One week prior to the Biennale of Sydney’s closing date (September 16), chief executive Marah Braye confirmed to the Sydney Morning Herald that visitor numbers for this edition will top the previous record of 517,000 achieved in 2010. A figure of 550,000 so far has been suggested with one week yet to go. Even though many critics have been less than complimentary of the current biennale the Herald further speculated that given the fine weather Sydney is currently enjoying, the final tally could reach an impressive 650,000.
While the conceptual framework of the 18th Biennale of Sydney (BoS) has become bogged down in worthy but dull theorizing, the works that seem to have resonated with visitors are those with an interactive component. This was certainly confirmed when ArtAsiaPacific revisited Cockatoo Island over the event’s penultimate weekend. Access to Philip Beesley’s touch-sensitive Hylozoic Series: Sibyl (2012), was being tightly controlled. However the visit also confirmed that the venue, a mix of heritage industrial architecture and staggering harbor views, had proved simply too much for artistic directors, Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, with spaces and vistas left unfilled.
Earlier in the Biennale’s run, AAP arranged a joint interview with both directors, however de Zegher was a no-show at the meeting, which further fuelled rumors circulating in Sydney of friction having developed between the two in recent months.
McMaster, who has spoken to AAP several times in the run up to the BoS, looked physically drained and slightly apprehensive during our scheduled interview in the café of the Art Gallery of New South Wales just a few days after the opening of the Biennale. He was at a loss to explain his colleague’s absence and had no idea where she was and why she wasn’t with us. Although a Biennale insider subsequently told AAP that this was not the first time de Zegher had failed to show at a preplanned event.
The 18th BoS is the first in its 39-year history to have joint artistic directors. When asked if collaboration equals compromise McMaster was diplomatic. “Yes and no,” he said and continued, “You have to defend your choice or the choice you are making leads to argument. There has to be struggle. You are like a couple in the wilderness and you have to survive and the experience leads to a new look on life. Catherine has some really strong ideas.”
The directors have known each other for 20 years and have worked collaboratively in the past, and most recently at the Gallery of Ontario in 2009 during the museum’s installation of its collection in their Frank Gehry-redesigned building. However, lately de Zegher and McMaster have been noticeably spending time apart. McMaster and de Zegher were not seen together at the artist and sponsor’s party on Cockatoo Island with McMaster in the company of his wife and the Hollywood actor, Hugo Weaving.
Did the collaboration lead to friction with de Zegher? McMaster’s eyes shift around the café before answering, “I see where you are going with this. Well, answer that for yourself. We have one exhibition.”
While the Biennale is in fact a single, unified exhibition, it is also one that John McDonald, Australia’s leading art critic writing in the Sydney Morning Herald described as suffering, “. . .under the weight of pretentious theorizing. . .”
But McMasters defends his own and his colleague’s writings in the dense exhibition catalog.
“Writing about the Biennale establishes connectivity. Everybody can see but defining how you see is something anchored in different cultures. You have to establish relationships with what you are looking at. That is the nature of contemporary art. You have to learn to read the codes. That is what writing about contemporary art and theorizing does,” McMaster replied.
The friction, if it exists, might go some way toward explaining the somewhat patchy nature of the current edition of BoS, its inconsistent quality of work and poor use of space on Cockatoo Island and elsewhere.
As to whether McMaster and de Zegher are still friends, McMasters was equivocal in his response. “Collaboration is difficult. It is not a war, not a life or death thing. We had a healthy difference of opinion.”
Would he do it again? McMaster was direct: “Something like this takes a lot out of your personal life. This was two years of my life. It takes a toll on family and I wouldn’t put them through it again. I have a small family and I would rather hang on to them.”
Catherine de Zegher and the BoS both issued a “no comment,” when approached by AAP in connection with this article.