Melbourne International Biennial
Collaborating Countries Projects
Daniel Palmer

Austrian (Andraes Reiter Raabe)
Belgian (Jan Hoet)
Canadian (Kitty Scott)
Chinese (Huang Du)
Danish (Dorthe Abildgaard &
Marianne Krogh Jensen)
French (coordinated by
Jean-Pierre Dumont)
Italian (Jen Budney &
Roberto Pinto) Japanese
(Itaru Hirano)
Norwegian (Bo Krister Wallström
& Jørn Mortensen)
Philippine (Patrick Flores)
Swiss (Pierre-André Lienhard)

 Scattered around the central exhibition Signs of Life, Juliana Engberg's inaugural Melbourne International Biennial featured a series of eleven national pavilions. For a month, artists from Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Denmark, France, Austria, Philippines, China, Canada, Italy, and Belgium occupied Melbourne's public and commercial contemporary art spaces, under the organisational light of Bala Starr. Mirroring the Nordic mood of 'Signs of Life', whether by chance, design, or otherwise, the emphasis was on the Northern Hemisphere - and the further North the better. This was a European-style biennial only slightly marked by its location in the Asia-Pacific, and the absence of South American and African artists throughout meant that it could not, nor ever did, claim representative status.

None of the participating national curators sought to represent national identity directly. In fact, many went out of their way to avoid such labelling. Such was the case with Denmark, whose selected artists reside in London, and whose Ikea-like 'Info Zone' at the Ian Potter Museum of Art was a simulated display of an art, technology and urban life practice in London using a local version of their highly theorised Info Centre Website. The deconstruction of national representation as a Biennial concept was to be expected. Commodities and culture are in motion as never before and national populations are increasingly mixtures of cultures, ethnicities and races, each with varying commitments to the government in their adoptive territory.

Philippine artist Gerardo Tan explored the ongoing exchange of cultures in The Golden Cargo Trading Company Import/Export. Everyday household objects, like egg beaters, disposable cameras, toys, and other more exotic ephemera, as well as photographs of them, were pinned in perfect order from floor to ceiling around the walls. In addition to the sheer beauty of the delicate, colourful arrangements, the surfeit of objects commented both on the global circulation of mass produced pop cultural artefacts and the Philippine diaspora. Reciprocation was built into the exhibition in the form of an oblique invitation to the visitor to donate local objects, suggesting that within the anonymity of kitsch lies personal histories and collective longings.

Artists are especially mobile, and contemporary art is a floating world currency. For the present generation of artists, it has become exceptionally important to orient art practice internationally. Often, contemporary artists turn to global popular culture for an international language of common references. Thus the three young Vancouver artists in "Universal Pictures" at the Canadian pavilion, hosted by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, dealt in the centrifugal force of North America's popular imaginary. Geoffrey Farmer's strange mixture of classic Australian films (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, etc.) and Poltergeist - inspired by an image of the ACCA building - also included an outdoor pet cemetery (an inspired case of what has been called the "glocal" condition). Ron Terada's conceptual jeopardy game show paintings questioned the interpretive element of guesswork in painting, and Myfanwy Macleod's larger than life inflatable mascot entertained our mute infantilisation.

The contrast could hardly have been greater with the more traditionally universal concerns of established Japanese artist Leiko Ikemura at Sutton gallery. Here, a trail of poetic text wrapped around first black and then yellow walls helped construct an atmosphere for the contemplation of recognisably precious art objects: beautiful glazed terracotta sculptures (on chipboard tables) of hollow female torsos. Re-expressed in blurred colour oil paintings, this figure attempted to engage more than the contingencies of most fashionable contemporary art. The catalogue informs us this work contained "absolutely no trace of . . . Japaneseness", but rather more classically seeks to uncover "the essence of life beyond discursive thought". Ironically, as the show was alone with this sensibility, it assumed a national stereotype in spite of itself.

