Sydney Biennale 2002: tripping over a zeitgeist

Jacqueline Millner talks with Richard Grayson

Richard Grayson

Richard Grayson

Richard Grayson, the Artistic Director of the Sydney Biennale 2002, originally from the UK, has been based in Australia as a practising artist since the mid-1980s. He is perhaps best known here for his directorship of the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide from 1991-1998. This is his first foray into ‘Biennale world’ as a curator.

How did you come by the theme of this year’s exhibition
(The World may be Fantastic) with its evocations of fakery, fantasy and the supernatural?

The exhibition has been floating in my head for a long time. Partly it’s come out of my own practice, which is about alternative histories, partly out of the practice of such artists as Suzy Treister (my partner)-whose Rosalind Brodsky project posits alternative worlds and delusional realities-and Susan Hiller’s work, particularly Witness [Hiller was on the biennale’s advisory panel along with Janos Sugar and Ralph Rugoff]. There’s a common concern here for subjectivising the objective. These influences immediately informed the rationale. But also, there’s the fact that I read too much science fiction as a kid, and later too much Borges! And then on top of all that, there’s a slight boredom and annoyance with a whole lot of art at the moment that seems rather unambitious. A lot of the current rhetoric seems to fit very easily into established discourses on art. This is particularly so with Australian practice, even more so with East Coast practice. There’s a lack of juice and joy and risk, a kind of desiccation. The fun factor is missing. In fact, I think Australian art is not larrikin enough at the moment. At the same time, I see a lot of art that is buckling under expectations that it be radical, transgressive-I think there should be a ban on the words ‘transgressive’ and liminal’! Much critical rhetoric does a massive disservice to art. It becomes further and further unattached, to become a form of nostalgia.

So I came up with a rationale that I thought would be interesting, not really thinking that I’d get the gig, looking at artists who were working with modelling hypothesis, and not necessarily engaging with the discourses of art, even though their work may be art. I was drawn to stuff without performance indicators that didn’t fit onto established art historical boxes…art that in a sense was awkward. I am also interested in those things where you’re not quite sure whether they’re primary production or art production…things that are lumpy, awkward, undigested, that are on the edge of the law, outside, not recuperable.

Do you think there may be something particularly timely about the theme of subjective realities, fictions and alternative histories?

Yes I think so, although I can’t take any credit for that; it’s come about purely by chance. I’d never really been close to a zeitgeist before, but this time I think I may have tripped over one. One of the reasons I thought that the theme might be interesting right now was because of the tedium that’s set in with this hegemony of economic rationalism, where there seem to be no alternatives. That grey uniformity may force us back into the spaces of the imaginary. At the same time the collapse of communism has removed the anchor that used to make the political the real, so that in a sense politics has been reduced to the fantastic, the hallucinatory. Also, there’s the way technologies of the digital and virtual are challenging ideas of the real. Yet another factor is that theory has somewhat disenfranchised practice, be it writing or art. The grand narratives are no longer possible, even the statement is no longer possible, and everything sinks into this inferno of equivalence. However, some artists and writers, without rejecting all that, are saying, ‘Yes, I know we can’t do grand narratives any more, but let’s pretend we can’. So the aim becomes a pretence, a very self-knowing one, to provide a way out of that endgame. I think this return to narrative, be it knowing although not ironic, is in some ways inevitable, because I believe humans have a fundamental desire for pattern-making grand narrative, be that scientific, artistic or occult. It is hard-wired into us. Finally, in terms of the privileging of the subjective, there’s the fact that in the Western world now we are in thrall of the most subjective interpretation of phenomena by way of fundamentalist religious belief. All these might be reasons why the return of the fictional, the subjective, the idea of modelling hypotheses might be particularly timely.

How did you go about curating the show? Were you concerned to maintain a certain thematic coherence?

The process was very, very partial and subjective. There was no intention (or ability) of making a definitive statement, or of even being global. The exhibition is a proposition rather than a definition. I put together an advisory panel and we spent 3 days’ solid talking and brainstorming, and then I just wandered off and the rest was happenstance. The theme is not an envelope. If anything it is a table where you can stick a whole lot of different things and let them stand. But there are riffs and tropes, so abstractly, yes, it does have its coherences. But it probably will look like a dog’s dinner!

