The 2018 edition of the Biennale of Sydney features the work of 70 artists and collectives from 35 countries.
Art Radar brings you 13 highlights from the Biennale of Sydney, just days ahead of its closing on 11 June 2018.
The artistic director for the 21st Biennale of Sydney (BOS) is Mami Kataoka, the first Asian curator in the Biennale’s history, an aspect which many find remarkable especially given Australia’s geographic position. Kataoka has been Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo since 2006. Prior to that she was Chief Curator at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery for 10 years until 2002. Over this period she has managed other roles including being the first international curator at London’s Hayward Gallery from 2007-9 and assistant to Stephanie Rosenthal for the 20th Biennale of Sydney.
This year’s biennale theme “Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement” draws connections between quantum physics and the ancient Chinese philosophy of Wuxing (five elements). In the BOS guide, Kataoka explains the concept of “superposition” as
a quantum mechanical term that refers to an overlapping situation. Microscopic substances such as electrons are said to be dualistic in nature; they paradoxically exist in the form of waves and granular particles simultaneously. The state of superposition can be applied to all conceptual levels – different climates and cultures; views of nature and the cosmos; perceptions of Mother Earth and land ownership; readings of the human condition over centuries; the history of modern and contemporary art; and the meaning of abstraction.
The Daoist concept of Wuxing refers to the five elements that make up the universe: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Interaction between these elements govern everything from cosmic cycles to seasons, political movements, life stages and bodily organs. Kataoka writes:
Each element gives rise to the next, either through a process of symbiosis, where one element encourages the formation of the other, or a situation of mutual conflict and antagonism, where one element resists and suppresses the other ….. a diversity of elements come together in a state of repeated collision, collapse and rebirth at each level.
The scope of this theme allows her to approach difficult discourse and offer unusual perspectives. While each work can be appreciated in isolation, it is more valuable to consider it in relation to other works being exhibited, to the venue or through the lens of memory to gain a deeper understanding of the Artistic Director’s intent. The review below seeks to consider some of these aspects. The theme is explored in seven venues throughout the inner city of Sydney – Cockatoo Island, Artspace, Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), Museum of Contempory Art (MCA), Carriageworks, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Sydney Opera House.
Cockatoo Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a complex history. Known as Warreamah by the local Indigenous people who used it for fishing and hunting, since colonisation it has been a convict settlement, shipyard, women’s prison and in more recent times, a cultural site. Works installed on the island cover a variety of themes, from the process of making art and the refugee crisis, to views on nature and the universe.
Carriageworks, formerly a railway yard, is now a major contemporary arts centre. The BOS works here are concerned with landscape. Appropriately the installation has a sense of the sublime.
Artspace in Wooloomoloo has been a site for critical discourse around art and curation since 1995, and the artistic director has drawn on this to present a microcosm of the curatorial concept. At 4A Centre for Contemporary Art, the work of two artists explore migration and community engagement.
The MCA features a number of works that share a geometric quality. Others are concerned with collective artistic production, authorship and historical conflict and outcomes. Sydney Opera House, where the Biennale was inaugurated in 1973, features performance works by two artists that engage with its architectural history, as well as a film preview.
AGNSW, a Biennale venue since the first edition, explores an art history theme. Perspectives on abstract and figurative art are offered, works from the Gallery’s collection are included and the Biennale history itself is also investigated. A wall is inscribed with the names of 1800 artists who have participated in the 21 editions of the Biennale. There is also a major installation celebrating the Biennale Archive donated by Transfield, the Founding Patron of the Biennale, in 2015. Kataoka diligently reviewed the archive in the process of developing the 2018 edition. She led public talks between artists, curator and patrons that tapped into first-hand experiences. These are available on YouTube. A visual display within the Gallery leads the viewer through the various editions with images that capture key themes and iconic moments.
