The nineteenth Biennale of Sydney (the use of the Italian ‘Biennale’ still screams an arriviste striving to touch the hem of La Serenissima) has been notable less for who showed in it than who did not. But let us tarry a breath to consider this year’s theme.

It is, of course, an accepted convention of the canapé circuit of virtually interchangeable international arts festivals that the festival theme will be as ambiguous and pretentious as the title of a David Eggers novel. This allows the guest curators to include anyone and anything from the currently trendy superstar-artist Menu touristique, a sprinkling of edgy but largely unknown creatives from the Baltics and the developing world (though none of the latter are evident this time around), the usual pious hipster art nuns, the curator’s mates, their mates’ mates, and anyone they owe a favour. We understand this convention and avert our eyes for the sake of decorum, just as in eighteenth century Venice if one wore domino mask pin on one’s coat one was understood to be incognito, and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and all that.

This year’s theme, however – You Imagine What You Desire – seems bafflingly opaque even by those standards. I hazard that it might mean something similar to Hannibal Lecter’s ‘We covet what we see every day’ from Silence of the Lambs, or possibly, as mother might have said while delivering a loving cuff around the ear, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride’.

According to the Exhibition Overview on the Biennale website,

You Imagine What You Desire is an evocation celebrating the artistic imagination as a spirited describing and exploration of the world through metaphor and poesis. It makes enquiries into contemporary aesthetic experience, and relates this to historical precedents and future opportunities to imagine possible worlds. It seeks to understand the need artists have today to create immersive and expanded environments, and locates this activity as part of an art historical trajectory, and as a pursuit into the issues of human consciousness, and their psychological, cognitive and corporeal imperatives.

Clear? As mud. Did you read it in the voices of Tim and Debbie from 1980s ABC television classic Australia, You’re Standing in It? Generalisations and banalities wallow in the adipose froth of artwank. It sounds superficially deep and searching and covers all possible bases, but it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What is this ‘contemporary aesthetic experience’ exactly? What are these ‘issues of human consciousness’? Ask not, lest ye be smokescreened with half-digested theory or scorned down a patrician nose for not being able to see the Emperor’s new designer, but already out of date, threads. The direly designed website (seriously guys, it’s a dog) continues:

You Imagine What You Desire seeks splendour and rapture in works that remain true to a greater, even sublime visuality. Today these things co-exist and overlap, and the tactics of theatricality cannot be separated from overtly social-situationist inspired works, just as they are central to works engaging with humanity at a grand scale. Extra energies are sought in works that unleash physical and psychic intensity. A happy anarchy is produced with works that activate the power of imagination through laughter and activity.

Don’t feel bad. It really is empty semantics. I have degrees in this stuff and I haven’t got a clue what they are trying to say either. It is uncut blancmange. One opens the catalogue for enlightenment and heads to Biennale Director Juliana Enberg’s curatorial statement where she breathlessly namedrops everyone from Aristotle to Žižek without giving anything away – except, perhaps, that ‘artists are active philosophers, inasmuch as they continue to propose problems through which they work in hopeful, surplus ways, expecting their desire to perpetuate yet another problem, to rebuild desire – ad infinitum.’

This may be translated from the rarefied dialect of Olympus to mean: ‘artists make art’. Enberg goes on:

The 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire offers itself as a grand multiplicity. It is in its nature multiple, and contains within itself a set of singular multiplicities. Each project, each work, is a summation of its own history – philosophical, psychological, aesthetic – to this point in time, and adds to the collective imagination and desire from which it has come.

This sounds suspiciously like Walt Whitman’s excuse for waffle – ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes’ – combined with the pop wisdom of the infinite diversity in infinite combination of Star Trek’s Vulcans, and possibly a dash of Mark 5:9: ‘My name is Legion: for we are many’. All arses covered.

Disturbingly, none of the catalogue’s introductory essays, thoughtfully titled ‘Thoughts’, address the actual art (erudite and fascinating though they are). Rather, they consider the idea of art in general. They are no help in understanding the curatorial concept. Perhaps this is due to the sheer sprawl of the thing – 90 artists from 31 countries, spread across five venues. The individual essays about the artists are quite illuminating, however, though I think Brisbane’s Asia-Pacific Triennials have put together better exhibitions and are more diverse.

