The 19th Biennale of Sydney, opening on March 21st, has become a lightning rod of controversy because of its presenting sponsor, Transfield. Transfield is a multinational corporation which operates mining, construction, transportation, and defense businesses. What’s raised the ire of the art world is specifically Transfield’s contract to maintain island-based detention centers for immigrants seeking asylum in Australia.
Art And Industry Aligned
Since 1992 Australia’s government has maintained a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers. In the law’s current form all non-Australians, without a valid visa, are to be held at offshore compounds to determine the validity of their asylum claim. The detention practice has been called out by Human Rights Watch as unjust under international human rights and refugee law with a 2005 formal inquiry finding over 200 cases of wrongful detention, at least two of which were held for over five years without cause. Amnesty International, in a report published in December of 2013, called the conditions of the camps “prison-like” with stifling heat and denial of sufficient water and medical care commonplace.
Amnesty International Australia’s National Director Claire Mallinson said of the detention practice, “This system of harsh conditions and humiliating treatment is a deliberate effort to pressure people to return to the desperate situations they have fled from. Australia is directly responsible for this deplorable and unlawful combination of arbitrary detention and inhumane conditions.”
Does Patronage Change ‘Art’
The intersection of the often politically left art world and such a controversial sponsorship has called into question the very nature of art patronage in the 21st-century. Historically, art has been a luxury paid for by those in financial or political power to showcase their status. A walk through any of the world’s great art museums will reveal room upon room of portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons whose names are largely unknown when contrasted against the fame of the artists who captured their images. The relationship between artist and sponsor has often been an uneasy one, famously showcased by Michelangelo painting Pope Julius II’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, as a hell-bound soul with his penis being devoured by a serpent in the “The Last Judgement”; Direct retribution for his calls to censor the Sistine Chapel frescoes.
Political factions also try to control culture through the arts. The recent film “The Monuments Men” and the related documentary “The Rape of Europa” tell the real-life story of World War II allied forces tasked with reclaiming priceless art treasures that the axis powers seized. Under Hitler’s direction, if Nazi Germany were to fall the irreplaceable works would be destroyed.
More recently, in 2001 the Afghan Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, giant cliff-sculpted moments which weathered the harsh desert conditions for over a thousand years, claiming, “We are destroying the statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue”. Since the Afghan war, the current government, in partnership with UNESCO and other foreign organizations, has committed to rebuilding the Buddhas.
Art has the dubious distinction of representing a culture, and the ability of art to shape perception is understood by those who want a say in how their culture is recognized. The stakes are high for both artists and patrons. Around the turn of the century the balance of power started to shift. With digital printing, e-commerce, and the ability to reach a worldwide audience through digital publications we’ve seen politically charged artists like Banksy rise to mainstream commercial success. Although the vast majority of working artists earn their livelihood through grants, corporate sponsorships, academic patronage, and public funds, the conversation started around how the art community should deal with situations like the Sydney Biennale is a sign that things are changing.
Can Patronage Change The Patron
Personal convictions are important to me, and detention is a sore subject with my extended family. My uncle by marriage was raised in a Japanese internment camp and that’s now part of the history my children will inherit. My gut told me to bristle at the thought of people participating in an exhibition that is funded by a business in the detention industry, but after my initial shock wore off I saw those who have been selected as being in a position of power. They have the tools to use the money and exposure given to them to be subversive. If they feel strongly about their convictions they have the power to make a statement using the resources given to them by the very industry that they are in disagreement with.
In 2011 I had the privilege of speaking in Sydney alongside artist Ian Milliss. One of the topics we covered was art patronage in the context of protest. He shares a similar perspective on the opportunity posed by the biennale situation.
“it is not just that the camps exist or that a company with a very generous and decent history of involvement (not just in the arts but also in civil society issues) has suddenly taken on a contract that horrifies many in the art world. The problem is that we need to convince the wider australian population to understand both the real cause of refugee arrivals and also to recognise that the problem is about to become so huge because of climate refugees that these are really pointless solutions”
Ultimately, whatever happens at this year’s Biennale of Sydney, the conversation that it’s sparked will have long-lasting implications for the future of institutional art and how it’s funded.