If you want an old fogey’s view of the
Sydney Biennale, read today’s hysterical editorial in The Australian, in
which the leader writer for Rupert’s “quality” broadsheet fulminates
for the umpteenth time about the “postmodern rot at the core of Australian
academic and cultural life”.

The Biennale is just one of many things in
The Oz‘s sights as it takes a scatter-gun approach to blasting away at falling
standards in everything from art to medical school anatomy classes.

According to The Oz, the postmodern bogeyman
“seeks to divorce art from beauty, replace skills-based excellence with
warmed-over sociology and inject a politicised, deterministic view of the world
in which identity groups trump individuals into virtually every sphere of
life” blah blah.

The editorial seizes on just one piece in
the Biennale to support its case – Milica Tomic’s shipping container full of
bullet holes. She hired a couple of roo shooters to provide the holes,
recreating an atrocity that allegedly occurred in Afghanistan where Taliban fighters were reportedly locked in a container and
fired upon. If you think Tomic’s artwork is a bit try-hard, and I don’t, you
should take a look at the rest of the Biennale where you will find plenty of
“beauty” and loads of “skills-based” excellence.

It’s probably what distinguishes Charles
Merewether’s Biennale from many that have gone before it. While a lot of the
work could certainly be described as political and conceptual, much of it has
great aesthetic merit and would have required enormous skill and imagination to
make.

By far and away the most visually absorbing
piece in the whole 16-venue event is Antony Gormley’s huge field of terracotta
figures and accompanying photographs that take up an entire floor of Pier 2/3
at Walsh Bay. Asian Field comprises 180,000 figures that Gormley made in
collaboration with 300 villagers in Xianxian, China.

While there is a predictable preponderance
of installation and video work, there is also plenty of painting. If Rupert’s cultural warriors bothered to
take a look, they might be pleasantly surprised.

Peter Fray

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