What do you think makes for a good curator?

No idea! I don’t think that for contemporary art-as opposed to historical art which is necessarily more academic-it’s that different from making a party tape. Some people are very good at making a party tape and they have something that is able to pull you onto the floor, as well as allowing you to engage with something you’ve never heard before. And other people are not good at making party tapes. People who make good party tapes tend to be fans, so something as unsophisticated as being a fan is useful for being a curator. I also think it useful to hang on to the idea that the curator is not the primary producer, that the artist remains the primary producer, no matter what the curator says. Then there is that thing of trusting your instincts. Sometimes you come across a piece of work and you say ‘I have no idea what that means, but I think it’s really good!’, and other times you say ‘I have no idea what that means, but I think it sucks!’ And you have no clear idea why. I think it’s partly about the conviction to follow that intuition, but to also be able to remain fleet of foot enough to change your mind. I think there must be a bit of unfashionable connoisseurship in there too. When I curate, I presume that I am the audience, so if works for me, it will work for the audience I want for the show.

Given that, what do you think is the role of the Biennale of Sydney?

Neither as an artist nor as a curator have I been a very frequent visitor to ‘Biennale world.’ But having been swimming in that goldfish bowl now for over a year I realised I was very glad to be working for the Biennale of Sydney, because unlike other Biennales it seemed to me to have a very clear role and function. The other 59 Biennales are getting into all sort of existential crises, ‘What are we here for?’ Here, it is very simply to get some good work in that may or may not be part of larger conversations, and it is to save each member of the visiting public about $3000 in airfares. If you’re doing a Biennale in Europe, on the other hand, it is a very different proposition. There, the exhibition is playing more the role of contemporary art spaces (like Artspace in Sydney) and driving for novelty.

So where do the Australian artists who are in the show fit in?

These artists are included to suggest links. This show is very partial and very subjective and it is not about the ordering of the great and good. It is about people who are doing interesting work in specific areas. You could do it without Australian participation if Perspecta was still running. It might be nice to have a show just of international artists in Australia. But Australia is a bit lacking in events that allow it to look at itself nationally at the moment. I think it’s extraordinary that outside the Adelaide Biennale, with its limited audience, and Primavera, with its handful of artists, that Australia does not have an exhibition where it can look at itself as Australia. Not that I think the Biennale should pick up that role. Rather it should use what little power it might have to encourage other initiatives. It is difficult enough doing one brief, to do two imperfectly would be an absolute disaster!

Why is nationality still so important to curating and promoting Biennales?

Part of it is history-the trade fair and all that. Part of it is ambition, inasmuch as the curators want to make a global statement. And I think part of it is habit. And possibly, it is actually pernicious. In many ways Biennales have turned into exactly what they didn’t want to be, the great levellers. There is a lot of rhetoric that claims Biennales are great Utopian spaces where we can set up resistance and critiques of globalisation. That’s actually absolute bollocks! This show is less global, partly because that didn’t start off as the position, partly because I am not in that circle of international curators whose everyday knowledge includes what is going on in Beijing at the moment. But also because of the theme: the fictional and fictive, with their strong literary and linguistic underpinnings, tended to favour artists within my language group, so that there are more Americans and Britons than there might otherwise have been. Then that became the position: if the project is openly partial, why should it be global? Fragility and subjectivity are what I wanted to foreground.

How do you think being a practising artist has inflected your curating of the Biennale?

I think perhaps what I bring to curating as a practising artist is a greater willingness to accept contingency (even though I do not accept that curators are artists). I am willing to be more fluid and more floppy, not wanting to make the authoritative statement. To me, curating is far more like making a piece of work…that is, ‘What happens if?’, rather than, ‘This is.’ Perhaps there’s a greater willingness to-’take risks’ is not quite the right phrase-rather, a sense of being on the outside of curating as an institution, and therefore not ruled by the need for authority, or overwhelmingly concerned with the immediate placing of the exhibition. Artists are just curators who don’t know as much as curators.

The Biennale of Sydney: The World may be Fantastic Sydney, various venues, 14 May 14-14 July

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. web

© Jacqueline Millner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002