Gerald McMaster is best-known for his work as Canadian art curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but his next project will take him 9,000 miles away to Sydney, Australia. McMaster will act as co-artistic director with Catherine de Zegher for the 2012 Biennale of Sydney, the 18th such Biennale since the event’s inception in 1973. The Biennale of Sydney, which occurs every two years, showcases contemporary art by approximately 100 artists from all over the globe.
McMaster discussed his work on the Biennale and the importance of cross-cultural art exhibitions on Friday evening in Loew Auditorium for the seventh annual Dr. Allen W. Root Contemporary Art Distinguished Lecture.
McMaster and De Zegher first worked alongside each other at the Art Gallery of Ontario, when McMaster curated a Native American art exhibit while De Zegher curated a section on European art. After realizing that they shared a similar vision in organizing museum exhibits, they decided to collaborate for the 2012 Biennale, marking the first time the Biennale has ever been under joint directorship.
McMaster was prohibited from revealing a complete list of the artists involved in the 2012 Biennale, since the formal announcement will be made on Feb. 29, 2012. Instead, McMaster began his lecture by showing slides from the most recent 2010 Biennale, “Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age,” directed by British curator David Elliott. McMaster discussed specific works that he felt embodied the ethos of the Biennale festival.
“Australians thought they were so far away from everything, so they brought the art to them,” McMaster said. “Now there’s this juxtaposition of art from around the world with art from Australia, and it really gives us a chance to figure out who we are.”
To illustrate his point about cross-cultural art, McMaster discussed the work of Skeena Reece, who performed “Raven On the Colonial Fleet” during the 2010 Biennale. In the performance, Reece wears a corset and skirt embroidered with traditional symbols of tribes from the western coast of Canada along with a feathered headdress from the Plains culture. A projection of “The Godfather” (1972), which culminates with Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept his 1973 Academy Award for Best Actor, served as the backdrop for Reece’s performance. Brando turned down the Oscar in 1973 in protest of how Native Americans were treated by Hollywood.
Although much of the art showcased in the 2010 Biennale was made by indigenous artists, and while McMaster, who is of Plains Cree and Blackfoot descent, specializes in Native American art, McMaster said he dislikes classifying artists solely by their heritage.
The structure of the Biennale reflects this aversion to classification: While other biennales tend to be organized by region, the Sydney exhibit is organized by theme.
“This allows people to look at the world in total instead of in national pavilions,” McMaster said.
McMaster brought the possibilities of cultural and temporal overlap to the forefront when he discussed “Faraday Cage,” an installation by Hiroshi Sugimoto at the 2010 Biennale. The piece was composed of a long, ascending staircase, flanked on both sides by photographs of electrons. The staircase led to a statue of a 16th century Japanese thunder god. Aboriginal artists performed a traditional thunder dance on the steps of the installation, adding complexity to the work.
The contrast between the modern world and traditional artistic practices served as inspiration for the 2012 Biennale theme, McMaster said.
“We have to figure out what’s going on today, and what was going on yesterday,” McMaster said. “We have to ask what are we experiencing and going through?'”
Before settling on a theme, McMaster and De Zegher met with both established and up-and-coming contemporary artists to gauge which issues are most salient today. McMaster said he has noticed a rise in collaboration among younger artists.
“The world is going through some magnificent change,” McMaster said. “We are all connected to everyone.”
They chose the theme “All My Relations,” which is meant to represent humanity’s relations to the earth in the context of globalization.
“It’s an invocation, addressing both the animate and the inanimate, and that in this time and in this place we are in the presence of everything,” McMaster said.
The work of approximately 100 participating artists will be displayed the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the 2012 Biennale. Cockatoo Island, an abandoned industrial site in Sydney Harbor, will also be used for the exhibition.
Both old works and newly commissioned works are slated to be shown.
The 2012 Biennale of Sydney will take place from June 27 to Sept. 16. Among the artists announced so far are Nipan Oranniwesna, a Thai artist most well-known for his 2007 piece “City of Ghosts” depicting the topography of major cites drawn with baby powder; Subhankar Banerjee, an Indian photographer whose work depicts caribou migrations and oil exploration; and Australian Lyndal Jones, who uses an old house in Avoca, Australia, as a medium for her art.