Flat White

The barbarians of the Biennale

22 March 2020

10:58 AM

22 March 2020

10:58 AM

In a word, the Barbarian is discoverable everywhere in this, that he cannot make; that he can befog or destroy, but that he cannot sustain. — Hilaire Belloc

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection is one of the finest in Australia, and the roughly one and a half million visitors that come to gaze at its works each year, come to gaze primarily at the wealth of Australian impressionists, European classicists, romantic landscapes and more on display in the grand halls of the classical Walter Liberty Vernon designed building. 

Yet those quaint, unenlightened visitors who hoped to be elevated by the great works of the collection will, for the next few months, as part of the 22nd Sydney Biennale, be ‘decentred, challenged and transformed’ by the Nirin exhibition (‘Nirin’ is the Wiradjuri word for ‘edge’, as in ‘this exhibition is so edgy’). Many of the great works of The Art Gallery of NSW will be covered up and drowned out by noise in an attempt to ‘challenge dominant narratives and share Indigenous knowledge’.  

Not content with their containment in the unfrequented exhibition spaces dedicated to ‘contemporary’ works, the barbaric organisers of the Biennale have jealously ‘carved into’ the more popular medieval to twentieth-century galleries. 

With the kind of mandatory iconoclasm that so tediously fills so many contemporary art exhibitions, great works such as W C Piguenit’s The Flood in the Darling (1890) will be shrouded from public view with black curtains. This is Madagascan artist Joel Andrianomearisoa’s There might be no other place in the world as good as where I am going to take you (2020), and these ‘fabric interventions’ — we are to understand — ‘constitute a playful counter-architecture’ in which ‘categorisations’ are ‘transcended’. What they actually constitute is a simple censorship of the art most people came to see. Just as the Taliban showed when they blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a great work of art shames the inadequate observer. Far easier for the post-modernist to cover up the offending article so that his inadequacy might not be observed.  


The marble version of Frederic Leighton’s An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1891), described as a ‘sculptural masterpiece’ of its time, is another victim of the iconoclasm. It is here surrounded by crudely carved faces of wood and miscellaneous ‘found’ rubbish, with nails hammered into them and penises sticking out in all directions, as part of Haitian artist Andre Eugene’s Lavi & lanmò (Life and death) 2020. Juxtaposition being one of the sacred tasks of the modern artist; Eugene seeks to make the ‘world understand that Voodoo is the soul of the people of Haiti’ through gathering rubbish from around Sydney and transforming it into mutilated totems of Gede Zozo, the ‘penis spirit’, which surround Leighton’s Athlete to imbue it with ‘broader cultural, spiritual and political meanings’. 

In the hall next to where hangs Keeley Halswelle’s Non angli, sed angeli (Not angles, but angels)‘ (1877), which depicts the sad beauty and pathos of angle slave children in Rome, the words ’N—ER, N—ER, N—ER’ ring out. A vast screen displaying viral videos collated by Arthur Jafa, as part of his The White Album (2018-19), show crass viral videos that ‘construct a portrait of the USA and a racialised view of the complexities of ‘whiteness’, thus missing the point of Halswelle’s allegory entirely. 

If one can avoid the amplified sounds of The White Album, one’s ears are met again with the droning chant of ‘Tlingit’ native song echoing through the rest of the gallery, which accompanies a large video hanging in the main hall of a youth break-dancing. Despite the constant drone rendering viewing almost impossible, this work is best pondered in relation to Edgard Maxence’s The Book of Peace (1913) which depicts medieval women singing quietly and modestly from a book with a detached air of beauty and grace. 

The first Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Eliezer Montefiore, believed: 

The public should be afforded every facility to avail themselves of the educational and civilising influence engendered by an exhibition of works of art, bought, moreover, at the public expense. 

This vision has been colonised by the organisers of the Biennale, who now, in a ‘series of activations and creative partnerships’ with such august institutions as the Blacktown Native Institution, the Parramatta Female Factory, the Bankstown Poetry Slam and the 4ESydney HipHop Festival are using their taxpayer-funded grants to break out of their self-isolation, attacking the very art which provides the only justification for their payment. 

Edward Gibbon wrote of the Gothic sack of Rome that, while respecting the churches and the outward symbols of the state, the Goths nevertheless melted down the great statues and works of art for their precious metals. Like those who destroy the things they do not comprehend, the post-modernists of our own time have taken over the seat of our own culture, and attack that which they can’t match; some of the greatest works of beauty, pathos and technical skill in Australian and international art. 

‘Nirin’ runs from March 14 to June 8.  

Admission is taxpayer-funded (free). 

Illustration: Victoria Royston.

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