Transfield continued its support of the Biennale until 2014 when controversy surrounding the organisation’s involvement in Australia’s refugee detention centres threatened to compromise the 19th edition. It has been suggested the impact of reduced funding has become noticeable in 2018; there are fewer artists than recent editions, no free ferry to Cockatoo Island, and remarkably no catalogue. This situation, alongside the plethora of international biennales and triennales, (four opening in Australia alone in 2018), has prompted the Artistic Director to ask the question: is it still relevant to have a BOS? This is a confronting question. The city is proud of the Biennale – it has been part of Sydney’s fabric for 42 years and is the longest running event of its kind after Venice and São Paulo’s Biennales. Kataoka’s greatest legacy may prove to be the distilling of Biennale history and the space it opens to consider alternative formats.
Art Radar selected 10 highlights at this year’s Biennale of Sydney.
1. Ai Wei Wei: the humanitarian crisis
It is almost obligatory to head the list of Sydney’s 21st Biennale highlights with Ai Weiwei (b. 1957 Beijing, China). One of the world’s best–known artists and activists, his work provides the much-anticipated element of spectacle. The traffic and social media generated by his involvement alone is a justification for continued public funding of the BOS. Three works by Ai Weiwei are featured, all concerned with the refugee crisis, the subject that has preoccupied the artist since first witnessing the continual flow of refugees to the island of Lesbos. Since then the artist has travelled to 23 nations and conducted over 500 interviews with refugees and humanitarian workers exploring the crisis that has seen over 65 million people around the world being forced from their homes to escape famine, climate change and war. Three works by the artist that relate to this subject are featured in the Biennale.
Law of the Journey (2017) is installed at Cockatoo Island. This work was first shown in 2017 in Prague as a comment on the country’s harsh refugee policy. A 60–metre-long black inflatable boat is packed with the figures of men, women and children. The work is positioned in a constricted space where the viewer is forcibly confronted with a subject that continues to cause great division within Australian society. Another perspective on the work is provided from an elevated viewing platform, a position that offers the ideal perspective for photography and maintaining a sense of distance and detachment from the issue.
Ai Weiwei’s second work is the film Human Flow (2017), premiered in Australia to a packed house in the Concert Hall of Sydney Opera House in the opening week of the Biennale. The 2.5-hour-long epic transports the viewer to sites of refugee journeys in 23 countries. The film reveals broadscale human tragedy and intimate dialogue with the refugees. These scenes are interspersed with others of beautifully framed footage from drones, a disturbing juxtaposition that leaves a tangible impression on the viewer.
A question posed by Ai Weiwei to a humanitarian worker early in the film provided the pivotal inspiration for his third work. When asked what the future holds for the world in the wake of the refugee crisis, the response is along the lines of “if I had a crystal ball I might be able to answer.” The monumental Crystal Ball (2017) is positioned in the centre of the entrance gallery at Artspace in Wooloomoo. Measuring one metre in diameter and weighing around two tonnes, it rests on a landscape of discarded life jackets salvaged from Lesbos. Rather than providing the answer, it reflects the viewer and its somewhat distorted surroundings. The Biennale guide states that Ai Weiwei
feels his work is ideally situated in Australia, a country whose international growth is founded in migration and the movement of unwanted citizens, whose treatment of refugees has been the subject of global criticism.
2. Yukinori Yanagi: on technology’s impact
Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi (b. 1959, Fukuoka, Japan) also has three interconnected artworks in the Biennale, all situated on Cockatoo Island. The Hiroshima-based artist’s concerns focus on the global consequences of technological advancement, a subject he addresses poetically and powerfully.
Icarus Container (2018) draws on Greek myth, Japan’s modern history and memory of space on Cockatoo Island. Installed in the space usually reserved for visually spectacular works, the Turbine Hall, is what appears to be a plain shipping container. At the entrance the viewer confronts a video of a burning sun, a reference to the development of nuclear technology.
