SYDNEY, Australia — The global apocalypse — whose horror has up until now been imminent in our collective imaginations yet somehow always safely deferred (viz. the sublimity of nuclear cold war) — is, perhaps, finally with us.
Not, it has to be said, in the abrupt ‘end of days’ way foretold by Biblical prophecy, but as an insidiously spectral pace change. First climate change and now the onset of a deadly and, at present, unstoppable pandemic with potentially lasting consequences for human society and the world economy. If the millenarian collapse of capitalist society is indeed in view, Karl Marx was very much mistaken about its eventual cause.
In recent years, Australia has experienced a series of calamitous events undeniably brought about by climate change: including an extraordinarily destructive combination of drought and raging bushfires. For days during the sweltering Australian summer of 2019–2020, Sydney’s skies were turned a Hammer House blood-red, with everything outdoors coated in a thin blanket of resinous ash.
As Covid-19 takes hold in Australia in the shadow of these events, once groaning supermarket shelves in the antipodean land of plenty are emptied on a daily basis by jostling panic-buyers, public institutions and gatherings are in or on the cusp of lockdown, plans for life and work are bit-by-bit put on hold, international travel is largely suspended, and people go about in protective masks in a disconcerting echo of similar attempts to stave off infection by plague doctors in 17th-century London. It is, of course, much the same across the globe.
Amid all of which, there has been the opening of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: a major international showcase of the work of 101 artists and collectives scheduled to take place in major venues and public spaces across the city from March 14 to June 8, 2020.
The 22nd Biennale of Sydney is undoubtedly a landmark event, being the first to have been organized under the stewardship of an artistic director of Australian aboriginal heritage, Brook Andrew. As a nation-state born out of and still heavily impacted upon by the legacy of British colonial imperialism, Australia has yet to establish an entirely just relationship with its indigenous peoples. Andrew’s appointment is therefore of enormous social, political and cultural significance.
As such, it can be upheld as a genuine beacon of hope for Australia and the world; a status further confirmed by the sheer diversity of the individuals and collectives invited to take part in an avowedly artist-led and polylogic exhibition, which includes, among others, artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brazil, Madagascar, Canada, and Japan, as well as Australia.
The adopted title of the Biennale, NIRIN, is a word derived from the language of Australia’s indigenous Wiradjuri people that can be translated into English as “edge.” In an introductory press release, Andrew describes NIRIN as proposing “that creativity is an important means of truth-telling, of directly addressing unresolved anxieties that stalk our times and ourselves.”
The new Biennale is meant to be “a place from which to see the world through different eyes, to embrace our many edges and imagine pride in ecologically harmonious and self-defined futures.” Andrew’s vision for the Biennale presents itself as both timely and nimbly prescient of currently unfolding circumstances. NIRIN’s standing as a beacon for social change is assured through the simple fact of its having been staged at all.
The constellation of inspirational themes referenced in NIRIN, which is derived from aboriginal culture, indicates a potentially interesting intervention with conventionally western principles of display and institutionalized public engagement:
DHAAGUN (Earth: Sovereignty and Working Together)
YIRAWY–DHURAY (Yam-Connection: Food)
MURIGUWAL GIILAND (Different Stories)
NGAWAAL-GUYUNGAN (Powerful-Ideas: The Power of Objects)
BILA (River: Environment)
If I were writing in ‘normal’ times, I would move on from here to review individual artworks and their relationships to the exhibition’s stated curatorial aims, followed by an appraisal of the Biennale’s successes and weaknesses.
But, for now, such conventions seem more than a little Pollyannaish. Displacing them are far bigger and more pressing questions raised by the changed circumstances of NIRIN’s staging.
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, new artistic languages and contexts of display have coincided with an exponential growth in the number of practicing artists worldwide caught up in the impact of westernized modernity, constituting a globalized art world with the capacity to encompass and celebrate significant differences while being, at the same time, internationally reproducible.
In coming months and years, it seems inevitable that COVID-19’s impact on the globalized infrastructure that supports the international art world and the cultural workers it employs will be profound. It is difficult to see how under those conditions the Biennale of Sydney and other recurring international art expos can be staged in quite the same way as before. The once ineluctably expansive international art world may begin to recede markedly.
The contemporary art world will, no doubt, continue to exist for the foreseeable future in some revised form; the COVID-19 virus, while deadly, is by no means universally so. Resulting changes in the global socioeconomic base will transform the material conditions that have supported the development of the international art world as we know it. That transformation will, in turn, almost certainly precipitate a shift comparable to the profound changes that the Euro-American art world experienced during the 20th century. New modes of making, display, and evaluation will emerge.
The impact of COVID-19 is both a significant challenge and a threshold for new beginnings. An international art world that has called persistently for radical socioeconomic change is now faced with just that in large measure, albeit in ways that it is not in a position to readily absorb.
We should therefore celebrate NIRIN and other international art expos, while we can, as relics of a receding world. Their familiar spectacularist format is now thoroughly endangered. With their passing there is of course much to mourn.
The last half-century has seen an enormous trans-cultural enrichment, diversification, and sharing of aesthetic experience. The information that expos like NIRIN have sought to convey is — if sometimes irrationally overstated —, in essence, productively optimistic, often pointing to the political ideal of a justly liberal cosmopolitanism and the associated possibility of futuristic progress.
The format and intended significance of such expos are so predictable as to have become institutionalized and, as a result, diminished in their efficacy as a locus for transformational criticism. A few days ago, that format was kept well in place by a seemingly unassailable, well-intentioned, and, prima facie, ethically justified institutionalized political correctness.
The international art expo in its current form is a once still point in a turning world that surely cannot resist the material forces put into motion by Covid-19. Actual, rather than symbolic, global change is now upon us. An increased use of the virtual and the local beckons. If the established format of the international expo withers as a result, it will not necessarily be an unwelcome or unproductive thing. It is a format that I doubt Brook Andrew’s directorial approach really needs.
NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, which was originally scheduled to run through June 8, is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to its website, the exhibition, which is organized by Brook Andrew, “will move to a digital experience.”