Bizarrely, a Biennale
The 2023 Bunbury Biennale is on display for one more week at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery (BRAG). Four “separate but connected exhibitions” include A Cultural Ecology, a group survey of 27 selected West Australian artists and Enmeshment, “a curated show of artists working with(in) the environment”. Below are some parting thoughts on these two puzzling exhibitions.
The Bunbury Biennale was initiated in 1993, relatively early for the regional city, population now c. 88,000—especially when one considers that Fremantle didn’t get its own Biennale until 2017. The self-identified goals of the Bunbury Biennale are to “expand and diversify the City’s art collection” and “engage and educate the public on contemporary art trends”. This is the first year in its thirty-year history of expanded fourfold exhibition programming, and the second year requiring that entrants adhere to a theme, which, for 2023, is “Culture/Nature”. Yet, as noted in Artnet: ‘…the fact that biennales have a preference for political themes is neither new nor news with the single biggest theme of the last thirty years: the environmental crisis’. Unfortunately for the ’23 Bunbury Biennale the exploration of this theme is far from comprehensive, or even comprehensible. It offers a vacillating visual experience.
A Cultural Ecology unfolds over two gallery spaces in the iconic pink converted convent that is BRAG (a building that was acquired specifically to host the City’s art collection). Most works are located in the larger Chapel Gallery, where a central installation of earth-toned tetrapod sculptures by Ian Dowling lie scattered along a low, metres-long plinth which occupies the majority of the space. Brown, black, white, and grey tones dominate this room. To one side of the space are 12 black and white drawings of Karijini by John Eden, a collection of ivory-shaded ceramic vessels by Annmieke Mulders, and a welded rigger’s wire sculpture of a mine pit by Helen Seiver. On the other side is a large muddy-toned collaborative textile piece; a grey and brown sculpture made from Rabbit-proof fence wire and wood by Sally Stoneman; a large print by Sarah Thornton-Smith; and a black and white drawing of birds by Fiona Rafferty. The repetition of muted tones crammed within the space results in a sombre and glum mood.
Some visual reprieve in colour and texture is offered in an adjacent gallery: a hard-edged, bright minimalist wooden sculptural work by Paul Moncrieff; a tightly woven sculptural diptych by Fiona Gavino; and a large, coloured textile piece made from cut squares of recycled clothes. A sense of thematic engagement seems to be lacking here, with limited formal affinities of colour and shape connecting the works rather than considered curatorial/thematic engagement with any pointed ideas regarding culture and/or nature.
Across the way, in another chapel enclave, is Lori Pensini’s work, The Well Spring, an installation in which a tawny-coloured diptych of two unidentified male portraits is combined with a found-object sculpture. On a plinth below the pallid portraits a piece of dried wood is inlaid with a pool of fractured and cracked alabaster clay. Yellow netting, tied in small circular forms to mimic Golden Wattle, is loosely scattered around the work. This mix of materials and visuals reads as unresolved, incomplete rather than restrained, altogether at odds with Pensini’s ordinarily intricate style. Strangely, the didactic label for this installation reads as follows:
“This work explores the significant shift in our landscape ecology from early settlement to current day, and illustrates how over-consumption, displacement and disconnection from our natural environment has contributed to the loss of traditional knowledge of land management […] With ‘rehydration’ of the landscape a key environmental concernment of our times, the simulated dry spring of baked clay reconstructs the importance of a robust, riparian landscape for the protection of flora, fauna, and environmental values and, holistically, for our physical and mental well-being”.
The reason for singling out Pensini’s work here is that it brings to mind an affliction suffered by many biennale artists: the biennale mindset, a tendency to ascribe grandiose and socially determinative meanings to the works exhibited. Perhaps this mindset is owing to the contemporary notion that art can proselytise social change. Regardless, a curator’s responsibility is to thoughtfully engage with artists that have been selected for a biennale, and ameliorate some of the pressures of producing visual art for bombastic exhibitions. When these responsibilities are neglected, it becomes all too apparent in the end result.
