The 20th Biennale of Sydney
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It’s raining in Sydney, and Cockatoo Island has been flooding. But that hasn’t put a dampener on the crowds trooping off ferries from Circular Quay. Over the past decade, the largest island in Sydney Harbour has become one of the city’s iconic venues. Haunted by generations of Aboriginal fishers, and histories of convict labour, reform schooling and wartime shipbuilding, this gaunt outcrop spiked with colonial and industrial ruins is perfect for exploring with mind and body. Wear stout shoes.
Today’s adventure is the 20th Biennale of Sydney. This year the Biennale has bounced back with renewed – if more contained – creative vigour, and with new sponsorship and management. In 2014 there was the damaging controversy surrounding founder sponsor Transfield’s association with the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, and exhibitions that year and in 2012 were, frankly, underwhelming.
The 2016 Biennale, curated by London-based artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal, is a thoughtful, substantial investigation of the ways artists today navigate complex relationships between what is immediate in their lives and what is transliterated through digital media. The aphoristic title, The Future Is Already Here – It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed, borrowed from science fiction writer William Gibson, signals a pronounced political inflection: that we daily encounter the “black mirror” of digital versions of the world in the midst of poverty, inequality and violence.
The bulk of the Biennale is presented in seven “embassies of thought”, a slightly pompous but useful way of grouping disparate works. In her introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Rosenthal goes straight at the issue that erupted during the 2014 Biennale and is even more crucial today: “The 20th Biennale of Sydney reflects on the challenges of immigration politics.” Pointedly, these embassies are not national or physical places but “safe spaces” for ideas, and Rosenthal points to similarities with the rengitj, the Yolngu safe places for outsiders on clan lands. In this spirit, Richard Bell’s tribute to Canberra’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy sits outside the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), acting as a hub for hard but necessary conversations during the opening week, and Archie Moore’s re-creation of Bennelong’s hut in the Royal Botanic Gardens sits both inside and outside official institutions. The largest physical venues are the Embassy of the Real at Cockatoo Island, the Embassy of Spirits at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in the city, and the Embassy of Disappearance at Carriageworks, the multi-arts centre near Redfern Station. The smallest embassy is the mobile stall for Heman Chong’s Embassy of Stanislaw Lem, selling books by the author of Solaris in Polish and in English translations. It’s a gesture that neatly underscores Rosenthal’s privileging of the conceptual over the sensual.
The core idea of uneven distribution is mirrored in Rosenthal’s romance with Sydney itself. Based here since September, she’s put in more time on the ground than most international uber-curators; the city’s major art venues have responded generously, though at the MCA Grayson Perry’s blockbuster still takes pride of place. The Biennale’s useful guide is complete with itineraries, accommodating those travelling by bicycle and on the harbour, and the walking trail from Surry Hills to Newtown is an excellent innovation that takes in the old Mortuary Station on Regent Street, Carriageworks, and a brace of “in-between spaces” where site-specific projects explore local histories. Daniel Boyd’s dazzling mirror piece, on the corner of Vine and Eveleigh streets at the Block in Redfern, faces off with Tony Mundine’s boxing gym, and Keg de Souza’s plastic shelter housed nearby is a base for bus and bike tours of the area.
Cockatoo Island is the place to start, however. It is full of idiosyncratic spaces, both cavernous and intimate, and Rosenthal has treated them with respect and restraint. In the great Turbine Hall, South Korean artist Lee Bul’s site-specific installation Willing To Be Vulnerable seems like a visitation from another planet; she masters the enormous space with plastic sheets, orange-striped canvas and a silver dirigible in a carnival of improbable insubstantiality. On one gigantic hanging sheet floats a sketched row of oversized unicyclists, arms linked: a poignant image of precarious connectivity that perfectly evokes the work’s title and the exhibition’s premise.
Successive works fulfil this opening promise. Close by, esteemed choreographer William Forsythe has filled a huge room with hundreds of swinging plumb bobs, offering the Biennale’s most exquisite pleasure: after parking your bag at the door, you dance through the moving field to the other end and back again. It’s unexpectedly exhilarating, as simple as it is rich, and the first intimation of this Biennale’s emphasis on performance, especially contemporary dance. Elsewhere on the island, Londoner Emma McNally’s commanding charcoal drawings float above the harbour in a room filled with natural light: landfall meets schematics in a series of perfectly sited mindscapes. Just around the corner, Samuel Beckett’s self-described “interesting failure”, the 1965 Film made with the elderly Buster Keaton, plays in a little curtained room. Cevdet Erek’s sound work booms majestically from large speakers installed in colonial sandstone ruins, perhaps recalling cannon fire or maybe just playing with the rhythms of life on the harbour.
