When you enter the Biennale of Sydney’s opening room at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the first thing that will draw your attention is an enormous pencil drawing nearly two storeys high.

Paul Noble’s drawing is a strange magic realist world of captivating odd detail. One is not sure whether this is a forgotten alchemical drawing from the middle ages or something that might grace the cover of a sci-fi fantasy magazine. The oddity, the inability to place it is undoubtedly part of its pleasure.

The conjuncture of the amazing, the odd, the horrific, the psychotic is a trademark of Richard Greyson’s Biennale exhibition.

Luke Roberts a.k.a. Pope Alice’s contribution to Greyson’s theme of the fantastic is just around the corner from Noble’s.

It’s a wild kitsch room, part-Polynesian, part-extraterrestrial.

One of the things about Luke’s room is that it oscillates between high and low and between good and bad. It is a basket case museum, says Craig Judd, the Biennale’s public programs manager.

It has everything from poodle totems to Warhol homage cookie jars.

Pope Alice is a grand performance by the Brisbane-based artist that seeks to challenge us to burst out of our stereotypical bubbles. Planet Earth is the cosmological equivalent of a provincial town, screams one of the Pope’s poster images.

It is based on the 18th century wonder cabinets or wonder rooms.

The original rooms of wonder were developed around virtuosic objects made by nature or the human hand. These objects were usually large enough to be held, to be contemplated. In terms of the Biennale, that’s another thematic that is operating in the show -“ miniature worlds, compressed worlds, how we imagine that we can control, we can order, we can truly know something that is so small, Judd explains.

One of the most entrancing and wonderful exhibits is that by British artist Susan Hiller.

To describe a darkened room of tiny hanging speakers with whispered stories emanating from them hardly does Hiller’s startling work justice.

The whispered narratives relate UFO sightings and other weird experiences. They are might-have-been strange yarns.

It’s about those dinner party-stopping conversations where no one can prove or disprove your experience: I have heard, I have seen, I have felt, are immediate rational responses to the world but what is being seen, heard and felt is inexplicable, they’re beyond reason, they’re beyond the world, Judd explains.

The Biennale also has a series of public programs. The last major talk is by internationally renowned critic Celeste Olalquiaga who will talk about the role of relics in the age of visual excess.

Olalquiaga will talk about what she perceives as the peculiar involution of the sense of touch in Western culture. Starting with a history of the use of relics, describing their eventual fall from grace, and focusing on the aura which provides dead objects with a certain transcendence, Olalquiaga proposes reasons and ways in which natural remains have been fetishised through the ages. She believes this is particularly relevant now, when technology is rendering nature and the body into relics from a not-too-distant past.

 

(The world might be) fantastic is on at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of NSW and Customs House until 14 July.

Celeste Olalquiaga’s talk Look but don’t touch: the role of relics in an era of visual excess takes place at the MCA on Wednesday 19 June at 6:30pm. Tickets are $15 and $10 -“ phone 9252 4033 for bookings.

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