It could be argued that it makes perfect sense for a temporary exhibition with a water theme to focus on the process rather than the product. The most famous line of Heraclitus is: “You cannot step into the same river twice,” and a Biennale that takes its title from a stream is more concerned with the changing forms of art, not “timeless” ambitions. Compared to what we do find in museums.
There is a powerful sense in this biennial that artists are not the central focus. This is implied by the way Roca likes to call them “participants”. Rather than the romantic ideal of a creative genius who bows to nature to his will or mines for symbols that reflect his mood, the show attempts to let nature speak for itself. One of the curators’ sources of inspiration has been the worldwide campaign to give legal rights to rivers, and even “personalities”. Recognizing that rivers cannot be freely exploited is the first step towards taking responsibility for our environmental vandalism. Six rivers are included in this Biennale as “participants”: Etrato, Baka, Birrajung/Yara, Boral, Buramatta, Napo and Vilcabamba. In each place they are represented by videos of a native speaker whose life is closely intertwined with the life of the river. It is not so different for someone making a statement in court.
This is just one component of a show laden with innovations. At least not the catalogue, Revus: A Glossary of Water, which can be read as an independent publication. This book is printed on a variety of papers, obtained from other jobs. It includes a variety of text and images that relate to the exhibition in both direct and tangential ways.
The curatorial originality extends to the pairing of works and locations. The Museum of Contemporary Art never showed anything low Contemporary compared to the Canovindra fish fossil, which is 365 million years ago, in the Devonian era, when life began to migrate from the sea to the land. The larger fossil shares the show with works such as the drawings of the Inuit artist, Kawawo Manumi, which celebrate a true symbiosis of humans and nature; and the tree study of Abel Rodriguez (Mogaje Guihu), an individual from the Colombian Amazon.
Not too long ago, objects like this were never considered suitable for international display, but Brooke Andrew’s Biennale broke down barriers in 2020, and this exhibition will create a gap between the work of First Nation artists and their more professional peers. makes no difference. Jugalbandi is exposing. When we look at the images of famous figures like Kiki Smith or Matias Duville, their take on the natural world seems even more raw, more saturated with mythology, than the small, systematic photographs of their indigenous co-exhibitors.
Except for Parramatta, which has only a few exhibits, one can see the entire Biennale over the course of a day, walking from the cutaway to Pier 2/3, the Art Gallery of MCA, NSW and the National Art School. It’s all worth trying to see, although if one has to choose between AGNSW and NAS, the latter is much stronger.
The difference between this Biennale and many of its predecessors is that it is not just a fashion show featuring rising and established stars of contemporary art, but an inspiring attempt to re-imagine our damaged relationship with nature. It was only expected that Roca would feature a high percentage of South American artists, but as Australians see relatively little art from that part of the world, it has proved to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the show. This Biennale has a special feature: a sensitivity Which is beyond appreciation of individual works. It is undeniable that Roca and his team have attempted to do something worthwhile, and in a field of contemporary art where values are largely determined by money and publicity, this is indeed rare.