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Eureka! Discovering a democratic Biennale in Ballarat

The moment when Julie Collins realised a disused bacon factory on Eureka Street in Ballarat was going to be available for the inaugural Biennale of Australian Art must have been sensational. It must have felt very exciting and then very daunting. And it must also have given Collins the sense that this Biennale was meant to be – and was actually going to happen.

The sculptor/curator/consultant is the force behind the new regional project which opened on September 21 and runs through until November 6. Along with her husband Derek John (a steel fabricator whose family has been in Ballarat for five generations), Collins had the mad idea of creating a regional-city Biennale some nine years ago, and must have used every ounce of her determination, experience, diplomacy, ingenuity and optimism to achieve it.

The quality of works, the extraordinary range of venues, the exuberance and commitment that is so clearly on display here, all deserve praise and admiration. But only someone who has lived and worked in a regional city can, I think, get near to understanding what Collins and her supporters have pulled off. It’s bold and full of life, messy around the edges with a strong heart and soul, which is exactly what an arts event should be.

It’s possibly too ambitious, the quality of the work uneven – like all such biennales.  The catalogue book is full of typos, and was probably rushed. But my reading of the Biennale on a visit this week was that the ambition is backed wonderfully well with hard work, generosity, expertise and care. It feels like the artists as well as the viewers are respected and the biennale’s intention is to look after both with maximum effort. 

There is something democratic about this BOAA – which is apt, given this is Ballarat.

It’s bold and full of life, messy around the edges with a strong heart and soul, which is exactly what an arts event should be.

The bacon factory is just around the corner from the museum at the site of the tourist drawcard Eureka Stockade. Using abandoned industrial sites has long proven felicitous for art exhibitions – rough walls, cavernous spaces and the encrustation of time are terrifically congenial, particularly for installation art. But this is very special. If you happen to be someone who finds animal slaughter for human consumption ethically challenging, in the George Farmer building, you’ll be bristling immediately you enter. By the time you’ve toured the artworks – well, you’ll know you’re alive, that’s for sure. 

Letting performance sculptor Ryan F. Kennedy loose in the bowels of this building to enact some private ritual in what I think must have been the killing room was certainly bold and the result is rather memorable…

ryan f kennedy xinstalls Sapians in the George Farmer building
Ryan F Kennedy installs ‘Sapians’ in the George Farmer building

It feels like a game for grown-ups, to be sure, when you enter the building and the volunteer guide explains to you that there are 25 exhibits, take care where you walk, and when you go downstairs be extra careful as it’s creepy down there. But it’s a serious game, and, while I watched people doing that thing which is very much the common way to “view” exhibitions – quick scan, maybe take a selfie, move on, chatting about where to have lunch and what Derek said to Susan and is the kitchen reno finished yet – I also had a couple of real conversations with other visitors ABOUT THE ART!!!! Weird, but true. We couldn’t help ourselves, chuckling at each other’s reactions to finding ourselves feeling moved and elated by what we were experiencing. 

BOAA is restorative for a visitor who may have lost faith in contemporary art. It feels real, and important, and enlivening, without being preachy or exclusive. (This is in spite of the artist statements, which – where they aren’t marred by typos and other errors – are mostly full of artspeak banalities and strings of nonsense, but BOAA isn’t alone in indulging contemporary art’s cursed misuse of language.) 

Best of all, BOAA plays out not just against the backdrop of a beautifully proportioned regional city but invites us up and down the streets and inside the buildings. Some of the art responds directly to the spaces and to the city’s history: others are independent of all that. And while it does feel a little bit like there’s one of everything from the current art-school-inspired range of contemporary art, that’s part of the charm. 

To give you an idea of the range, in the well-respected Ballarat Art Gallery in the city’s centre, there’s a beautiful work by Justin Sims that is technically intriguing and aesthetically appealing (if a little disorienting and even perceptually dangerous). Walk a little way down Lydiard Street, and a building that is one of the heritage spaces usually occupied by business or government but currently empty, houses a range of artworks including a pack of camp dogs from the Aurukun artists. This pop-up venue – like all of the spaces utilised – has works of wide contrast, so every visit offers a quick survey of arts practice and artist preoccupations. 

Ballarat and its region are well represented too, and that it doesn’t feel parochial is testament, I think, to the sincerity energising the network of people who have been involved in this project. 

I hope I’ve conveyed a little of what makes this inaugural Ballarat biennale so interesting and attractive, even if I’ve rather overemphasised the superb atmospherics of the George Farmer building and what a boon it is for an art show to have such a redolent run-down space available just a stone’s throw from Ballarat’s centrepiece tourist destination at the Eureka Centre. There’s work, too, in St Andrews, not far from Ballarat Art Gallery, and a sculpture walk around the very fine Lake Wendouree. So there’s a lot to see with very little effort. 

BOAA is restorative for a visitor who may have lost faith in contemporary art. It feels real, and important, and enlivening, without being preachy or exclusive.

But I’ve saved something special (and very odd) for last: one of the venues at BOAA is the now anodyne-sounding Ballarat Welcome Centre, home to the Regional Multicultural Council. It was previously a convent and looks like it may also have been used as a school. Over the road is the former St Alipius Christian Brothers Primary School, now a Parish Hall; you can’t miss St Alipius if you’re approaching from the city centre because the front fence is covered in ribbons to show support for the children abused there by Catholic priests. 

So this stretch of road in Ballarat is very important to the community, and the big red convent building which now houses artwork for BOAA, is not without resonance. You climb stairs to rooms that are haunted by history, austere spaces linked by corridors where the voices have not quite faded. Finally, after installations including a dazzling display of “phototactic organisms” (which respond to light with “religious zeal”, the artist Jenny Crompton tells us), you come to the convent’s ugly little chapel, fitted out with hard pews and a stubby little marble altar. Inside the chapel BOAA has installed Louise Paramor’s “Divine Assembly”, seven sculptures she calls assemblages, made out of coloured plastic. 

boaa xxme at convent photographing Jenny Crompton's Phototaxis
Jenny Crompton’s ‘Phototaxis’ at the former convent

A two-metre high phallic-shaped, gently wilting assemblage with a knotty mess of black tubing at its crest is the exception to the otherwise white and brightly coloured sculptures. In this space, at this time, it’s certainly memorable.

Main image: Louise Paramor’s Divine Assembly, seven sculptures she calls assemblages, made out of coloured plastic. 

The Biennale of Australian Art in Ballarat runs until November 6: information and tickets at boaa.net.au.

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2 responses to “Eureka! Discovering a democratic Biennale in Ballarat

  1. This review is marred by booster-ism BUT it does touch on the very real problems of current Contemporary Art and that is to be admired.

    1. Thanks. I know there’s a danger of sounding too positive, but truly this Biennale is interesting in many ways. Small cities say a lot of boosterish things about culture, some of which are true.

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