Like the mythological Greek labyrinth that confined Daedalus and Icarus, the onward journey is disorienting. What is understood of the space from the outside does not conform to the experience from within. There the container appears to be one dimly lit, long, straight corridor ahead, however, in reality, it involves a series of short corridors that switch and change. The burning sun is continually visible behind, an illusion created by placing mirrors on 45 degree angles. These mirrors are engraved with text drawn from Yukio Mishima’s poem Icarus that describes the experience of ascending high into the sky in a single-engine supersonic aircraft. The poem is a well-known critique of Japan’s modernisation. At the end of the journey is the soaring path to the sky, panelled in mirrors. Like Ai Weiwei’s Crystal Ball, it disturbingly reflects back the viewer.
Yunagi’s other two works are housed in a building at the other end of the island. Here Kataoka plays with memory of space. The building was once the site of the island’s power generation plan. More recently, during the 2010 Biennale, it held a site specific installation by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, entitled Faraday Cage (2010), which explored electricity through images of lightning and objects relating to Gods of Thunder, Thor and Raijin. In 2018 at the end of this long, dark space, Yunagi has suspended a giant eyeball that gazes from left to right. What the eye is seeing is reflected across the iris, a series of nuclear explosions, each producing a unique and horrifying cloud formation.
These scenes are taken from archival footage of atomic tests in the Pacific and Australia from the end of World War II to 1962. The work visualises a powerful message, given Japan’s nuclear history and issues concerning North Korea and the Iran Nuclear accord.
Next door is Little Dud (2016), a replica of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the United States during WWII. It is inconceivable that something of that (small) scale could result in such immediate destruction and ongoing health complications.
3. Khaled Sabsabi: the common heart of spiritualism
Western Sydney-based artist Khaled Sabsabi (b. 1965 Tripoli, Lebanon) has developed an immersive five-channel audio visual work, Bring the Silence (2018) for an abandoned industrial space at the top of the hill on Cockatoo Island.
The ground is covered in woven plastic mats, reminiscent of Islamic prayer rugs. Five screens are staggered throughout the area guiding the viewer through the space in a counter-clockwise direction, the same direction that whirling dervishes move in their iconic dance. Mounted at odd angles, each screen reveals a different camera angle of a constant stream of men and boys of various faiths, Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Sikh, walking slowly around a small shrine. They offer rose petals and incense. The scenes are enhanced by the scent of rosewater permeating the installation.
The shrine was built to honour the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325CE) in New Delhi. The work reveals a ritual, maqam, the customs practised at sacred burial sites. The shrine was erected where he died. For hundreds of years men and boys have visited to seek the saint’s blessing. There is a feeling of warmth and welcome, echoed by the consent given by the shrine’s guardians to share their maqam, aware that it will be viewed also by women. Sabsabi’s work reveals a hidden perspective on Islam and illustrates that the spiritual core of Sufism is shared by many faiths.
4. Mit Jai Inn: revelation in time
In the months leading up to the Biennale, Mit Jai Inn (b. 1960, Chiang Mai, Thailand ) was based at Cockatoo Island creating an installation that evokes his Chiang Mai studio. The result is Planes – Hover, Erupt and Erode, three major works, each displaying different styles and techniques employed by the artist known for his hybrid practice, pushing both the canvas and materials applied to it to the edge of sculpture.
The scale of the work responds to the dimensions of the vast hall. The viewer is minute alongside Planes, suggesting the staggering amount of labour required to produce the work. Long rolls of brightly coloured unstretched canvases intersect across vertical and horizontal planes.
Hover is a series of canvases painted front and back, draped from the high ceiling rafters to floor level, densely covered in splotches of bright, overlapping pigments that have been built up over time, layer by layer. Erupt is laid onto a long table spanning the entire length of the hall. Here the colour splotches seen in Hover have been magnified to reveal pools of vibrant colours built up to form a 3D landscape. On the floor in a shallow canvas-covered pool, Erode, another 3D landscape, is submerged in a sea of water, linseed oil, turpentine and alcohol. These materials are absorbed and consumed with time and will eventually disappear to reveal the finished work.
