From 16 March to 11 June the Sydney Biennale 2018 takes over town. You’re invited to consider the idea of superposition: overlapping situations, perspectives, cultures, and their co-existence. Equilibrium and engagement. And there’s a new emphasis on art from the Asia Pacific region. So let’s get started . . .
My pick for where to start – or where to go if you can fit in only one location – is the Art Gallery of New South Wales. That’s the Sydney art gallery fronting the Domain, on Art Gallery Road.
Before you start, for background on the artists and a photographic memory-jogger, buy the guide for $5. It covers every artist at every location, plus all the associated events – a bargain at the price! It is available at every participating gallery.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
The standout things at the AGNSW, for me, were not necessarily the ‘big’ exhibits.
I was fascinated by Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s interactive installations featuring chimpanzee arms that move in response to the actions of human hands or arms on or in a desk.
They’re somewhat overwhelmed by larger, brighter pieces in the same space, but they’re worth stopping for.
Having said that, some of the wall-size exhibits are breathtaking in both overall impact and detail. N.S. Harsha’s Reclaiming the Inner Space, shown in the first photo above, is a series of hand-carved wooden elephants sandwiched between flattened cardboard boxes and a mirror. It’s a 3-D work on the wall and can keep you busy for quite a while.
In the very next room, don’t walk past the film by Samson Young where he conducts Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. As you’ve never heard it before.
He has muted the sounds so that, instead of music you hear the swoosh of the bow on the strings, the muted drums, pages being turned.
I plan to go back, slide down the wall and just sit and listen to lots more of it, it’s that inviting. And totally within Mami Kataoka, the artistic director’s, concept of the various meanings of abstraction, the different levels on which things can be experienced.
Biennale of Sydney Archive
The Sydney Biennale 2018 is the 21st biennale of Sydney and this year marks 45 years since the very first biennale, in 1973.
That first biennale took place in the exhibition hall of the then new Sydney Opera House. Over half the exhibiting artists were from the Asia Pacific region.
Subsequent years saw the curatorial emphasis move towards Europe. This year we’re again recognising our deep Asian links.
The Art Gallery includes a wonderful series of photos and short write-ups of each of the previous Sydney biennales, giving a flavour of Sydney’s cultural development over time. I found it most interesting.
Just down the hill from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Cowper Wharf Road on Sydney Cove, is Artspace.
Small but very active in the arts community, it has one of Ai Weiwei’s two Sydney Biennale 2018 pieces. A crystal ball, nestled within life jackets, it speaks to his other piece on Cockatoo island, also featuring life jackets, this time on refugee figures in a crowded boat.
The standout work for me, here at Artspace, is Geng Xue’s video work The Poetry of Michelangelo.
It shows the artist shaping a male figure from clay accompanied by lines from the sonnets of Michelangelo.
The sonnets explore love, creativity, life and death.
I found them moving, set, as they were, against the process of sculpting and modelling the figure which represented a lover who had died.
Museum of Contemporary Art
A short stroll from the AGNSW, in the direction of Circular Quay, will bring you to the MCA, another Sydney Biennale 2018 venue.
Here you’ll see whimsical, humorous soft sculptures created by Yarrenyty Arltere artists from Alice Springs.
Made from recycled woollen blankets, dyed and embellished, they tell stories of family, country, identity and spirit.
Part of the MCA gallery has been transformed into a functional studio and printing workshop. You are invited to participate in the projects that printmaker Ciara Phillips will be collaboratively carrying out here to produce new artworks.
Other things that especially appealed here included Nicole Wong’s very deliberative work. In one of them, Time Piece, she has drawn a circle at the speed of the hour hand of a clock. Thus she took twelve hours to complete the circle. When you examine it closely you’ll observe how she’s done that.
Moving on brings you into a large space, three walls of which are covered in clouds.
They’re ethereal from a distance and mind-boggling from close up.
To create these artist Liza Lou and her team used glass beads, hand-weaving them into 600 separate cloths.
Subtle shifts of tone, splashes of colour and the destruction of some areas makes for an installation of great beauty.
So plenty to see and do here. Mami Kataoka’s vision of dualism, paradox and the co-existence of different levels plays out across both the exhibition’s floors.
From the MCA it’s a mere couple of minutes to the ferry for Cockatoo Island.
Here you’ll find Ai Weiwei’s 60 metre long boat, crowded with hundreds of refugees.
