What's going on?... Brook Andrew's Jumping Castle War Memorial might look like a leftover from a child's birthday party but it represents "those often forgotten peoples who were the victims of genocide worldwide".With the Sydney Biennale opening next week, Tim Elliott explains what to make of the strange sights emerging around the city.
Ladies and gentlemen, brace for impact - contemporary art approaching! It's Biennale time and Sydney is again facing an onslaught of cryptic visions and avant-garde posturing, of modern art both brilliant and banal.
For the uninitiated, those who have never done a fine arts degree and wouldn't know Jeff Koons from Jarryd Hayne, the Biennale is always a cause for minor consternation. After all, with their immersive installations and post-punk neo-Brechtian operas, these Biennale folks have a lot of big intellectual balls in the air and this year is no different.
Running from Wednesday to August 1, the 17th Sydney Biennale features 166 artists from 36 countries in venues as varied as the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Royal Botanic Gardens and Cockatoo Island. Taking as its theme ''The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age'', the works include mounted prints, live performances, video works and giant collages. There are camouflaged beehives, toy grenades and, yes, even a few paintings.
As with most creative journeys, a little suspended disbelief goes a long way. But what are we to make of Brook Andrew's Jumping Castle War Memorial, a children's bouncy castle whose plastic turrets contain skulls that represent, as Andrews puts it, "those often forgotten peoples who were the victims of genocide worldwide"?
And what are you supposed to think as you watch performance artist Marcus Coates, accompanied by a stuffed buzzard and a trombone, channelling spirits from the underworld? Is he serious? Is a jumping castle really art? What, exactly, is going on here?
"People have a tendency to ask, 'What does that mean?' " says Anthony Bond, a contemporary art specialist and director of curatorial services at the Art Gallery of NSW.
"My first response would be to stop worrying about what it might mean and think about what it makes you feel. Then you can move on from there to more complicated ideas."
Bond says there is "no useful definition of contemporary art", other than saying it is art that people are making now. But since at least 1917, when the dadaist Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to a New York exhibition, the art that people are making "now" can and does involve, quite literally, anything. Duchamp was satirising traditional artistic values; his point was that art could be anything, as long as the artist declared it to be art.
This proved to be a powerful idea, one that influenced everyone from the French postmodernist Yves Klein, who in 1958 exhibited an empty room, calling it The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, the Void, to the German performance artist Joseph Beuys, who in 1972 swept up rubbish from Karl-Marx-Platz in Berlin and displayed it in a glass case.
As Andy Warhol once said, "Art is whatever you can get away with", a suggestion that has been taken to heart by the likes of Piero Manzoni, who defecated in cans and, yes, called it art, to the English artist Richard Long, who since 1967 has been going for walks in the woods and calling it sculpture.
But if contemporary art can be anything, then what makes it good? "Like any art, from cave paintings onward, it has to have genuine expression," John Kaldor, a former board member of the Biennale of Sydney and the man behind Kaldor Art Projects, says. "It has to have meaning for the time it's created. It has to deal with the issues of the day and it has to be inspirational."
The fact that much contemporary art is somewhat less than inspirational is a function of time, Kaldor says. "Throughout history there has been lots of elimination; the bad art has fallen by the wayside and we are left with just the good stuff. Today we are seeing the works of everyone, more or less, without the selection process of history."
Without history then today's audiences are left to wade through a dizzying array of contemporary works, diverse in nature, not to mention quality, a world of hybridity and pluralism where artists marshal whatever medium - used condoms and cow foetuses, dirt or diamonds - in order to do their thing. Beauty, it seems, is optional.
"Beauty is part of it, but it is not everything," says the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. "We live in a complex and sometimes ugly world and contemporary art reflects that reality."
Given its complexity, such art often relies on explanation, or what critics often disparagingly refer to as "rationalisation".
For instance, contemporary artists do not make art; they "respond" to psycho-social realities. Their work is invariably a "meditation on" something or other. And when they are not meditating on something, they are "exploring" it. In fact, they do so much exploring that you would think they were Christopher Columbus. A meditating Christopher Columbus.
"What annoys me," the painter Tim Storrier says, "is that the writing that one thinks should be useful in understanding the often complex ideas behind these works is in most cases utterly incomprehensible, a kind of Orwellian artspeak that doesn't add to the enlightenment of the layman."
Macgregor concedes that there is often an "intimidatory atmosphere around contemporary art, the way you are made to feel that you know nothing about it." Reading up about an artist might alleviate this feeling, she says, but it is not obligatory.
"In fact there a level with contemporary art where you are on your own. It's like a journey, and journeys are full of risk."
So, welcome to the Biennale, and don't forget to pack your toothbrush.
CRYPTIC VISIONS AT EVERY TURN
The Russian artists known as AES+F present The Feast of Trimalchio, an erotically charged ''animated panorama'' set in a spa with music, naturally, by Beethoven, on Cockatoo Island.
The Australian cabaret trio the Tiger Lillies offer up Cockatoo Prison, a ''post-punk neo-Brechtian'' opera, on Cockatoo Island.
Australian Fiona Hall paints 20 beehives in camouflage patterns in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Jennifer Wen Ma projects images of China's mythological monkey king onto manufactured clouds outside the Opera House.