5. Yasmin Smith: ceramics on Cockatoo island
Yasmin Smith (b. 1984, Sydney, Australia), a contemporary ceramic artist from Sydney’s Paramatta area, has developed a site-specific installation that occupies two places on Cockatoo Island. On the western side of the island, on the foreshore where harbour meets the Paramatta River, is her workshop. Here, members of the public are invited to make small beakers alongside the kiln where their work is then salt fired.
The materials used in this process are locally sourced; the sandstone clay is from nearby Barangaroo headland, while wood used in firing is a mix of turpentine from disused wharves on the island and mangrove wood from Paramatta River, and the salt added during firing is harvested locally by evaporating harbour and river water using methods employed by early settlers. It was the high level of salt in the river water that inspired the title, Drowned River Valley, referring to the rising sea levels pushing salt further inland.
The second site is the old timber drying room in the centre of the island where finished objects are displayed. An informed reading of the surface of the objects reveals a modern history of the sites the artist is investigating. The earthy brown shades on the beakers’ surface encapsulate the unique combination of local clay and harbour salt.
Smith has also cast replicas of the timbers used in the kiln. Each has been coated with a glaze made from its own ash. The off-white colour of the mangrove replica contrasts with the murky brown turpentine. This result that can only be the result of the respective wood ashes used in the glazes. During the firing process the intense heat causes reactions between residual heavy metals present in the wood ash. The brown of the turpentine replicas is due to the reaction of extraordinarily high levels of zinc, an element not present in Australian soils, and chromium. Zinc is an ingredient in anti-foul used to protect boat hulls from marine life, evidence of the island’s history of boat building. Smith’s work reveals a scientific understanding of her environment and impact of modernity on place, the finished work honouring the process of making and memorialising the materials she works with.
6. Marco Fusinato: acts of (free) violence
Marco Fusinato (b. 1965, Melbourne, Australia) is a Melbourne-based multimedia artist and experimental musician. His work Constellations (2015) takes up the entire Anna Schwartz Gallery space at Carriageworks, a white cube situated within the historic industrial site. The viewer enters an empty space and walks to the other side of a diagonal wall dissecting the area in two. On the other side a baseball bat is tethered to the wall by a chain, where the viewer is invited to pick it up and hit the wall, just once.
This act of violence and destruction is not expected etiquette within the confines of a gallery. How the viewer responds to this invitation is a significant element in the work: will they take up the invitation, and if they do, will they hit the wall gingerly or perhaps with humour or anger? Inside the wall are 16 microphones and a concert sized amplifier, meaning any impact has ripercussions, as a booming sound resonates throughout the gallery and beyond into the wider Carriageworks area. On the opening day the wall was a pristine white, but over the period of the exhibition it has become increasingly pitted by the impact of the bat forming ‘constellations’ of markings.
The artist has been influenced by street fighting and objects of violence in films. His work plays with duality: stillness on one side of the wall and action on the other, the tension of silence with noise, and the transformation of viewer to aggressor.
7. Jacob Kirkegaard: the dividing wall
The use of a dividing wall speaks to Jacob Kirkegaard’s (b. 1975, Esbjerg, Denmark) Through the Wall at MCA, where the device refers to the wall that divides Gaza from Israel. It also resonates with a disturbing statistic quoted in Ai Weiwei’s film Human Flow: in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, 11 countries had walls, today 70 countries do.
8. George Tjungurrayi: Australia’s sacred, desert landscape
George Tjungurrayi’s (b c. 1943, Kiwirrkura, Western Australia) Untitled installation is a series of paintings installed vertically and horizontally that seem to hover in space. Against a pitch-black background they create their own landscape. The canvases are saturated in tones of soft pink, orange, yellow and deep red. They appear to shimmer, covered in meticulously rendered, rhythmical swirling lines that emanate from various centres. The optical effects are achieved by building up layers of paint in different tones of the same colour. The style is familiar, it appears to be in the manner of abstract or minimalist art, however the artist is in fact painting the Tingari Dream Cycle. The tones reflect the land and sky at various times of the day, the centres depict waterholes and sacred sites in Tjungurrayi’s ancestral country.
