SYDNEY — THE Biennale of Sydney is Australia's largest exhibition of international contemporary art. More than 100 artists from 35 countries are represented in an exhibit called "The Boundary Rider." The show is housed in the imposing, traditional Art Gallery of New South Wales and in other venues around the city.
The boundary rider is a rugged, folkloric figure who traveled remote areas caring for the fences that defined the borders between cultivated land and wilderness. The theme of the show is an investigation of conceptual and cultural boundaries and their transgressions.
The exhibit of French artist Orlan, "The Flesh, the Text, and the Languages," at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, certainly transgresses comfort boundaries. Visitors squirm and turn away as they watch a film of the artist's plastic surgery and liposuction on neck-craning overhead TV monitors. She lightens the drama with monotone commentary on skin, mortality, and self-image. Her high-speed scene of a nurse laboring under a ludicrously oversized urn of flowers give it a feel of the Marx Brothers meet " M.A.S.H."
Elsewhere was a quieter humor. Gallery attendant Derek Barson is his own exhibit. His green plastic guard's chair is inside a plexiglass cube, and he has his own sign on the wall. (The day I was there, he wasn't.)
"The Simulated City," by Dutch native Jeffrey Shaw, allows you to experience being the boundary rider. In a small, darkened room, a young attendant with a straw boater and vaguely Victorian clothes rides a bicycle bolted to the floor. His pedaling transports you through "city blocks" of computer-generated, three-dimensional-looking block letters shown on a screen at the front of the room. Turning the handlebars shifts him away from the streets, over a body of water, toward a dark and ominous sky. Suddenl y, the film stops as the rider, who turns out to be just a visitor, decides he's had enough and departs. Another visitor starts a new journey.
THE Bond Store, another venue for The Boundary Rider, situated in the original convict-built area, The Rocks, explores the idea of people being inside and outside of society. A major exhibit from the United States focuses on the tension between whites and undocumented Latin-American workers in the Southwest. Putting a human face on both the immigrants and the inhabitants who resist them, the exhibit shows a film strip of a white couple and a black woman complaining about illegals "ruining the neighborh ood." Shoes are strewn around the floor, some filled with dirt, or concrete, or decorated with broken glass.
Australian artists Anne Mosey and Dolly Nampijimpa Daniels juxtapose a homey, domestic landscape (fridge, sink, table and chairs), complete with Aboriginal artwork, with more elemental bush quarters: A large sheet of tin propped against tree branches protects several neatly made, but dirt-covered beds on the ground. A billy pot awaits tea, and entertainment is a deck of cards. Despite the spareness and the dirt, the scene has a quiet sense of completeness.