Unfortunately, the adjacent gallery space is equally underwhelming and reliant on ideological justification rather than visual impact. Included is a forgettable video work (in which the subject eats or pretends to eat plastic pellets) installed on a glad-wrapped trestle table; woollen weavings exploring an artist’s relationship with miniature donkeys; and a pipeclay and steel ceramic that are diminutive and poorly displayed.
Some works are more successful, such as Holly O’Meehan’s Disguising our Parasitic Tendencies. This work pays homage to the South West Christmas Tree (Nuytsia floribunda), a plant both native and parasitic that attaches to the roots of other plants and is found only in the South West of WA. O’Meehan’s work is site-specific, intimately related to the place in which it is displayed. The angular bottoms of her constructed ceramics are adorned with roots reaching like tentacles and globular forms that resemble plastic Christmas baubles. A muddy gold and green glaze glints with a scintillating attraction, giving way to surprise, horror and repulsion upon closer inspection, as the work seems to wrestle its way out of the soil.
In the same room, behind O’Meehan’s work is Miik Green’s Xylem series: meiosis24 (diptych). Described as “mixed media on aluminium” this dual sheened canvas loosely resembles the circular metallic forms of O’Meehan’s ceramics. This label reads: “before us lies the dust of the open pit mine or the pitted surface of Mars” and alleges that “the viewer becomes an active participant in the work and is at once engaging with and reflected in the piece”. The actual visual forms, dotted silver transparencies on red and cream resin backgrounds, are not sophisticated enough to evoke the reading imposed above: there is not enough variation in colour or texture to suggest any kind of convincing landscape, let alone celestial. Additionally, the label seems misguided. Isn’t the viewer always an “active participant” in any artwork—surely this is inherent in the act of mere looking?
The frustrating over-reliance on ideological explanations and lack of aesthetic attention in the show is best countered by Sarah Thornton-Smith’s print sutra. This six-panelled print, located in the first space, contains organic motifs and an interesting use of colour and skill. At once neat and splotchy, the print is painstakingly detailed with repetitions of tiny incised triangular cuts. sutra evokes a tension between mass-produced conformity and organic linearity, the composition at once both random and controlled. The contrast between the artificially bright colours of the miniscule triangles and the dark pooling shapes is pleasantly appealing. The label claims that a “sutra is a sacred thread”, and that the work represents “interconnectedness and harmony,” a reading to which the viewer can faithfully arrive.
If an ecology is defined as a relationship of living things, one would expect that A Cultural Ecology would emphasise or at least acknowledge these relationships. Disappointingly, there is a distinct lack of considered curatorial connection between or intervention among the works. Troublingly, while the Biennale aims to be diverse, a significant number of artists in it were also selected for the previous South West Art Now, a survey show taking place at BRAG each alternate year. If diversity and contemporaneity is the goal of this exhibition, surely selecting previous and regular exhibitors is antithetical to that aim? Furthermore, if the goal of the show is to acquire work for the City’s collection, surely this would be reflected to the visiting audience. Nothing—neither the overly long didactic wall labels, nor the non-existent exhibition catalogue—identified which of the artists were rewarded with selection upon my visit.
It is worth noting that the Bunbury Biennale is not run on an invitational model: a public EOI is promoted to artists who then respond with a submission proposal. From there, successful entrants are selected to exhibit new works. It is unclear if, and how much, these selected artists are paid, and how many entries BRAG received. Writing for ArtsHub in April 2023, Gallery Director Mike Bianco noted: “The EOI form doesn’t necessarily always have the curatorial authorship I am used to.” It seems that he has made up for this supposed lack of curatorial authorship by creating the upstairs Enmeshment exhibition instead of developing and extending the selected survey artists’ works.
