On Moving Forward, Looking Back, and Side-Stepping What’s to Come

Cosmin Costinaș and Inti Guerrero, the two curators at the helm of the 24th Biennale of Sydney, are well respected for their collaborative explorations at the intersection of the visual arts and socio-, geo-, and biopolitics. Will their curatorial focus on “awe and magic” be energising enough to stand the test of time?

The first biennale I ever attended was the 18th Biennale of Sydney (BoS) in 2012. I was fifteen at the time, and up until then had only been exposed to historical art of the Western canon. As I slowly wandered around Cockatoo Island, I remember feeling so in awe that I felt this big tension in my chest. I never knew that contemporary art existed on this scale, that the works of artists still living could be embraced and platformed in such a way. It was an experience that I still remember as feeling sacred, almost spiritual. I remember carefully reading every inch of wall text possible, looking and listening with the intent of turning my body into a sponge to absorb every lick of expression or information offered. Visiting this biennale heavily influenced my enthusiasm towards contemporary art. I believe that this day was one of many where I decided I wanted to be a part of the machinations of the industry within which these projects come together.

Over a decade later, the world has transformed immensely, and I along with it. The upcoming 24th BoS has announced the appointment of Cosmin Costinaș and Inti Guerrero as co-curators. They have taken on the position of working collaboratively to select which artists are deemed worthy of exhibiting, and where they will exhibit. As co-curators, they will also be creating the framework that justifies why these artists are considered for vital inclusion and globally promoted, along with how their practices are interrelated.

In their joint statement about their appointment, featured on the BoS’s website, Costinaș and Guerrero talk of representation, inclusion, our current local and global socioeconomic climate, diverse ways of seeing, and a curatorial approach that will “challenge audiences to learn, celebrate, be inspired, and experience the awe and the magic art is capable of.” I believe that this statement is quite beautiful in its approach and optimism, yet is also a continuation of recycled vocabulary that has been used for what feels like a gazillion times in the last few years for large-scale art event announcements.

Costinaș and Guerrero have a long history of working together. Their most notable exhibition, A Journal of the Plague Year, was presented in Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and San Francisco throughout 2013–15. An exhibition and eventual book project edited with Lesley Ma, it looked at the delicacies and complexities around the history of viruses in Hong Kong. Working within a transhistorical framework, Costinaș and Guerrero linked artistry with sociopolitical environments, and created a show that embraced cross-generational storytelling. It would be easy to speculate that they might choose to use a similar framework in the larger and more recent geopolitical context of this biennale. However, I’m not sure if the idea of “COVID-19 art” is still too on the nose for institutions to be reflecting on it on a larger scale.

Costinaș and Guerrero will also be taking on the task, that all international curators do, of temporarily utilising the mass network of local labour that exists in Sydney to administer, implement, maintain, and pack up large-scale art festivals. It takes the hard work of thousands of people to create a biennale – a giant pool of skilled and resourceful people who are often overlooked.

Since the 18th BoS, I’ve come to manifest my teenage dream of working within the institutions that are involved in, or adjacent to, the BoS, and have developed a deeper understanding of Sydney’s art scene. This has generated a more intimate engagement with the consecutive Biennales that occurred thereafter.

I remember the controversy of Transfield Holdings’ sponsorship of the 20th BoS because of their direct links to offshore detention centres, the gossip surrounding Ai Weiwei’s multi-million-dollar artwork-insurance bill taking such a chunk of budget that the 21st BoS didn’t have enough funds left for appropriate signage on Cockatoo Island, and the collective remorse felt when the following biennale was so heavily affected by pandemic.

Throughout the comings and goings of these biennales over the past decade, it seemed to me that those who worked towards putting them together were either fatigued or frustrated. Art handlers, carpenters, and delivery people work around tight and ambitious deadlines. People in positions of custodianship over exhibition spaces constantly and relentlessly establish and maintain dialogues with audiences that cross cultural divides, justify the value of the festival itself, and ensure the safety of artworks. In addition, BoS’s volunteer program always seemed to verge on being an extremely exploitative source of free labour.

All the importance of the work that goes into this festival, seemed momentarily overlooked when industry elites entered the frame. The fanfare around getting to brush shoulders with famous international artists and the eclectic makeup of attendants at opening events is unavoidable.

The subtext, however, is always the tension surrounding the unspoken knowledge of the immense wealth that many in the venue possessed, and the power dynamic that this manifests in relation to the rest of us.

During this time, I’ve come to feel a sense of personal betrayal and resentment towards what we call the “art world.” This industry does not practice what it preaches. Capitalism has always been, and continues to be, the basis on which biennales operate, as each biennale whips out its “radical” justifications. But systemic racism continues to prevail within art institutions. The only shred of integrity that I see in the art world is within the practices of artists themselves. Governments, corporate sponsors, private donors, and institutional leaders appropriate this integrity to inflate their own cultural capital. I’d speculate that this has applied, and still does apply, to the BoS: there will still be a top-down structure, the majority of BoS staff in leadership positions are white, the majority of the curatorial teams working with BoS across Sydney’s art institutions are still white, Morry Schwartz, head of Australia’s only prominent left wing media organisation, is still on the BoS Board of Directors despite regular reporting of his companies passively promoting Zionist prejudices and suppressing the voices of Palestinian peoples.

The majority of our artists, institutional leaders, managers, and coordinators will have made their way into this industry from “well-to-do” families. In conversation with a Sydney-based artist about this piece, she told me that, “The thing about art is that class can just disappear.” I struggle to reconcile this remark with the fact that in today’s art institutions, what is shown to the public is just a façade of moral discourse rooted in diversity, equality, and inclusion – and that this presentation is not embodied internally.

The institutional critique that’s been expressed in this text is nothing new. In fact, over the past few years, leading up to and well after the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the margins of Australian cultural discourse have been relentlessly examining and drawing light to these issues. Just last year, we saw sweeping Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions action against Sydney Festival in solidarity with Palestine; the year before, there were mass calls for the boycott of Dark Mofo, and artist Santiago Sierra, for their joint attempt to create and implement a violent and culturally ignorant artwork. So much activism has occurred, so much organisation and advocacy from marginalised and First Nations peoples, a sheer mass of rejection of the current status quo. Why haven’t our institutions caught up with our demands? Why is BoS still structured the same? How the hell does Morry Schwartz remain on their board?

From the announcement of Costinaș and Guerrero’s curatorship of the next BoS, it seems that there will be a continuation of past iterations’ facile championing and upholding voices of artists from diverse and marginalised backgrounds, along with a continuation of the same colonial machine of institutions that will do the work to make this happen.

Over a decade’s worth of biennales have come and gone, and the only changes I’ve noticed are the names of the curators and artists. Fifteen-year-old me and current-day me have seen these biennales, and my response has changed, too: from awe to exasperation. And yet, however displeased I currently feel, I look forward to the announcements to come, and hope to be inspired. I long for a day when I can experience art with the expectation of feeling a sense of awe and tension in my chest again.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62

24th Biennale of Sydney
9 March – 10 June 2024
Various venues, Sydney

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