘site-specific’ is a bit of a buzzword in contemporary art, and the term is widely misused. Miwon Kwon, in the introduction to her book on site-specificity writes that the term ‘has been uncritically adopted as another genre category by mainstream art institutions and discourses’. She claims that the term is

conspicuous in a diverse range of catalogue essays, press releases, grant applications, magazine reviews, and artist statements today; it is applied rather indiscriminately to art works, museum exhibitions, public art projects, city arts festivals, architectural installations; and it is embraced as an automatic signifier of “criticality” or “progressivity” by artists, architects, dealers, curators, critics, arts administrators, and funding organizations.

Indeed, it seems that the Biennale organisers have been lured into misusing this word perhaps by the need for 'criticality'. However, I hope in 2010 this will be different - that the Biennale will utilise Cockatoo Island again, this time embracing the significance of the historic site.

No comments: