Ten Thousand Suns: A Conversation

| Mel Deerson & Tessa Laird
 + Malcolm Cole – larger than life (detail) Dylan Mooney, 2024. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. Courtesy the artist and N.Smith Gallery © Dylan Mooney. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

Ten Thousand Suns: A Conversation

Ten Thousand Suns: A Conversation | Mel Deerson & Tessa Laird

After attending the 24th Biennale of Sydney separately, Mel Deersen and Tessa Laird bumped into each other on a tram in Naarm and shared some positive thoughts on the show. Wanting to reciprocate the evident generosity of Ten Thousand Suns, they decided to have a conversation about their favourite aspects of the exhibition. This conversation took place via email.

Tessa Laird (TS): So the 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, just closed. I attended the opening weekend, and I’d been thinking about writing a review, or maybe love letter ever since, primarily because it gave me so much joy, but also because in my subsequent conversations with people who had seen it, I was struck again and again by a lack of generosity in their responses. The overarching sensation I felt when viewing Ten Thousand Suns was precisely a spirit of generosity, and so I was surprised not to see it reciprocated. Everything in the show, it seemed to me, was assembled in a spirit of good faith and joyful, connective meaning-making. I loved the way visual connections were made across artists and spaces, and I loved the way that wherever I went, I was bathed in colour, pattern and a queer, carnivalesque sensibility that could be enjoyed in and of itself. But equally, each work could be revealing of unique socio-political circumstances, struggles and resistances, and all of this was available for viewers in the didactic panels if they wished to delve deeper. For me, it was the perfect marriage between joyous aesthetic immersion and political engagement. So, I was really surprised when I talked to people who saw it as either too political, or not political enough, or who objected to it on aesthetic grounds. I'm not saying that I loved every single work, but I saw numerous works that truly thrilled me, and even with those that didn’t, I could still see why those artists had been selected. I could see the open engagement and overall vision of the Artistic Directors Cosmin Costinaș and Inti Guerrero, and I knew that my least favourite pieces would be other people’s favourites, they didn't have to be mine. So, having said all of that, Mel, it was great to run into you on the tram the other day, and hear that you had a mostly positive experience with the Biennale, and I thought that initiating a conversation with you would be a great way to unpack some of Ten Thousand Suns’ more successful moments. I’d love to know which works spoke to you and which moments of synergy sparked your thought processes.


Mel Deerson (MD): Yes, it was good to bump into you and hear you talk about this—it got me thinking more deeply about my own responses to the Biennale. I think I have low expectations of biennales in general as exhibition experiences; they’re usually so sprawling and the premise so broad that I’m more likely to treat them as a kind of huge supermarket to find a few new artists or artworks that I enjoy. That being said, there were some threads running through the Biennale that I loved.

The main thing I enjoyed was this thread of not needing to do something ‘new.’ I felt like there was an engagement with ‘history’ less as an archive or a topic but as something that lived among us in the now. This was reflected in the way historical works were woven through with contemporary works throughout; this felt quite different for instance from the previous 2022 Venice Biennale central curatorial show The Milk of Dreams, which had historical ‘capsules’ for non-contemporary works. In Ten Thousand Suns, there were works collated from archival imagery or existing footage, works that drew on long lineages of traditional and customary making, and artworks from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates, a series of outtakes and camera tests from his 1969 film that glowed like Persian miniatures arrayed on a series of screens is one example.

TL: I loved having the excuse to watch that imagery again—it’s possibly the most beautiful film of all time. It makes me lament that what's most known about Armenia and its culture today are the Kardashians!

 + (left to right) A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, Infiltrate, SUCK MY CODE VNS Matrix, 1991-1996 (reprinted. 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, White Bay Power Station. Photo by Daniel Boud.

MD: Another example of the archival blending with the contemporary is Panos Couros’ 1988 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras Aboriginal Float, a roughly three-minute grainy hand held video of archival footage of Malcom Cole in Captain Cook drag and the first Indigenous Mardi Gras float, which Couros helped conceive of—joyously hot, funny and political. Other examples of ‘historical’ works were VNS Matrix’s banners, Dumb Type’s performance video, Choy Ka Fai’s Exodus, the drawings by Carrolup child artists, Martin Wong’s paintings from the 90s—I loved this! It felt quietly confident—fuck the next big thing! I also felt a confidence in the prevalence of artworks that operated as rich and joyous material objects, able to be approached on their own terms. The didactics were great, but the works often did much of the heavy lifting on their own or with minimal explanation. That felt generous, to me, even though sometimes that tipped into a sort of flatness—colour and surface and texture taking over and a sameness setting in.

TL: Hmmm, I’m not sure about ‘sameness’, but I have no problem with colour and surface and texture taking over. This seemed to exemplify sympathetic magic to me, the anti-taxonomic promiscuity of patterns and connections!

MD: Yes, good point about this sense of texture and promiscuity of connection! I just keep coming back to the beautiful complexities of Panos Couros’ work, the looped video of footage shot of Malcolm Cole as Captain Cook at the 1988 Mardi Gras parade. Cole and Couros first met at the protests against the 1988 Bicentennial, and then met again at a Mardi Gras workshop, where together they came up with the idea of the float. Cole is dressed as a glorious parody of Captain Cook, wearing a huge blue hat adorned with a pink ostrich plume and a feather boa, a blue coat, a beautiful sparkling red ruffle round his neck, a white curled wig with a cartoonishly large green bow at the back. He is waving a sequined white handkerchief and his face is painted with white dots. Cole is accompanied by Rodney Junga-Williams as Sir Joseph Banks, in a canary yellow version of the costume. They are in a boat painted a dark ochre-colour, with a wavy snake-like pattern on the side, pulled along by a predominantly white crew, and accompanied by various ‘sailors’. Behind the float, the briefest glimpse of a figure in a black bodysuit covered in thick white lines and dots, undulating and twirling, hands and fingers outstretched; it’s like they’re conjuring this vision out of thin air. The float is a topsy-turvy world, the glittering dark side of the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations. Cole dresses as Cook, and by simply being himself, a gay Indigenous man, he sets the whole charade ablaze somehow. It’s like a haunting; he steps into Cook’s shoes and makes him dance. Cook, this figure who haunts the colonial Australian project, is possessed in return by Cole.

 +  Left to right: Christopher Myers, Untitled, 2024. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from Terra Foundation for American Art and generous assistance from James Cohan, New York. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery © Christopher Myers. Dylan Mooney, Malcolm Cole – larger than life (detail), 2024. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. Courtesy the artist and N.Smith Gallery © Dylan Mooney. Orquídeas Barrileteras, Strengthening Deaf Culture, 2023. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. Courtesy the artists © Orquideas Barrileteras. Mariana Castillo Deball, she bends to catch a feather of herself as she falls nr.26, she bends to catch a feather of herself as she falls nr 8., she bends to catch a feather of herself as she falls nr, she bends to catch a feather of herself as she falls 18, 2022-24. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from Institut für Auslandsbeziehunge. Courtesy the artist © Marianna Castillo Deball. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

Two little kids stand in the back of the boat; I wonder who they are and what they remember of the parade, its noise and sparkles, the endless waits, the jerking movement of the boat as it begins to move again. The footage is shaky, hectic—Couros has stepped aside from pulling the float,and grabs a few moments of video. At one point Cole looks directly at the camera. Cole was in the early stages of HIV at the time. As his illness progressed, he left Sydney amidst a haze of stigma and went back to Far North Queensland, and was cared for by his twin brother Robert until he died in 1995. Robert Cole attended the 2024 Mardi Gras dressed as his brother Malcolm, dressed as Captain Cook. Couros’ video loops and loops, an endless party, an endless fierce parade.

TL: I love that you’re focussing so much on the colours here, both because I know that’s so much a part of your practice, and because I think the Artistic Directors deliberately unleashed a chromophilic sensibility on the Biennale. Celebration, carnival, or party as a mode of resistance, is one of Ten Thousand Sun’s chief modalities (OK that’s a pun on Big Chief Demon Melancon’s videos of the Black Maskers in the New Orleans Mardi Gras). Not only is there footage of Cole as Cook, but there’s a giant mural of Cole by Dylan Mooney at White Bay, which I think declares the intent of the whole show (and the sumptuous colour of that work ricochets off Orquideas Barrileteras’ Guatemalan kites, which look like giant parasols, hung high up in the ceiling). (And I love the image of the jaguar flying up in the sky because in Mayan cosmology the jaguar is the “night sun” or how the sun incarnates at night). There’s footage of this year’s Sydney Mardi Gras, too, in the Yangamini collective’s Mapurtiti Nonga (Evil Ass Dreaming), including Tiwi-Warlpiri Sistagirl elder Crystal Love Johnson Kerinauia slapping herself in the face with a pink dildo!

 + Orquídeas Barrileteras Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, White Bay Power Station. Photo by Daniel Boud. Installation view.

I was lucky to catch Yangamini members give an artist talk in the opening week, where they explained that Yangamini can be translated as ‘hole’, which speaks simultaneously to colonial, neoliberal and capitalist extractive practices on Country, and the magic of orifices as holding, concealing, and gifting countless treasures. Crystal Love intoned the unforgettable words “Every hole’s got a soul” which became my mantra for the Biennale, and synched up perfectly with VNS Matrix’s cunt manifesto posters at White Bay… but also spoke to Joel Sherwood Spring’s videos of the interiors of mineshafts (Diggermode, 2022 at UNSW, and Untitled 2024 at White Bay) which bore more than a passing resemblance to colonoscopy videos. In fact, the whole downstairs section of UNSW felt dark and cavern-like; the wall-mural of West-Papuan collective Udeido, a Papuan man in chains in lava-red rage seeming like a layer of hell; and Sherwood Spring’s video playing in a gold painted room, underlining the ongoing extraction of minerals, next to rocks made out of automotive paint accrued over time in Detroit factories: the geological strata of the Capitalocene by Agnieszka Kurant. And, in this dark, cave-like world, there was a piece of woven fabric, a Pallay textile from Bolivia, maker unrecorded, featuring red creatures on a black ground, including a very snazzy bat, which absolutely melted my heart. Why not put a beautiful piece of fabric in a contemporary art Biennale? It happened elsewhere throughout the show, proving that the curators are passionately indifferent to art/craft divides. And bats popped up again at AGNSW in the incredible paintings and ceramics of Francisco Toledo, a Mexican artist who passed in 2019, someone I’d never heard of and one of many surprises: undersung artists, many no longer with us, being given this moment, appropriately to the exhibition’s title, “to shine”.

 +  Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, UNSW Galleries, featuring art by Yangamini, photo by Jacquie Manning.

MD: I’m into your thoughts about the holes. The hole as a cave of wonders, or hell. I adored Sana Shahmuradova Tanska’s series of paintings Those who survived the apocalypse/ The inhabitants of the Tethys, which were created in Kyiv, Ukraine in between taking cover from shelling in a Soviet era shelter, its own kind of hell-hole. The paintings, full of enigmatic suns, stars and swirling figures, feel like a dream vision in the dark, or like looking up from the bottom of a watery cave, through green-blue waters.

But also going back to your mention of the Yangamini collective—I saw throughout the Biennale a consistent space-giving to collective practice or works that complicated notions of authorship. Most of the examples I’ve given above embody this: Is Panos Couros’ artwork the footage of the Mardi Gras float, or his role in the creation of the float itself? Children of the ‘Carrolup Native Settlement’ in the 1940s, forcibly removed from their homes, made hundreds of drawings of the landscape around them as part of a teaching program; many of the children’s names are lost. Yangamini is a guerrilla collective consisting of ‘trans and non-binary First Nations and accomplices’ initiated by Crystal Love. Mapurtiti Nonga includes gigantic hand woven butt plugs to block Santos’ construction of a gas pipeline beneath the Timor Sea; it’s hilarious, and it feels like a given that this is a collective practice. Orquideas Barrileteras’ tissue paper kites too. They’re the first all-female group of kite makers in Guatemala, with 22 members across 3 generations. What I love is that collective practice isn’t a self-reflexive topic here, although it’s important, and present—it’s just how they work, of course. VNS Matrix is maybe a bit different, but their notions of collective practice seem drawn from activist politics rather than Western art historical lineages like relational aesthetics etc.

