Forms that turn: the Biennale & WYD, Sydney

– an aboriginal walking Jesus outside the MCA blesses you

Sydney was hosting two major events during our visit, 12-19 July. The series of ‘Jesus Walks’ statues placed in small groups, usually trinities, around the city seemed to serve as the intersection between the two and suffered from the same strange sort of compromise we saw afflicting both the (Sydney) Biennale and (Catholic) World Youth Day. A short-hand as to what constitutes that compromise might be Ozzification or Sydnyficance.

Artists had been presented with concrete ready-mades of Jesus in robes doing his famous reconciliatory hand-waving

(a gesture Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seems to be indicating is the one that got away in his apology to First Nation Australians) on plinths, which, after Jesus got the treatment, would bear the artist’s name and a brief explanation. The problem was, of the nine or so Jesuses we saw, the treatment amounted to an artistic paint-job. This hardly makes for a pimped-up Messiah.

Xzibit nowhere to be seen, so no jacuzzis, no vid-screens, no re-imagining of the divine vehicle of salvation (I am the way, drive me!): just a placarding of different and similar for their different symbolic representations of current ideological interests. Here a modernist Jesus (Mondrian). There a pop Jesus (Lichtenstein). There a land-rights Jesus. Here an animal-rights Jesus. And here, possibly the most interesting in terms of superficial treatment, a natural-resources green Jesus, covered with plant-fibre goo, not paint, turned sepia and fibrous. And, there, my favourite (possibly because of a despite-itself decorative series the most decorative), a dot-painted Jesus (pictured above), outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, which, on our last stay in Sydney, in 1995, had been the venue for Jeff Koons’s Puppy:

The final Jesus in the series hung alone and didn’t really belong to it. But he was the most obvious thing you saw on entering the MCA, as if an act of curatorial provocation, León Ferrari’s jet Jesus.

A civilização occidental e cristã [Western Christian Civilisation], León Ferrari, 1965

An Argentinian artist, Ferrari made the piece at the time of first US bombings of Vietnam. The figure in loin-cloth unmistakable, crucified on an unmistakably American FH-107, dives at the floor.

Provocative, yes. Yet, here and now, to whom is it provocative? And, of what is it provocative, if not of comparison to all the other Jesuses on plinths outside the gallery or hung on coloured beads in the sweaty palms of @300 000 so-called pilgrims from 28 countries attending WYD?

To the papal entourage of some 200 prelates and curates, to the principle of Benedict XVI’s perambulated appearance in the popemobile, itself flown to Sydney, and accused of speeding past the eager-faithful, and to the idea of all those pilgrims using all that jet-fuel, the vehicular impression of Jet Jesus is appropriate but hardly adequate. The work’s title, in English Western Christian Civilisation, is a response so general, now, here, as to seem inclusive, without irony; to answer and uphold and not question its eponymous dominance.

Both WYD and the Biennale involved great expense to New South Wales, approximately $100 million going to the former, to whirl His Holiness in his ruby slippers from Rome to Oz.

And of course pay for all those extras: cut-price rates on public transport for pilgrims, ID cards and natty backpacks,

in colours reminiscent, along with their nationalistic associations, of:

Under the theme Revolutions – Forms That Turn, the exhibition explores the urge to revolt. Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev says of the exhibition “artists are visionaries, and the leaders of our imagination. At every point in time where there has been a revolution, it is artists who have seen it and articulated it first.
In this Biennale I wanted to show this by bringing together some of the most revolutionary moments in art
from the past century and today. Some of these artists are very famous, some are new discoveries. I am
thrilled and honoured to have been able to bring all of these people and artworks together and I am grateful
to our magnificent artists for entrusting me with their visions.”
– Media release 18 July 2008

It’s not the hypocrisy, it’s the consistency that gets you: WYD flows into the Biennale. Whether its wrapped in papal white or cardinal, or Alvin, purple or brought together and hung according to the protocols of art, or bears flags – everywhere throughout WYD -, or whether it was formerly ironic or not, a nihilism prevails which announces itself and its judgements in a sort of Dadaism. For example, the criticism of the American Evangelical Movement (heavily represented at WYD) is made that it’s American! Evangelical! A movement! To which the aryan adolescent from Lincoln, Utah: The greatest God! The greatest nation on earth! The numbers to prove it! And, I Love You.

He makes a loveheart with his hands against the bus window and points to his fellow pilgrims: And I love you! He mouths. And you, and you!

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI declares the Catholic Church to fulfil that most human of needs, the need for meaning and that this is what has brought us onto the streets of Sydney. This is very true. Since my personal pilgrimage is to the Gallery of New South Wales to see Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of 1913.

A personal need for meaning left unfulfilled: the Stations of the Cross, with the police presence and the barricades, and crowds of flag-waving pilgrims get in the way. And arriving finally at the gallery, we find it closed.

No thank you, Papa.

Cockatoo Island was our highlight of the Biennale, for its scale as a venue more than for what it housed.

And when we heard about the party which opened the event, held in the massive turbine hall of the former ship-building yard –

which went off! which filled and made use of the structure in a way the art did not, which we missed, as well, we wondered whether that’s where the budget went, knowing well the sydnyficance of partying.

After all, how much does it cost to bring in a DVD and hire a projector, even if it is to show the work of William Kentridge?