This year’s Biennale is all very anodyne and, ironically enough, apolitical. It is rather over representative of Scandinavia and the Anglosphere for some reason, and there does not appear to have been much of an effort to put the Australian artists in any sort of international context. It is slick and there are no surprises, though Angelica Mestiti’s In the Ear of the Tyrant (2013-14), a video work of Mestiti chanting laments in a Sicilian grotto, strikes a poetic note (Tony Abbott as Dionysius I of Syracuse perhaps?) and Michael Cook’s digital trickery with photography, Majority Rule (2014), also stands out. So does Bindi Coles’ We All Need Forgiveness (2014), a wall of monitors screening people intoning the mantra ‘I forgive you’, and Danish artist Eva Koch’s I am the River (2012), a video projection of a waterfall.

But there is so little overarching sense of curatorial vision one wonders what Enberg was doing this whole time. It is her misfortune that the Adelaide Biennial is on at the same time as a comparison. She does vaguely gesture in the direction of some sort of framework inspired by the Biennale’s locations. Cockatoo Island apparently provides ‘the trope of the “island”’ – though the catalogue does not go so far as to mention that between 1839 and 1870 Cockatoo Island was New South Wales’ equivalent of Alcatraz, a place of secondary punishment for transported convicts, which tends to open up a dialogue with another island prison 2212 miles to the north. The Museum of Contemporary Art is designated ‘air / water’ and the Art Gallery of New South Wales is ‘earth / fire’, which sounds a bit more Nimbin than Sydney, but does not tie anything down. The Carriageworks site relates to moving image, which is at least something concrete, and Artspace is characterised by ‘flights of fancy’ – which, I would have thought, is pretty much what all art ultimately is anyway.

And yet this Sydney Biennale is far less academic and inaccessible than other similar events. The Aboriginal Australians make the biggest impact and not a dot in sight. Norwegian Tori Wrånes’ Stone and Singer (2014), a figure singing under a giant swinging stone, is noteworthy for its simple visual poetry, as is Manners, Habits, and Other Received Ideas (2014) by Canadian artists Hadley and Maxwell. Yael Bartana’s video work Inferno (2013) relating to a Brazillian Pentecostal sect trying to rebuild their own Temple of Jerusalem and trigger the End Times is fascinating, while the biomorphic component of Bosbolobosboco (2013) by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, is a far more interesting way to incorporate an audio work than a boring old listening pod. The catalogue is beautifully illustrated and most of the writing about the artists is mercifully transparent. Jim Lambie putting coloured stripes on the floor, though, is still just Jim Lambie putting coloured stripes on the floor. As with anything too slick, one is unable to get much purchase on the work, and some of it looks suspiciously like décor in the way it has been photographed: Roni Horn’s Ten Liquid Incidents (2010-12) and Ugo Rodinone’s bird sculptures, for example.

The political shenanigans that came to surround the Biennale have proved to be more interesting and, perhaps, of greater lasting significance than much of the art. Indeed, the art was made a sideshow by the spectacular circus that blew up around Transfield Holdings’s sponsorship, after a number of artists boycotted the event. At issue was that company’s involvement in the Manus Island immigration detention facility. Or rather, Transfield’s meagre 12% share in the umbrella company Transfield Services Ltd, which successfully tendered to run the detention facility.

On 19 February 2014, 28 participating artists published an open letter to the Biennale’s Board of Directors about their concerns with the sponsorship arrangement with Transfield, stating:

We urge you to act in the interests of asylum seekers. As part of this we request the Biennale withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.

On February 20, six more artists signed the open letter. By 26 February, 41 Biennale artists had signed. On the same day, five artists (Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt) withdrew their participation in the Biennale of Sydney in protest at the refusal to cut sponsorship ties with Transfield. On 5 March, four more artists (Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray) withdrew. That month Sydney Biennale announced that it would cut ties with Transfield. The chairman of the Sydney Biennale and a managing co-director of its major sponsor Transfield Holdings, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, disappointed but dignified, resigned his position.

No less unexpected than the protest were the congees, salamalecs and forelock tugging of some rightish-leaning comentators, who suddenly revealed their hitherto hidden cultural side as they rushed to defend Belgiorno-Nettis. He received a fulsome hagiography as one of Australia’s few dedicated patrons of the arts. Yet for the most part the protests had not been directed at Belgiorno-Nettis as an individual. Indeed, as artist Mikala Dwyer, a signatory of the letter and whose exquisite The Hollows (2014) is on display at Cockatoo Island, told Australian Associated Press in March: ‘It’s been the most heartbreaking process for the artists. A lot of people are very fond of Luca as well. It was not personal.’

