Let’s Change It All: The Biennale and Transfield Part Ways
This Wednesday, four artists – Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray - joined their colleagues Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt to announce their withdrawal from the Biennale. Today, in one of those rare turns, the artistic statement yielded immediate consequences. There wasn’t the announcement of a series of “conversations” about the situation, there wasn’t the resolution to “think critically about the future” of the biennale. The Biennale cut its ties with Transfield. What’s more, the chairman of both the Biennale and Transfield, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis – whose father Franco created both institutions – ended his 14 year streak at the helm with a letter of resignation.
What’s interesting in this is not just that the protest worked. It also brought to light a few particularly intriguing details withheld earlier, namely that Transfield Holdings – much bigger than Transfield Services, the company it uses to manage its detention center – isn’t just a corporate sponsor; the Belgiorno-Nettis family founded the biennale. Transfield is one of the major sponsors of a number of art institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sculpture by the Sea and Accessible Arts, a program aimed at fostering creative expression within the community of those with disabilities. The Transfield Foundation provides grants to “groundbreaking arts organizations,” with an explicit statement of support for the arts in all forms. That said, the billion dollar contract for detention centers built to enforce Australia’s laws were enough to give up a biennale over.
We’re still waiting to hear what’s next for the Sydney Biennale, which is due to open on March 21, when, amongst other activities, Hubert Czerepok is supposed to present a performance titled Let’s Change It All.
Et tu, Manifesta?
It didn’t take long for the same people posting news about Transfield to switch gears to Manifesta. As the drama over the Crimea continues to unfold (somehow only getting more complicated, not less…), so has the international art community’s resistance to Manifesta 10, which has already been the subject of many of protest due to St Petersburg’s laws against homosexual propaganda. Curator Kasper Koenig had seemed to weather the latter, dropping hints of a smart show that focused on body politics by narrowing in on the body, speaking politically through the most indirect means (and artists like Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas and Vlad Mamyshev-Monroe). The biennale was due to announce a full artist roster later this month, but now it finds itself besieged by a new set of protests, resolving to boycott the event until Russia ends its illegal occupation of the Crimea.
You can find the Change.Org protest here.
Manifesta’s Victor Misiano appeared on Canal Dozhd to answer questions as to whether or not a letter like this could make a difference. He notes that the letter is not aimed at the Manifesta Foundation, but rather addressed to the curator and the participating artists, asking them to each make the decision for themselves whether they want to participate under the current political atmosphere. As we have learned from the Sydney situation, this may be the most effective strategy. Whether it will work for this particular case – if one or two artists withdraw, Manifesta still has the entire Hermitage at its disposal – remains to be seen.