In the current global pandemic many facets of our cultural life have been forced to either postpone their normal agenda or take a subdued back seat to the human tragedy we witness every day. Throughout the world major art galleries have closed, opera and ballet seasons canned, music festivals cancelled and production halted on numerous movie productions. In Australia the impact has been less severe than say Europe or the US, but when it comes to the arts we are still rearranging our socially distanced deckchairs.
Whilst there has been a resurgence at the more grass roots level, with live music returning to pubs and clubs and galleries hosting major exhibitions, many of the regular events, festivals and music seasons are lying dormant. There’s no doubt they will eventually return but will they do so with the same relevance and impact they once had?
Take the Sydney Biennale for example, a festival that began in 1973 and has since developed into one of the country’s most prestigious and best attended. It’s an event that invariably packs some kind of political punch and looks to jolt our consciousness on a whole range of social and environmental issues. Added to this is a less serious side that often explores the magic and whimsy of contemporary art. Best of all it’s mostly free to the public and attracts a wide range of age groups.
Whilst COVID restricted the 2020 Biennale to a largely low key affair, the 23rd installment scheduled for 2022 promises a major revival with a theme that very much spruiks recovery. Titled Rivus, the focus will be on “wetlands and other salt and freshwater ecosystems as dynamic living systems with varying degrees of political agency.” It’s perhaps coincidental that the letters of the title also spell out ‘virus’ but the theme does evoke an element of post pandemic cleansing and rebirth.
Whilst it’s a positive message you have to ask just how it will sit in the social and political context of 2022. Last year the outbreak of the pandemic came as a major shock and a developing human tragedy and if anything 2021 has been much worse. Who knows what awaits us in 2022, particularly in Australia where citizens are barred from returning to their own country, the Government’s hawks talk up the horrendous possibility of a war with China and an agonised Craig McLachlan seeks redemption after his sexual assault case.
Is there a chance that the Biennale’s commendable environmental theme will be completely overshadowed by some kind of major disruption from both here at home and increasing global chaos? It would be wrong to think that art can always ascend to the frontline of political protest but when the shit really hits the fan, its relevancy is often diluted.
Back at the beginning of 2020 I wrote that “The 22nd Biennale Of Sydney is almost upon us and as always it throws up a multitude of interesting and provocative art experiences. However, it’s invariably a select group of artists who are chosen to participate and that begs the question – what about those who didn’t get a run at Carriage Works or Cockatoo Island?”
I also put forward the idea of a guerilla style, spontaneous fringe ‘Biennale’ that should run concurrent with the established event. If ever there was a demand for such an initiative it’s now, in the twilight zone of uncertainty and apprehension that grips much of our daily life. You don’t need a government arts grant or the subsidy of some wealthy philanthropist to participate – only a driving passion for social justice and change, plus your imagination and a selection of donated and recycled items.
Next week in the ‘Naked City’ I will unveil the full program for the 2020 Fringe Biennale, that may or may not include a giant effigy of Peter Dutton as well as plans to take over Cockatoo Island and secede from the Commonwealth of Australia, welcoming home all Australian citizens stranded in India. Stay tuned and feel free to contribute your suggestions in the meantime.