A Velcro aesthetic appeared in work from two prosperous European nations. At Tolarno Gallery, the Swiss artist Sidney Stucki painted white diagrammatic loops on matt black walls, and synchronised a speedy techno beat with three red and yellow circular flashes of light, shifting from right to left. Combined with an occasional low frequency boom, the experience of this "sonic visualisation" was either alienating or fascinating, but certainly not psychedelic. Rather it was a rationalisation, presenting the electronic beats of Euro-trance on the same plane of consistency as visual perception. At 200 Gertrude Street, Norwegian Knut Åsdam transformed the front section of the gallery into an "audio-room installation". A dark tunnelled maze lead to a nightclub-like space of black vinyl booths and headphones with trickling voices. With the distinctive glass face of the gallery tinted deep black, sexual undercurrents were enhanced by the pleasure of seeing out to the street without being seen. A sense of bodily confusion, doubled for habitualised locality, forms part of Åsdam's subjective spatial project. His second work, Psychasthenia, comprised a twin strobe video projection of the liquid-like reflective windows of a modernist office building. Extensive documentation of UKS, the Norwegian young artists' association Åsdam belongs to, included a half hour video selection of such work as Mattias Härenstam Everyday Life in the Postutopian Welfare Society II (1999) - a menacing evening urban stroll cum computer game .

As is the case generally in contemporary art today, photomedia was prevalent. Stranger Knocking, at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, featured seven Italian artists dealing with the theme of estrangement or the condition of being a foreigner. Italy is in the unusual situation of having been a net exporter of its citizens for most of its short history as a nation state. Perhaps the most politically grounded pavilion, the photo-based work included large oil/digital canvasses of Yassar Arafat, a social documentary style video on Romanian gypsies, and self-reflexive hand-held video pieces. The more formally interesting work was less obviously political: Mauricio Lupini's large Gurskyesque colour photographs of office habitats and Roberto Marossi's stylish and enigmatic portraits of contemporary figures imitating the poses of religious icons. An off-site video installation at Platform - in a train station underpass - was aptly located within one of Melbourne's most ethnically diverse settings.

At the French pavilion, again at the Potter, a strange placeless modernity pervaded Valérie Jouve's large colour photographic portraits of ordinary figures in generic urban landscapes. A vision of an office building on a motorway at twilight is a classic concrete non-place and a voyeur's delight (pot plants, peopled cubicles, etc.). However, a series of smaller portraits of office workers outside for a smoke seemed a patronising projection, and a John Cage quote running along the wall served only to confuse the issue. Downstairs, in the Belgian Pavilion, Dirk Braeckman's dark grey photographs portrayed seductive intimate private spaces (chairs, a naked woman on a bed, a large Sony TV, etc.). Jan Van Imschoot's reconstructed paintings of eighteenth century militarised horror and Sven 't Jolle's dystopian working class Global Village were almost alienating in their Europeanness.

Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi presented the Chinese artist Li Yongbin, a video installation in which a double silhouette of a bald man slowly moved about a large gridded window-like display. The sound of his breathing, pumped into the gallery space, evoked an ominous fictional presence. Breath was also monitored at Robert Lindsay Gallery. In this Austrian pavilion, loud grunts turned Anne Schneider's intimate video self- portrait of a desperate struggle to invert a doll's head into a kind of sinister ritual. Torture likewise structures Elke Krystufek's self-scrutinising paintings and Marilyn Monroe collages, examining celebrity and the distinctions between the public and private actions of the body. The self-reflexive almost narcissistic nature of her work is made explicit through diary entries and the documentation of her working process (the camera in the mirror). Finally, a set of works by the established Viennese artist Franz West included a metal couch originally made for Joseph Kosuth's show at the London Freud museum. This offered an unconscious link to Cornelia Parker's slide projections, at Anna Schwartz Gallery, of a magnified feather and fibres drawn from Freud's couch.

The collaborating country projects existed in a slightly underdeveloped relationship to the big attraction: the tightly curated 'Signs of Life', with its humanist visions of life and death, political themes of the environment, migration, sexuality, and its formal preferences for models and video art. If 'Signs of Life' suggested homogeneity to some, the pavilions were illustrative of both the diversity and shared concerns of contemporary art around the world today. It amounted to a satisfying side order for Melbourne art audiences as well as a promising start to more dynamic pavilion exchanges within future Melbourne International Biennials.

Daniel Palmer

© The artists and
Courtesy of MIB &
the artists..

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Knut Åsdam, Psychasthenia
, video installation,
dim. var., 1999

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Myfawny Macleod, The
Mascot, foam, material,
6 x 2.5 x 3 ft, 1996-9


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Elke Krystufek,
installation view

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Valérie Jouve, untitled,
photograph, 110 x 148 cm,

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Valérie Jouve, untitled,
12 parts, photographs, 12 x
50 x 70 cm, undated