Both boat and figures are made from inflatable black rubber, fabricated in a factory that also manufactures these refugee vessels.
Weiwei remains an activist artist, documenting refugee experiences and focusing on refugees’ basic human rights.
Also in the massive Turbine Hall on Cockatoo is a work by Yukinori Yanagi, a mirrored labyrinth within shipping containers.
Yanagi retells the Icarus story for a nuclear world.
It’s part of a series of three Yanagi works on Cockatoo, following through the implications of flying too close to the sun, of the exploitation of nuclear energy, its uses and abuses.
The ancient story of hubris, ascent and fall.
I was sorry that there weren’t more large scale works on Cockatoo. The massive buildings left from its ship-building days can completely dwarf small, detailed installations and I often felt a little underwhelmed at what we are being shown in these cavernous halls.
I almost always find Cockatoo Island a highlight, but in this Sydney Biennale 2018 I found it to be less gripping overall than some of the other venues. So, if you’re limited for time, I’d pick one or more of the previous galleries instead.
If you plan to visit Cockatoo Island anyway, then of course include the Biennale exhibition. Many of the exhibits are rather thought-provoking.
Sydney Opera House
Back from Cockatoo Island, stroll around Circular Quay to the Opera House for a couple of ticketed (paid) events. One takes place in the Utzon Room (more on the story of Jorg Utzon, SOH architect here) and the other in a space below the Concert Hall.
More information from biennaleofsydney.art/whats-on/
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
This year’s smallest venue, it’s in Hay Street, Haymarket, on the edge of the CBD. Upstairs, the results of Akira Takayama’s project where he invited Sydneysiders to come to the Town Hall to sing or recite a work passed down to them through their family. Downstairs Jun Wang’s playfully titled Becoming European, or How I Grew Up With Wiener Schnitzel.
Another expansive space used for the Sydney Biennale 2018, Carriageworks is the legacy of Sydney’s old Eveleigh rail yards, where carriages were built and serviced.
Sympathetically restored for the 21st century, today it is a multi-arts hub for much of Sydney’s cultural and social life, from regular farmers’ markets outside to performances, installations and boundary-pushing experiences inside. On Wilson Street, Eveleigh, it’s a short walk from Redfern station.
George Tjungurraya, a Western Desert artist is represented here by a series of recent paintings in his signature style. Covering a decently satisfactory expanse of floor and wall, they explore the abstract use of optical stripes.
Carriageworks makes the most of its high roofed, large spaces. It allows each exhibit to breathe comfortably, neither cheek by jowl with another, nor lost and drifting in space.
While you’re in the gallery you may hear a repetitive banging, sometimes loud, other times more muffled. I encourage you to follow the sound which will take you to Marco Fusinato’s interactive installation Constellations. You have to go through a seemingly empty space and around a corner or two before you’ll get there, don’t give up.
For a final taster of this part of the Sydney Biennale 2018, Michael Stevenson has used an actual academic course, Mission Class 510, taught in Pasadena in 1982, as the basis for part of Serene Velocity in Practice: MC510/CS183.
Juxtaposed with another course, CS183, also taught in California, but 30 years later, the structures illuminate each other.
Old tyres, airline blankets, assorted clothes bottled water and general debris all add to the urgency of the messages on the board. Equally to the futility of the entire exercise.
The second course, taught by Silicon Valley’s Peter Thiel, has a very different look, but seemingly equal futility.
Sydney Biennale 2018 Overview
This year, for the first time, the biennale has an Asian artistic director, Mami Kataoka. She brings a different sensibility to the event, plus a greater emphasis on the Asia Pacific region. That’s good.
What she brings, to my mind, is a desire for unity at the highest level, rather than dualistic intransigence. There’s lots of paradox, and approaching issues from different directions and on different levels, but in the end she’s seeking a wholeness rather than fragmentation. She calls it ‘Superposition’, taking the term from quantum mechanics.
It’s not as viscerally exciting as some previous biennales. It’s more of a conversation where artists add to the theme of the discourse, from different angles on different levels, rather than trying to shout down their opponents.
And that’s possibly a good thing right now.
Other Sydney Biennales
For a general introduction on the Biennale of Sydney, have a look at this overview.
More Things to See and Do in Sydney
Don’t forget, the whole of March is Art Month, with art-related activities all through the city.
From 23 March and through April, don’t miss the Handa Opera on the Harbour.
And, all year round, go for a walk around public art installations in the inner-west.
Most of all, enjoy!