Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A hierarchy-less Biennale?

The curatorial premise ‘Revolutions: forms that turn’ for this year’s Sydney Biennale wasn’t so much of an interest to me as the decision to include historical works amongst new art. The inclusion of works such as Duchamp’s assisted readymade Bicycle Wheel; Manzoni’s Artists Shit; Fischli and Weiss’ photographs of their wacky balanced objects; revolutionary posters and videos by activist Emory Douglas; documentation of John Cage’s 4’3”; and early video works produced in the 60s and 70s by artists such as Valie Export, Jerry Abrams, Dan Graham and Mary Kelly.

The old and the new works are mixed together and so there is no hierarchy placed on the works. To distinguish the historical from the newer works, it is necessary for the viewer to read the date pinned up on the wall (or, of course, the viewer might have prior knowledge).

So why am I so enthusiastic about this curatorial strategy? Well firstly, I believe that this strategy questions the current and ongoing emphasis on originality, and the idea that all art should be a 'proposition' (as conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth called it), which challenges the meaning and boundaries of art. By mixing up the historical and contemporary works, the modern and the postmodern, the various styles and movements, the concept of a linear history is tested. I was surprised by many of the works shown in the Biennale – works that I might have guessed were made very recently were in fact made half a century ago, and vice-versa. Maybe we haven’t made much ‘progress’, maybe those ‘boundaries’ that we’re constantly challenging don’t exist, perhaps 20th and 21st century art doesn’t have to be thought of as having a linear history. And this need not be a negative thing.

How tiring it is when you make a work, a work created in your own head, your own original idea, only to discover that someone made it five, ten, twenty, or even (perhaps a little less likely) a century ago. You’d never seen the work before last week when your friend or colleague showed you an image of this fateful artwork on the web or from a book. Shit. You can’t make the work now, you can’t exhibit it in that gallery that you’ve secured and paid for in four months time, as people might think you’ve copied another’s idea (even though you know that there are distinctive differences between your and that other artist’s work). Will they believe you?

Will we (have we?) run out of ideas? I mean there can’t be an endless supply of ideas, can there?

Going back to the Sydney Biennale…
What the exhibition demonstrates is that there is not necessarily a clear-cut distinctition between modernism and postmodernism (maybe there is no such thing as postmodernism?), that to claim that art has a linear history is flawed and misleading, and that perhaps originality and constantly ‘pushing the boundaries of art’ is not only not all that it’s cut out to be, but it’s also impossible.