 +  Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, UNSW Galleries, featuring art by Nikau Hindin, photo by Jacquie Manning.

Maybe this is crystallising something for me, in that I think there wasn’t a huge amount of didactic work in the show, even though lots of it was very clear in idea or approach, and I think there wasn’t a huge amount of institutional critique, or self-reflexive art. I wonder, is that why some people don’t think it’s political? If so, I don’t think I agree. It reminds me of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who is like ‘pointing out the problems in shit doesn’t solve the problems, it’s just one tool in critical/political thinking’. Maybe these artists are just using other tools.

TL: Yes, collective thinking and making as a given, and Indigenous practices where an individual may be representing a collective, were abundant. Down with the Western art hero! Eric-Paul Riege (Diné) and Nikau Hindin (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) were stand-out individual artists, yet they were both working explicitly to further ancestral knowledges, I imagine with the blessings of their communities. Riege creates these outsize sculptures that are part loom, part shuttle, part sheep, and all of it relates to histories of Navajo weaving. But he also makes durational performances as some kind of ancestral being—I was very sad to miss his performance at White Bay which clashed with the Pacific Sisters performance at AGNSW, but a friend told me how mesmerising it was. Hindin has been working with aute (Māori bark cloth), a tradition that had been sleeping in Aotearoa for more than a century. She made beautiful, delicate manu (kites), with such precision that there can be no doubt this artform flies again. Aute is made by beating fibres, not weaving, but many of her painted designs took inspiration from tāniko, Māori weaving that favours bold geometries of triangles and chevrons. Weaving and fibre art was another thread, so to speak, in the Biennale—attested to in the fact that swatches of maker unrecorded fabric kept showing up, but also in the Moana-punk practices of the Pacific Sisters who made costumes with hot pink raffia mohawks, knots and beads; in Nádia Taquary’s Afro-Brazilian knotted and bound belts, which hung like giant necklaces, spilling over with gems and shells; Anne Samat’s amazing structures that looked like hyper-colourful Malay ikat weavings spreading across the wall and floor of the MCA, but were actually constructed out of $2 shop items; and Marie-Claire Messouma Manlanbien’s sewn and embroidered works that looked like circuit boards, nestled into the decommissioned control room machinery at White Bay.

 + Cannot Be Broken and Won’t Live Unspoken #2 Anne Samat, 2023. installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney: Ten Thousand Suns, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2024, rattan sticks, kitchen and garden utensils, beads, ceramic, metal and plastic ornaments, handwoven tapestry, image courtesy and © the artist, photograph: Hamish McIntosh.

But back to the party or carnival as a mode of resistance, Peter Minshall’s Madame Hiroshima costume for the 1985 Trinidad Carnival, shown via glitchy VHS footage, was a fierce and fabulous riposte to the nuclear arms race—a towering, fluffy, death-masked carnival queen. Similarly to Cole, the idea of embodying the source of suffering is a way to reverse its power, to undo the imposed order of things. And of course, there were those wonderful photos of Cole by William Yang, as well as of the young Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre troupe about to head off to the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria in 1976. When I first saw the afros and kaftans, I thought these photos were taken in Brazil. They certainly have an analogous joy to Helio Oiticica’s Parangoles, the capes he made to activate space and community through colour, marrying carnival, abstraction and resistance, works not present in the show but there in spirit. And that makes me think of the Brazilian art of Capoeira, one of many instances in which a martial art gets disguised as a dance—uprising embedded in expressive form. So anyway, all of this reminded me of a question I asked myself many years ago—and that is, what’s the fundamental difference between the Beastie Boys singing ‘Fight for your right to party’ in 1986 and Public Enemy’s sampling and rerouting that message in ‘Party for your right to fight’ in 1988? While the former suggests bratty whiteboy hedonism, the latter is about the Black Panther Party fighting for equality—the stakes are considerably higher. But it’s not just the order of magnitude that’s different. It’s a profound shift kind of like Levinas’s argument that ethics precedes ontology—in the Black experience the “party” or sociality precedes conflict, is the foundational state; in the white experience, conflict is what it takes to create the rupture in which sociality might occur. That idea of the party as the precondition for all expression, including cries for justice, is, I think, what underpins Ten Thousand Suns.

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