Tjungurrayi was trained in the 1970s by the senior men at Papunya Tula who pioneered the desert painting movement. The artist’s distinctive style emerged in the late 1990s when his brother passed away and Tjungurrayi took on additional custodian responsibilities.
9. Laurent Grasso: filming sacred sites
A soundtrack permeates Tjungurrayi‘s installation. The source is around the back of Tjungurrayi’s work, a film by French artist Laurent Grasso (b. 1972, Mulhouse, France) commissioned by the Biennale. Otto was shot around Yuendumu, not far, in desert terms, from Tjungurrayi’s country. The subject is the same, sacred sites and the spirituality inherent in the land. The film shows an other-worldly, dreamlike landscape from which ghostly white orbs appear and cruise across the country.
While visually magnificent, its premise is complex. Unlike Indigenous communities in more economically viable areas, those in the desert country have had relatively continuous connection with the country for over 60,000 years. Culture has remained strong by restricting access to sacred sites and their relevant dreamtime stories to those who qualify for knowledge. This level of spirituality holds fascination for many outside the community. Grasso spent ten days working with elders to negotiate access to sacred sites. It is unlikely an Australian artist would seek to depict the spirituality of the land without deep involvement with the community. Profiting from Indigenous culture is a sensitive debate. The commissioning of this work illustrates the concept of multiple and sometimes opposing perspectives inherent in the theme of the Biennale.
10. Semiconductor: simulating geological formation
Semiconductor (founded 1999, Brighton, England) was formed by artist duo Ruth Jarman (b. 1973) and Joe Gerhardt (b. 1972). Earthworks (2016) defines the far reaches of the exhibition space at Carriageworks with a long zig zagging screen of brightly coloured, undulating, shifting layers. Commissioned by one of Spain’s largest construction companies for Sonar PLANTA, the work explores nature through the window of science and technology to reveal the unseen, unheard forces at play. The five–channel computer animation is based on the 200-year-old analogue modelling process used by scientists to simulate the formation of the earth’s geological layers. Particles of matter of different size and weight are colour coded for ease of recognition and placed in a glass tank, where movement and pressure are applied to simulate tectonic forces.
Movement in the animation is driven by the sound track. Using scientific equipment for measuring seismic activity Semiconductor measured the sound of explosions detonated to prepare land for construction. They found similar patterns to the sounds of landscape formation – those made by earthquakes, volcanoes and glacial movements. The soundtrack is the result of speeding up the seismic wave and translating it into sound revealing what the artists describe as an original recording of geological events.
Semiconductor have a second work at AGNSW, Where Shapes Come From (2016). During a six–month residency in the Mineral Sciences Laboratory at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural Sciences they explored matter on an atomic scale. The resulting film shows a scientist preparing a meteorite for investigation by slicing it in two. A second screen shows a playful atomic structure forming and reforming to a soundtrack developed from raw seismic data from the Mariana Trench.
Semiconductor’s film is situated alongside a series of work that shares formal qualities with the atomic structures. Sydney Ball’s (b. 1933, Adelaide; d. 2017, Sydney, Australia) Black Reveal (1968-9) and the preparatory drawings explore the sculptural potential of colour and how negative space can be included as part of a painting.
11. Geng Xue: performing ceramic sculpture
Geng Xue (b. 1983, Jilin, China) works within the Chinese tradition of ceramics. Poetry of Michaelangelo (2015) installed at Artspace is a mesmerising film based on a sculptural performance. The screen shows the artist preparing lumps of clay to create a large sculpture. She uses the force of her own body to begin the form, standing and kneeling on it, pummeling it into shape. The process of developing the form is broken down into numbered stages in the manner of an educational video, such as “Stage 2: Form the head”. This pragmatism is tempered by love poems written by Renaissance master Michelangelo.
