Louise Bourgeois died this week at the age of 98. If you want to see why the work produced by this tiny Frenchwoman living in New York became increasingly relevant as the century rolled over, you can go to Sydney, where her psychosexually charged sculptures and gouaches steam away in the 17th Biennale.

Or go to the Jensen Gallery in Newmarket, where one small etching shows the emotional power she could pack into a line.

Don't go to the Auckland City Art Gallery, though - it's off somewhere in a hot-air balloon.

The congruence of the Sydney Biennale and the Auckland Triennial, as will happen every six years, raises questions about why institutions do such shows and whether Auckland needs one, or needs one in the current format.

Chris Saines, director of the Auckland Art Gallery, says the triennial was started 12 years ago because the gallery thought it needed to put a recurrent show of international and New Zealand contemporary art in its calendar.

It has had a different curator each time, alternating between staff and outsiders. This time it's the gallery's contemporary curator, Natasha Conland, who ostensibly has put together a show exploring "the ongoing possibilities for adventure and risk in art".

Saines believes it is the best triennial yet. He says visitor numbers are up, and their comments are very positive. "This is a triennial in which a curatorial premise which is metaphorical and poetic is translated into a meaningful collection of work."

I'm wondering if he's describing a different show from the one which leaves everyone I talk to distinctly underwhelmed. Not that many people know it's on. Apart from an extremely ugly poster pasted around the city, Auckland seems to be putting no effort into telling people it's on. There's no buzz, no snap.

In the line-up of people you have never heard of and will never hear of again, there are no Maori or Pacific artists (apart from an opening-night performance by the ever-risky Shigeyuki Kihara), so the evolution of those unique streams in New Zealand contemporary art will go officially unremarked for six years.

The budget is a fraction of what Sydney has to spend - Saines believes the bill for the 4th Triennial will come in at about $700,000.

But Conland's contrived rubric can't hide the fact that there's no spectacle, nothing much to look at, no "wow" factor.

In Sydney, Cai Guo-Qiang suspends nine cars from the ceiling in what looks like the animated sequence of an explosion.

In Auckland, Robert Hood lays all the shredded components of a Toyota in a neat array, art too lazy to get off the floor.

There are reasons for bringing in outside curators for such contemporary shows - contacts, vision, mana.

Sydney hired David Elliott, who had a two-decade career as director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England, before setting off on an international career which has included heading the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Tokyo's Mori Art Museum and Istanbul Modern.

His curated exhibitions have included big themes like the relationship of art with totalitarian regimes, and art and culture in post-communist Europe.

Before the Sydney Biennale opened, I had the opportunity to ask Elliott how a biennale is different from any other big exhibition of contemporary art.

"Biennales take place every two years so they really have to be current, they need to look at what's happening now," he says. "Now, because I happen to think, and I'm not alone in this, that we are going through a period, a very long period, of being at the end of the European Enlightenment and facing a very different kind of world in which power and knowledge are dispersed in different ways, so the theme of the biennale is about that and also about how it is now.

"These are not amazingly new things but they are becoming increasingly critical as the previous political and geopolitical structures break down."

The twin threats of nuclear Armageddon and climate change cast a shadow over the times.

Works like the 360-degree video panorama The Feast of Trimalchio by Russian collective AES+F, or Isaac Julien's nine-screen film Ten Thousand Waves, tackle such global issues, or issues of globalisation, in a spectacular way.

Elliott says there should be an element of spectacle in a biennale, as well as smaller moments, like the three beautiful paintings by Iranian Shirazeh Houshiary in an alcove at the MCA.

"No doubt a lot of people will go past those quite quickly. They're abstract. That's okay. They might go back and have another look. Other people will get it. You've got to balance these things in a big show like this to make Towards the end of the Enlightenment

WORTH IT: David Elliott says the expense of the Sydney Biennale is part of being a world-class city.PICTURE / WILKsome sense. Sydney is a big brash city and it really needs something to slap it across the face so it will take some notice." That's the logic for putting the huge welded stainless steel Neuron by American Roxy Paine out front of the MCA where it can be seen from ferries coming into Circular Quay.

"If you want the big audience, the big audience actually has to know it is going on. Because they are not going to read what you write or what I write," Elliott says. "What they will do is look at the telly and maybe prick up and say, 'What's that?'

The biennale is free, including the ferry to Cockatoo Island - set aside a day just for that alone. Auckland charges $7 - and you should be out of there in time to beat the parking warden.

In illustrating his theme, The Beauty of Distance: Songs of survival in a precarious age, Elliott felt compelled to include work by Australian Aboriginal and other indigenous artists.

"All that work is there on grounds of quality. It's not the same quality but it's good art. It's complex, it's sophisticated, it's well done, it's total."

Being so close, biennale curators will grab New Zealand artists. Elliott was familiar with Colin McCahon's work (and includes a stunning painting in his side-exhibition drawn from the works in the MCA collection), but took a couple of weeks across the Tasman to scout out the territory.

He seems pleased with the piece Brett Graham made for the show, a Russian scout car covered in whakairo in the way Maori used to carve the stocks of their muskets.

"It's that ambivalence about his work and this sort of reflection on minorities and terrorism, the way these people are looked at from outside and the particular history that Maori have against the British that I find very interesting," Elliott says.

He was also looking forward to meeting photographer Yvonne Todd.

"She's very good. This kind of New Zealand gothic fascinates me. It's the most gothic place I've ever been, really Twin Peaks, the whole country. They all look normal, but what they are doing behind locked doors, God."

Elliott steered clear of the history lessons which have become part of other contemporary art shows, apart from including the late American maverick Harry Smith.

"He's a kind of patron saint or regimental goat. He's there for metaphorical reasons," Elliott says. "People ask, 'When did contemporary art become a level playing field?' He's one of the people who were thinking about, writing about, making work about the idea of a modern vernacular, of being within modernity but also aware of the vernacular from the 1940s, so that is really why - someone who could make avant garde movies, be aware of eastern religion, of shamanism, drugs everything, and folk music, he was one of the people who changed the culture."

Elliott talks of turning ideas on their head, of the end of colonial distance through mass travel and communications. "We're all a long way from somewhere or close to somewhere.

"The other thing is looking at the Enlightenment. There's the light side of the Enlightenment but there's the dark side of the Enlightenment and for every encyclopaedia you have a prison or a panopticon, both based on the ridiculous premise that one culture, one person, can know, see, possess everything, control everything.

"The other thing is the museum, the encyclopaedia, and looking back to the cabinet of curiosities, which I'm not seriously suggesting as a model, but things which come in for delight and wonder and interest and horror, just to have a more open view. You can't know everything but just enjoy it on its own terms and what you don't like, don't bother with.

"There's no shortage of good stuff. That's not an issue. This is a kind of story or series of stories put together in different places and the work is both reacting to the actual site it is in and the theme of the exhibition and first and foremost it is itself, and all these different elements come together."

Elliott concedes the biennale costs a lot to stage, but it's part of the cost of being a world-class city.

He says Australia "needs to get the message that Sydney is its biennale". Perhaps New Zealand, less flying time away than Adelaide or Perth, should start thinking the same way.

The Sydney Biennale continues until August 1; the Auckland Triennial ends on June 20.