Diverse and thought-provoking: Zalehah Turner reviews the 20th Biennale of Sydney

Willing to be Vulnerable Lee Bull 2015-6, Embassy of the Real, Cockatoo Island, 20th Biennale

Displaying the work of over 83 artists from 35 different countries, in a diverse range of mediums, the 20th Biennale of Sydney is an impressive display of contemporary art’s power to transform the surrounding space and immediately engage the audience in thought, contemplation, and discussion. Appropriately named, Embassies of Thought, the Biennale’s seven major exhibition spaces, include Cockatoo Island, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Carriageworks as well as, several ‘interstitial’ or in-between spaces. All address the theme ‘the future is already here- it is just not evenly distributed’, a quote attributed to science fiction writer William Gibson, as related to concepts ranging from the real to the spiritual.

According to Art Director, Stephanie Rosenthal, “The Embassies of Thought in the 20th Biennale have been conceived as temporary settings without borders, representing transient homes for constellations of thought.” With the themes of each venue inspired by their individual history and the in-between spaces exploring the distinction between the virtual and the physical, key concepts, not only of the work of William Gibson, but the Biennale in general, the work of the artists explore important concerns of today and encourage the participants to do the same.

Rosenthal suggests that, “We’re asking visitors to consider our interaction with the digital world, as well [as] our displacement from and occupation of spaces and lands.” She stresses that all though many of us were experiencing a heightened sense of the digital within our physical spaces, those on the other side of the Digital Divide, were dealing with extremes in poverty as well as, social and political problems.

Of Cockatoo Island, home to Embassy of the Real, Rosenthal claims that “the artists selected for this Embassy explore neither the digital nor the physical, but the space where they both overlap- an in-between space.”

Employing reflecting metallic surfaces, glass, plastic and light as well as, material, Lee Bull’s futuristic installation, Willing to be Vulnerable certainly utilises what Rosenthal claimed was the best metaphor for the Embassy of the Real: ‘the mirror’. Immediately impressive, the site-specific work occupies the vast 1640 square metre industrial space of the Turbine Hall and references the utopian visions of early 20th century modernity from a post-modern perspective. South Korean artist, Lee Bull claims that, “Our plans about Utopia are undoubtedly going to fail but [that] doesn’t mean we should stop dreaming about it” and striving towards it.

While, close by, choreographer, William Forsythe engages the audience in an interactive dance, as the participant moves instinctively between the spaces of elegant, swinging pendulums in Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time. If completed, the journey inevitably leads one to the smooth, fluid curves of Camille Henrot’s bronze sculptures and the absurdly monumental MadeIn series by Xu Chen, both of whom work in mediums that are well suited to the space with its disused industrial remnants, original sandstone walls and dark history.

Untitled Lip Sync # 225, the one off performance of boychild on opening night, Ming Wong’s 24-channel video work, Windows on the World [Part 2] and A Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names by Korakrit Arunanondachai all equally engage the audience with digital mediums, installations, and performance.

Stephanie Rosenthal points out that, while the artistic work is spread across various venues, each with their own conceptual theme, there is an interconnectedness between the spaces, particularly, concerning certain work. For instance, the original sketches for the costumes for the 1913 Russian futuristic opera The Victory Over the Sun by Malevich are on display at the Embassy of Translation, the Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition, as part of the Biennale, Justene Williams and the Sydney Chamber Opera will perform an interpretation of the opera at The Embassy of the Real. Rosenthal claims that for the MCA, “the primary focus [of the] Embassy is on modes of working that revisit historical material and address how this material can be translated into a language appropriate for the twenty-first century.”

As with all of the Embassies, Rosenthal’s interest in both visual and performance art is obvious. In one of Adam Linder’s ‘Choreographic Services’, Some Proximity, Linder and Justin Kennedy respond to the space around them at the MCA, while reading from the childlike writings of Holly Childs scribbled on paper and tacked to the walls around them. Downstairs, Parade, a cinematic adaption of Linder’s earlier work, itself, a reinterpretation of the 1917 experimental ballet of the same name, performed by Shahryar Nashat plays on a loop. Outside, the walls are decorated with Wall Carpets by choreographer, dancer and textile artist, Noa Eshkol.