Then what was it? A quick look at the CVs of many of the artists to withdraw in protest strongly suggests that the purity of their morals regarding sponsorship was a relatively recent acquisition. Any institution or event that has received funding from various big banks, multinationals, or government entities in states with dodgy human rights records, will inevitably have blood, oil, or something equally unpleasant on its hands. However, morals late found are still morals to be lionised. Some cynicism should be put aside for the just nature of the cause. But why stop at Transfield? It is, after all, Australian government policy which has caused the trouble in the first place. How many of those artists have received or will be requesting funding from the Australia Council? (The same thought has occurred to the federal government.) For all the good intentions, the protest has the faintly sulphurous whiff of sanctimonious publicity seeking.

Then the corporate and political elite closed ranks. Guido Belgiorno-Nettis, brother of Luca and president of the Art Gallery of New South Wales board of trustees, launched a salvo: ‘This episode is not good for the Biennale of Sydney or for the arts or for arts philanthropy more broadly.’ This sounds like a veiled threat. Yet he complimented the activists and artists for ‘highlighting this complex issue of asylum seekers and mandatory detention’ – which is both paradoxical and more than he has done with the influence he has as Executive Director of Transfield Holdings. This was followed by NSW Arts Minister, George Souris, who said he defended the free speech of artists, but

a public debate is much more beneficial than a vague boycott with no direct aims and intentions, which risks shutting down the opportunities for all parties to speak and be heard. Which stains long-standing personal, philanthropic relationships.

Again, more diplomatically veiled threats. This is exactly the same tactic taken by critics of the global Occupy movement, as if the rage at the wrongdoing being inchoate makes it any less wrong or less worthy of protesting.

Then the veil came off. Federal Attorney General and Arts Minister George Brandis, lacking the grace and gravitas of Sir Les Patterson, let alone Barry Cohen, made bizarre threats to change the very basis of Australia Council arts funding. In a widely reported letter to chairman of the Australia Council, Rupert Myer, Brandis wrote:

the decision sends precisely the wrong message to other actual or potential corporate sponsors of the arts: that they may be insulted, and possibly suffer reputational damage, if an arts company or festival decides to make a political statement about an aspect of their commercial relationships with government, where it disapproves of a particular government policy which those commercial relationships serve … Artists like everybody else are entitled to voice their political opinions, but I view with deep concern the effective blackballing of a benefactor, implicit in this decision, merely because of its commercial arrangements … No doubt when renewal of the funding agreement beyond 2015 arises for consideration, the Australia Council will have regard to this episode and to the damage which the board of the Sydney Biennale has done.

The Australia Council Act 2013 states that a minister cannot direct a council decision in a particular case, but can direct the council in relation to its exercising of powers and function. ‘Those words are plainly wide enough to include matters of policy and funding criteria,’ wrote Brandis, asking the council to develop a policy when the rejection of corporate funding is deemed, rather subjectively, as ‘unreasonable’. He went on to say:

The policy should further consider whether all future funding agreements should contain a clause that stipulates that it is a condition of Australia Council funding that the applicant does not unreasonably refuse private sector funding, or does not unreasonably terminate an existing funding agreement with a private partner.

In the letter, Brandis explicitly stated that if he was not satisfied with the new policy drafted by the council then he would dictate it himself. Reading between the lines, the definition of ‘unreasonable’ will be whatever does not suit the agenda of the Abbott government and its corporate friends, including basic liberties considered essential to most OECD democracies, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of association. It would appear that, as far as Brandis is concerned, the role of the arts is to act as an extension of corporate marketing and public relations, when the whole point of government funding for the arts in the first place is to provide the artist with independence from the whims and prejudices of private patronage.

Of course, we have seen public funding of the arts being used as a political football before, most notably in the case of the US National Endowment of the Arts, when the pudibond and pecksniffian armies of prudish Philistia battered and broke it for the sake of a few Serranos and Mapplethorpes, though in that case the powers that be were deferring to the offended sensibilities of the electorate rather than the corporate sector. This is the threat of censorship, no more and no less, under which no artistic culture can thrive. In passing, one wonders why the Liberal-National government did not simply point out that Nauru happened under Labor.

One feels like Lot negotiating with Jehovah in the suburbs of Sodom. At the root of the controversy is the issue of asylum seeking, a human right complicated by local and regional politics, populist appeals to racism (the Tampa election), genuine concerns about human trafficking and the risk to human life. Around 90% of asylum seekers are genuine cases, but does that extend to a right to pick and choose, refusing Malaysia and Indonesia on the way? Can someone who has shown incredible resourcefulness, tenacity and sacrifice to travel right around the world be anything other than an asset to the economy? This is a matter far too complex for me to detail here, and more complex than the artists or the government care to (or are seemingly equipped to) deal with. Regardless, there is no excuse at all to cage people, children especially, like animals behind razor wire in a malarial jungle in a marginal state where the rule of law barely extends further than downtown Port Moresby.

