BoS Report Card: Pass or Fail?

Posted on July 31, 2010


Giant light bulb from Hiroshi Sugimoto's installation in the power house on Cockatoo Island, 2010.

If you expect every piece in a big group show like the BoS to blow your mind, disappointment is inevitable. We might hope for both quality and quantity in this supposedly world class event, but it really only takes one great artwork to make any show worth while. Or is this standard to low? Maybe we have the right to expect one terrific piece per venue?

If the minimum requirement is one amazing piece at each venue, I’d have to give this BoS a fail.

But if just one in total  is enough then I’ll give the BoS an A+. I needed one, but I got three:  the ribald sculptures by Louise Bourgeois who never lost her lust for life, Roxy Paine’s giant metal spore, which was wonderful despite the best efforts of paranoid organisers who attempted to diminish its power with ugly barricade fencing, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Faraday Cage, which managed to take on the overwhelming architecture of Cockatoo Island and come out on top.

Of these three, Sugimoto had to work the hardest. Cockatoo Island is a fantastic place and a lousy location for art. Most of the art barely makes a dent in the island’s thick atmosphere. As a venue, Cockatoo Island puts its own spin on Russian-American colour field painter Jules Olitski’s off hand and over quoted quip, “Sculpture is the stuff you trip over when you are backing up trying to look at a painting.” On the island, art of all genres is just stuff which gets in the way of appreciating the overwhelming spectacle of industrial decay on display.  The Art is not only superfluous, it’s almost annoying.

Sugimoto overcame this problem by making a site-specific piece. By using the old power house, a vast space filled to bursting with mysterious equipment and the biggest, craziest light bulbs imaginable, Sugimoto made his experiments with electricity seem like the work of a genuine mad scientist, not just dilettante dabblings. Filled with the crackling buzz of electricity, Sugimoto’s installation feels like a sci-fi, film set laboratory; it’s easy to imagine a more tech savvy Dr Frankenstein hard at work, or perhaps a reincarnated Michael Faraday, the 19th century expert in electromagnetism who lends the piece his name. Sugimoto made the island work with him instead of against him. It makes you wonder why more BoS artists didn’t rise to the challenge.

Tracey Clement

The Biennale of Sydney finishes August 1, 2010.

Posted in: The Good