However, as well as, exploring the concept of translation within art and performance overtime and their relation to history, the Embassy of Translation addresses the problematic nature of the history of the land on which it is situated. A series of six new paintings by Sydney-based artist Daniel Boyd depict Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal man who was active in the fight against the British colonisation. As well, existing as one of the Biennale in-between spaces in the MCA forecourt, Richard Bell has created Embassy, a restaging of the original Aboriginal Tent Embassy from 1972.

Further work that addresses the Embassies and their relation to the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Embassy of the Spirits. Multidisciplinary artist, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu of the Gumatj people has created an installation of tall wooden poles with detailed patterns and texture from her mark making in a dimly lit space. As well, Savage, Gutchen, Oui-Pitt, Griffiths, and Gaemers of the Erub Arts, working with the conversation group GhostNets Australia, have reclaimed a fishing net and decorated it with traditional weaving techniques with their beautiful and delicate work, SolWata. Surely, Rosenthal could have worked with the first peoples to commission something similar to SolWata, at the threshold of the Embassy of Spirits rather than, the colourful threads of Shelia Hicks’s Transforming the Column, which is thoroughly lacking in any deep spiritual connectedness, particularly to this land.

Interestingly, the work that best expresses the concept behind the Embassies of Thought as Rosenthal’s “safe spaces for thinking” is Abstraction of Confusion by Taro Shinoda, itself, a response to the deep spiritual and emotional conflict within Australia and the first people. After visiting Yirrkala, Arnhem Land, Shinoda was inspired to create a space for contemplation, particularly of the spiritual energy within us, known as ‘Ki’ in Japanese. By using white clay and red ochre, Shinoda has managed to recreate an entire room as an immersive installation, which will change over time.

Abstraction of Confusion Taro Shinoda, 2016, Embassy of the Spirits, Art Gallery of NSW

The diversity of mediums employed in the work and cultural backgrounds of the artists throughout the Biennale is impressive, not to mention, Rosenthal’s desire to blur the line between art and performance. Dogwalk by Mella Jaarsma is an installation of 12 costumes made from the skins of sacrificed sheep, cows, and goats originally used in religious practices in parts of Muslim Indonesia. The title is both a reference to the catwalk, where fur embodies decadence and money, and the actual act of waking a dog, as performers parade around the room in her costumes complete with bright red harnesses, as if waking each other.

Unlike, other venues, Art Space, The Embassy of Non-Participation, has grown out of the combined work of two artists, Brad Butler and Karen Mirza. Originally entitled the Museum of Non-Participation, the collaborative, thought provoking, multidisciplinary work began in 2008 and will end with the Sydney Biennale.

The Embassy of Transition, Mortuary Station was a nineteenth century funeral station, and as such, is the most interesting of all venues with its particularly intriguing history. For Charwei Tsai it gave her a chance to explore the themes of the cycle life, death, and rebirth from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. Tsai created a delicate, evocative installation with large spiralling incense sticks inscribed with parts of a Tibetan text across the platform, in a work entitled, Spiral Incense Bardo and scattered dried leaves and seeds across the train tracks in A Dedication to Those Who Have Passed Through Mortuary Station, Sydney. Outside, Marco Chindetti explores the way in which the myna bird will eventually, and inevitably, devour casts of the artists own body made from birdseed.

Carriageworks, the Embassy of Disappearance, explores themes of absence and memory, as well as, disappearing languages, history, and landscapes. Stephanie Rosenthal felt strongly that several of the art works at Carriageworks had managed to “recapture something that is lost” in a way that is particular to art’s “unique memorialising function.” However, the most outstanding work at the Embassy of Disappearance is Lee Mingwei’s Guernica in Sand. As the title suggests, Mingwei recreates Pablo Picasso’s Guernica with sand on the floor of the Embassy of Disappearance. However, Mingwei wanted to shift the focus from the pain of destruction to “the creative power of transformation” using the lens of impermanence. With this in mind, Mingwei intends to allow the audience to walk through his painstaking work one day, after which, he and his assistants will sweep their footprints and the work away in abstract strokes with bamboo brushes.

Willing to be Vulnerable Lee Bull 2015-6, Embassy of the Real, Carriageworks, 20th Biennale

Once again, the Sydney Biennale, which originally started in 1973 and is in its 20th year, impresses with its visual, multi and transdisciplinary contemporary art through its seven Embassies of Thought and several in-between spaces.

-Zalehah Turner


Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The 20th Biennale of Sydney opened on 18 March and will run until, 5 June. Many  of exhibitions and events are free but some require booking. Check the website for further details: https://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/20bos/

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