In tackling this, another scab has been ripped off. The whole point of an art festival is to speak to the world. If corporate capitalism has hijacked the artist, why shouldn’t the artist hijack the stage of the corporate capitalist? Who has the right to silence the artist? Apparently a lot of authority figures think they do.

On the other hand, one wonders why more artists did not make more of an effort to talk about the injustice with their art rather than their feet. Aboriginal activist and artist Richard Bell, ever contrary to any prevailing orthodoxy, made the point with his A White Hero for Black Australia (2011), which reproduced the famous incident when two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, made the raised fist Black Power salute on the dais at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Bell, who has previously participated with glorious subversion in the Biennale on various occasions (though not this one), did not support the boycott.

Admittedly, it might have appeared hypocritical to have taken the Queen’s shilling and then made protest art, but then again, that is how subversion works. With only the catalogue to go on, you would not even know any of this had happened. As it currently stands all debate is external to the Biennale, which does not appear to have felt the need to acknowledge why the relationship was so problematic in the first place. There are honorable exceptions. Chinese artist Yingmei Duan’s installation Happy Yingmei, originally made in 2011 at the Lilith Performance Studio in Malmö, consists of Yingmei living in a ‘cave’ in the Art Gallery of New South Wales where, singing, she presses a note into your hand that may, among other things, ask you to consider conditions in countries less lucky.

Engberg, a leading Melbourne proponent of the curator-as-professional-technocrat-celebrity-not-mere-conceptual-functionary, was spirited in her public defense of the Biennale and the artists. Clearly she has learned much since she headed the inaugural and only Melbourne International Biennial, Signs of Life, in 1999, which, according to the Melbourne media, was never repeated because of Ebola-like budget hemorrhaging and Engberg swanning off overseas rather than staying on board and spruiking like Captain Edward Smith. I offer her praise, however, for managing the delicate politics of the situation with grace and diplomacy – straddling bars of soap on razorblades. And it would be wrong to say she does not curate a good show: she is the ongoing artistic director of the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne, and she ran the Melbourne Festival visual arts program from 2000 to 2006, advised on Australia’s choice of representative at the Venice Bienniale in 2007, and curated the visual arts program at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009.

The Biennale boycott sparked an important conversation about justice for asylum seekers, but without directly criticising the Australian federal government for being responsible. Canberra introduced mandatory detention over twenty years ago, though the issue of asylum seekers did not become militarised until Operation Relex during the 2001 federal election campaign, which placed the issue near the centre of Australian politics, where it has remained ever since. The conversation initiated by the boycott has not lasted, however. It has been superseded in social media by the ‘Not In My Name’ campaign, which is about as insipid and ineffectual as ‘KONY 2012’ or wondering whether they know it’s Christmas in Africa. It is the equivalent of Bart Simpson’s ‘I didn’t do it’ or Pontius Pilate washing his hands. The art world can feel good about itself while absolving itself of any responsibility to critique or analyse the systemic big picture of instutionalised racism, the neoliberal consensus, and the increasingly authoritarian tone of the Abbott government – just blame Transfield, socially progressive credentials intact. The ineptitude of the Abbott government was highlighted by their piping up at all; there was no need for the chest beating because Transfield was copping all the flak. Though perhaps I am being too optimistic in assuming that a division between government and corporate authority still exists; it was Mussolini who said ‘Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power’.

This is a common failing of much contemporary art: it mistakes the symbolic intervention for a genuine act. Sure, a valuable conversation was initiated, but the artists did not seem terribly interested in sticking around to sustain it, to embrace the artist’s age-old role as provocateur. Do the artists acknowledge their own tacit participation in the system by taking public commissions and state funding? Will they carefully examine the sponsors of all future events they are invited to participate in? There is no morally pure position for anyone in this situation. All pretty ironic for what is supposed to be a celebration of the ability of artists to communicate complex issues and challenge perceptions, but adding some much needed spice to what has otherwise been a bland and wishy-washy Biennale that had initially set out to offend no one.

Works Cited

‘Biennale organisers want to leave politics behind and focus on the art,’ The Guardian (18 March 2014).

Bridie Jabour, ‘George Brandis threatens Sydney Biennale over Transfield “blackballing”,’ The Guardian (13 March 2014).

‘The Sydney Biennale Case: Open Letters,’ Artleaks (19 February 2014).

Andrew Taylor, ‘Guido Belgiorno-Nattis launches scathing attack on artists who protested Biennale,’ The Sydney Morning Herald (18 March 2014).