As a life-sized form emerges from the clay, her gestures change as she squeezes, pinches and strokes it to develop the detail of the man she is creating her own specifications. As she finishes the hands and eyes, there is a slight acknowledgement, a squeeze, a blink. When the form is complete the artist blows air from her mouth into the sculpture causing the chest to rise and fall.
Any sense of sentimental attachment is soon shattered however as Geng Xue takes a potter’s wire and proceeds to dismember the sculpture into parts. Drawing on poetry by the Renaissance master the artist is making connections between this period of cultural growth with the current renaissance taking place in Chinese society.
12. N. S. Harsha: modernisation, mass production and consumerism
Amid the history and archival memorial of the BOS at the Art Gallery of NSW is Reclaiming the Inner Space (2018) by N. S. Harsha (b. 1969, Mysore, India). The 12-metre-long mirrored work appears to represent the universe, a scene of planets, stars and dust. Read from left to right, a cosmic eruption releases matter that swarms across the galaxy. On closer inspection the apparent galaxy is made up of blank, unfolded cardboard packaging on top of the mirror, in which the printed side can be read in reverse revealing packages of toothpaste, soap, medicines and cereals.
The swarming matter is in fact a series of hand carved elephants that have been released from potential extinction to once again take their place. The artist is telling a universal story, the effect of rapid modernisation, mass production and consumerism on a fragile planet. He is also commenting on ‘consumeraj’, a term he has coined to refer to the the British Raj’s social and institutional impact on Indian society.
13. Brook Andrew: a new archive
Brook Andrew‘s (b. 1970, Sydney, Australia) installation What’s Left Behind (2018) greets visitors on the upper level of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Biennale exhibition. Five sculptural vitrines are made from timber, glass, brass and lightboxes, each representing a component of Wuxing – earth, air, water, fire and metal. All are tottering on tapered legs of charred timber. One appears to be upside down, another has a hot air balloon attached, yet another a world globe.
Traditionally the vitrine is a vessel used in a museum setting to encapsulate and demonstrate mainstream historical narrative, however these striking objects literally overturn that. Brook Andrew began working with museum archives early in his career through researching his mother’s Wiradjuri heritage. His practice has engaged with Australia’s history wars, the ongoing debate about events connected with Britain’s colonisation of Australia and whether the process could be termed ‘invasion’ marked by acts of massacre of Indigenous people, or whether it was a more humane process. What’s Left Behind approaches the subject on a global basis.
Andrew invited four other artists – Rushdi Anwar (Kurdistan/Australia), Shiraz Bayjoo (Mauritius, England/Indian Ocean region), Mayun Kiki (Japan) and Vered Snear (Israel USA) – to select objects for display. They were asked to research the extensive collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and consider memory embedded in the objects and alternative narratives they could convey. The objects selected are placed alongside artworks and the story they tell releases the objects from their ideology and presents new contexts.
The 2018 edition of the Sydney Biennale is on view from 16 March to 11 June 2018 across various venues around Sydney, Australia, including Cockatoo Island, Artspace, Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), Museum of Contempory Art (MCA), Carriageworks, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Sydney Opera House.
- Joan Ross wins ACMI’s 2018 Mordant Family VR Commission – May 2018 – Joan Ross wins the second iteration of the Virtual Reality Commission for the proposed work Did you ask the river?
- 7 artists to see at the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art – May 2018 – the 2018 Adelaide Biennial showcases the work of 30 leading Australian contemporary artists and collectives
- A Point of Encounter for Asia-Pacific: Sydney Contemporary 2017 art fair – highlights round-up – September 2017 – the 3rd Sydney Contemporary gathered artists, collectors and gallerists from across the Asia-Pacific region
- 21st Sydney Biennale announces title and artists – July 2017 – the longest-running Biennale of the Asia-Pacific region announces its title and 19 additional artists participating in 2018
- “Duddell’s x Biennale of Sydney. Abstraction of the World” at Duddell’s, Hong Kong – May 2017 – curated by Mami Kataoka, the exhibition explores the structure of cosmic space and the natural phenomena of the world
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