Cockatoo Island is memorable, but this entire Biennale has profited from good old-fashioned curatorial nuance: interwoven images and ideas speak to each other, within venues and across them. At the AGNSW’s Embassy of Spirits, a forest of painted larrakitj (funerary poles) by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, from the innovative artistic community at Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, inhabits a darkened space that suggests the bush at midnight; nearby, inspired by visiting Yirrkala, Taro Shinoda has plastered a grand double-height room with white clay and red ochre to create a meditative space. The Embassy of Spirits offers reflection: spend an entire hour with Sudarshan Shetty’s mesmeric video of mysterious appearances and disappearances in an abandoned Indian quarry, then another with Palestinian Jumana Manna’s exploration of fragmented musical histories and rituals in her complex homeland. Both are unforgettable.
In the Embassy of Disappearance at Carriageworks, Rosenthal’s call-and-response methodology struggles with the gigantic space. Some connections are crisp: a virtual reality tour of Fukushima by the collective Don’t Follow the Wind gestures to Aura Satz’s compelling staccato film about women’s labour in the ballistics industry; in a dialogue about decay and rebirth, Jamie North’s crumbling concrete columns, with their redemptive plant growth, signal to María Isabel Rueda’s slide projection of an overgrown house in Colombia; and Mike Parr, master of appearance and disappearance, participates with a great floor-based grid of drawings complemented by a video, Burning Down the House, that documents him setting fire, during the opening week of the Biennale, to a paired grid of prints at the other end of the site.
Matching pairs and triads of works link up across the entire Biennale. In one example, Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen, whose photographs, videos and documents of oppression displayed at Carriageworks are as compassionate as they are shocking, speaks across time and place to the UK-based duo Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, whose installation at Woolloomooloo’s Artspace invokes the density of politically contested cities, and counterpoints the 2008 terror in Mumbai with performers who appear to be rehearsing resistance to the violent use of state power in the UK. These challenging projects take on knotty histories that are not easily untangled.
Every Biennale offers a snapshot of the state of contemporary art: as the title says, the 2016 Biennale is looking at a future that is already here. In many ways Rosenthal’s edition is an impeccable guide, with its emphasis on intense dialogue with artists (transcripts of roundtable discussions are included in the catalogue), political commitment, intellectual eclecticism and diversity (around half the exhibitors are women, plus there is a solid contingent of Asian artists and a very strong presence of indigenous Australian artists). Does all this sound like damning with faint praise? It’s not meant to. This is a very substantial, thoughtful show, and its quiet stringency is a considerable tonic after many recent glitzy, high-octane exhibitions. Yet it’s not for everyone: gritty and tough, austere and lyrical by turn, nearly always implacably sober – and yes, I found myself longing for an outbreak of anarchism, perhaps, or sheer life-giving silliness, but that’s not the way of the current political turn in contemporary art. (New Zealander Dane Mitchell’s whimsical homeopathic installation at the AGNSW – simultaneously offering the means of remembering and forgetting – was a welcome antidote. Serious but sensuous, and sprightly.)
Above all, the presence of performance, especially dance, marks this moment in contemporary art. More than any other I have seen, Rosenthal’s Biennale embraces performance works that are necessarily ephemeral. The opening program featured an extraordinary raft of works, including Justene Williams’ marvellous collaboration with Sydney Chamber Opera to re-imagine the 1913 Russian futurist opera Victory Over the Sun and French choreographer Boris Charmatz’s unforgettable manger with a troupe of 13 dancers. This emphasis on performance has continued: Mella Jaarsma’s Dogwalk is performed weekly at the AGNSW, Brown Council is appearing in Redfern on selected Saturdays, and Lee Mingwei’s Guernica in Sand – already seen at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in 2008, but sitting perfectly in Carriageworks’ Embassy of Disappearance – found its final form in late April.
The Biennale remains a signature project for Sydney. Yet even after more than 40 years, Australia’s largest visual arts event is fragile, a product of combined energies and sheer goodwill as much as fluctuating funding. In 2014, the Biennale’s attendances were more than 600,000, and while most of these were local, the Biennale is also of incalculable significance internationally. It brings Australian social and cultural interests to the world and puts Australian artists into global frames – performers in the world, rather than exceptional bystanders watching from a safe distance.
Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.