Born 1878 near Kiev, Russia Died 1935 in St Petersburg, Russia

Kazimir Malevich is one of the most influential figures in modern art. He lived and worked through a particularly turbulent period in twentieth-century history, witnessing both the October Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent rise of socialism. While his early paintings depicted Russian landscapes, religious scenes and agricultural workers, Malevich soon made a dramatic break into non-objective art. His experimentations led him to unveil Suprematism, a bold visual language characterised by stark colours and geometric shapes. The work that best epitomised his radical break with the historic parameters of painting is also arguably his most famous: Black Square on a White Ground, 1915. Within the 20th Biennale of Sydney, Malevich is present in a number of guises, which, in various ways connect with Black Square. Two years prior to the appearance of this painting, Malevich famously designed sets and costumes for Aleksei Kruchenykh’s Futurist (anti-) opera Victory Over the Sun, which was first performed in St Petersburg in December 1913. Australian artist Justene Williams, in collaboration with Sydney Chamber Opera, reimagines this as a live performance over the opening weekend at Cockatoo Island, complete with a newly composed score and radically revised libretto. The stage sets live on throughout the exhibition as an installation, incorporating deconstructed costumes and props, as well as video documentation of the live event, further reworked by Williams.

According to Kruchenykh, the basic theme of the opera was ‘the victory of technology over cosmic forces and biologism’, which also entailed a ‘victory over the old accepted concept of the beautiful sun … over romanticism and empty verbosity’. [1] While largely nonsensical, the libretto is essentially focused on the capture of the sun in Act 1, which leads to the birth of a future world, or ‘Tenth Country’, in Act 2. The strange characters that feature wear brightly coloured, oversized costumes, made with cardboard and wire, which, along with the backdrops, extend Malevich’s wish to articulate a new sense of theatrical space and form.

Facsimiles of the costume and stage designs are displayed as part of the Embassy of Translation, with its consideration of history as one source of material among others. Malevich linked the origins of his non-objective pictures to the opera’s backdrops, where he claimed geometric planes first appeared in his work, as a precursor to Black Square and Suprematism in general. The curtain that opens Act 2, where the focus shifts sideways to a vision of the future, freed from the weight of the past, for instance, consists simply of a white triangle within a dark central box. This moment of emptiness, which Charlotte Douglas has identified as the captured sun, is also a nod to the ‘Tenth Country’ described in the libretto, where all that is familiar has disappeared: ‘the backcloth emphasises that it is a spatial and visual tabula rasa, which is “liberated from the weight of the Earth’s gravitation”, experiencing “life without the past”, and about to become “like a clear mirror”.’ [2] By the final scene of the opera, Malevich has made an image that is three-dimensional: this is a new reality, one that is confusing and meaningless.

For Malevich, darkness offered an entry into multidimensional reality – the fourth dimension beyond the three to which our ordinary senses have access – where past and future, cause and effect, all become relative. Perhaps it is possible to draw a connection between this idea and twenty-first-century thinking about the increasingly blurry division between virtual and physical reality. In this context, Black Square is reconsidered in relation to the black mirror of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian television series, represented in the now-ubiquitous screens of our smartphones and computers, and the vast space of the internet.

[1] Cited in Christina Lodder, ‘Kazimir Malevich and the designs for Victory Over the Sun’, in Rosamund Bartlett and Sarah Dadswell (eds), Victory Over the Sun, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 2011, p. 178. [2] ibid., p. 189.