In the above article, Bianco also suggested that the ‘23 Biennale had “taken a fresh direction to embed the voice and visibility of Western Australian artists within global conversations”. Unfortunately, the result is disjointed. Enmeshment, like A Cultural Ecology, is predominantly monochromatic, and feels vague and uncertain. Tucked away upstairs in BRAG’s Ron Middleton Gallery are a selection of disparate works: large prints of a past endurance performance by Stelarc from the 80s; a long, wordy display of tiny photographic reproductions of one of Alan Kaprow’s Happenings from the 60s; photographic documentation of a performance by Rizzy originally held at BRAG; and some accomplished drawings by Erin Coates that were previously shown at the most recent Biennale of Sydney. The Director explained his goal to ArtsHub as legitimisation, to place “what regional Australian artists are doing in some kind of broader global discourse… to contextualise artists in the region as legitimate peers to their counterparts around the world”.
Enmeshment is an odd contrast to the main exhibition. Are the performance prints of Stelarc included as a WA artist or a global peer? How does the long dead Alan Kaprow fit into the mix of contemporary living artists? Unfortunately, this “legitimisation” on behalf of the curator simply comes across as insecurity. As Terry Smith noted in Artforum in 1974, the tension between “a defiant urge to localism… and a reluctant recognition that the generative innovations in art, and the criteria for standards of “quality”, “originality”, “interest”, etc., are determined externally,” is entirely problematic. As Smith says, “Under the first the artist invariably loses, under the second he might win too easily”. Or as he puts it elsewhere: “the art being produced here is the same as the art being produced anywhere else”.
Perhaps the main cause of the various shortcomings is the aggrandising title of “Biennale” itself. As noted in Artnet, “the biennial circuit is fuelled by its own system of demand, hype, and trends”, and “biennials can provide artists a serious valuation and reputation boost”. They even have their own governing body: The Biennial Foundation. The Foundation recognises five biennales across Australia: Adelaide, Ballarat, Fremantle, Sydney and TarraWarra. Formally, Bunbury does not make the list—and looking at those who do, it is easy to see why.
Most of the works here are too subtle in size and scale; hardly the room-filling installations, innovative use of media, or biting considerations of theme one has come to expect from a ‘biennale’. The epitome of this lacklustre delivery was a room of succulents that would be better placed at Bunnings than in an art gallery. This is not necessarily the fault of the artists, although it is severely debilitating to their careers, and cheapens what it can actually mean to be selected for exhibitions of this stature.
The curatorial ambit of this show was severely lacking and made for frustrating viewing. If this Biennale is truly intended to showcase the “latest trends in cutting-edge contemporary art”, then we are doomed. “Cutting-edge” is not a term I would use to describe this exhibition, which is less a brag, and more a flop.
Note: Also comprising the 2023 Bunbury Biennale is Biennale Revisited, an exhibition highlighting artworks acquired from past Bunbury Biennales, and It Woke the Town Up, an independent curatorial project about the 1976 bombing of the woodchip terminal in Bunbury, presented at the Bunbury Museum and Heritage Centre. Neither are included in this review.
Bunbury Biennale: A Cultural Ecology
Selected artists: Alex Winner / Pauline White and Julia Sutton / Louise Wells / Sarah Thornton-Smith / Louise Tasker / Sally Stoneman / Helen Seiver / Helen Robins / Fiona Rafferty / Perdita Phillips / Lori Pensini / Sherry Paddon / Holly O’Meehan / Annemieke Mulders / Paul Moncrieff / Rob Kettels / Sarah Keirle / Pablo Hughes / Susan Hauri-Downing / Jillian Green / Miik Green / Fiona Gavino / Elizabeth Edmonds / John Eden / Ian Dowling / Ian Daniell.
Enmeshment: Artists working with(in) the environment.
Selected artists: Allan Kaprow / Stelarc / Erin Coates / Acid Springfield & Honey Fingers / Amy Youngs / Rizzy
Image credits (all courtesy of the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery):
1. Bunbury Biennale: A Cultural Ecology. (Front) Pablo Hughes, Sky Walker, 2023. (Right hanging) Julia Sutton and Pauline White JUPA, Veriditas, 2023. (left) Annemieke Muders, Intertwined, 2023. (Back wall) Lori Pensini, the Well-Spring, 2023.
2. Enmeshment exhibition, Bunbury Regional Art Gallery.
3. Bunbury Biennale: A Cultural Ecology. Ian Dowling, Its a Tangled Life, 2023.