The Sydney Biennale is held on even years. Should you go if you have limited time in Sydney and you want to get the most out of your holiday?
I’d say yes, go if you can.
This page gives you an overview, and a bit of a feel for the different venues. For more on the art itself go to Sydney Biennale 2018 here,Sydney Biennale 2016 here,Sydney Biennale 2014 here, and Sydney Biennale 2012 here.
Sydney Biennale Venues
The venues for the Biennale are historical locations that will add a little complexity to the Sydney Opera House and bridge picture postcard, before you even get to the art itself.
Cockatoo Island has been a convict prison, a ship building yard, a reform school and is today a ‘glamping’ experience. It’s also world heritage listed. Special Biennale ferries leave from Wharf 6 (bookings required) and there are also regular ferry sailings from Darling harbour and Circular Quay that call into the island (no booking necessary).
Carriageworks is part of the Eveleigh rail yards where Sydney’s train carriages were built and maintained up to the 1970s. On the edge of Redfern, Sydney’s aboriginal heartland, the old railway yards are today home to theatre, art, music and organic markets.
It’s hard to miss the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) right on the harbour at Circular Quay.
And the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), across the Domain in the city centre, is also pretty well known.
But you could easily overlook Artspace, housed in the old Gunnery Building in Woolloomooloo, a short stroll from the AGNSW: take the steps down the hill or cross the overpass and you’re there.
Opposite Artspace is Finger Wharf, today apartments, restaurants and a hotel, but originally wooden wharves and storehouses built to service the wool trade from Australia to England.
Sydney Biennale Overview
Selected artists are invited to show here. The art is often created ‘in situ’ specifically for the biennale but can also be pre-existing work shown for the first time in Sydney.
A biennale is a ‘big’ exhibition, designed to set new trends and show directions. It necessarily carries the expectation of pushing artistic and political boundaries, of raising issues to ponder, discuss and take away.
Art is about seeing. Our worldview. An artist sees, and can show us something we haven’t noticed before in quite that way.
It could be a conversation with the location or it can be a way of seeing country – as Fred Williams’ You Yangs landscapes did for many Australians in the 1960s (find it in the permanent collection at the AGNSW).
Duchamp’s Fountain was probably the most shocking example in the early 20th century, the impressionists are the foremost example in the 19th.
To be worth showing at a biennale the work needs to shift our world view, no matter how imperceptibly. If it doesn’t do that it shouldn’t be there.
It’s Often a Mixed Bag
The Sydney Biennale is not alone in being a bit hit and miss. Most biennales have some fantastic, must-see pieces, yet overall there can be a bit too much missing and not enough hitting.
Each Sydney Biennale has a new director who attempts to put her stamp on it by setting the theme and selecting the artists. The various themes tend to play out in ‘appropriate’ venues, often director-designated in some way: ‘scary’, ‘playful’, ‘technical’ and so on. And some venues really do have a powerful effect on both the art and the visitor.
Sydney Biennale on Cockatoo
Cockatoo island, for example, has a history which includes its use as a convict built prison, a ship dockyard, a reformatory for wayward and orphaned boys and a girl’s industrial school.
Today we use it for glamping and go to concerts and art exhibitions there, repurposing the old buildings that still bear the stamp of tougher times.
Art Gallery of NSW
The Sydney Biennale generally takes over the temporary exhibition space downstairs with a bit of spill-over into the central gallery of the main floor. For some reason it always seems to work better than the spaces at the MCA, at least in my opinion.
Its coffee shop is very good. It’s a bit of a favourite lunch-time spot with locals as well. Again you can sit inside or out and your views range over Woolloomooloo towards Garden Island, still used by the navy. You’ll see the grey painted ships along the dock.
Artspace is small, intimate and generally more restful than the other venues. It sometimes has a slightly more ‘craft’ flavour where you get to appreciate the technical skills of the artist as well as the imagination. So the materials might include clay or textiles – but also video cameras of course.
It’s all exposed brick and uneven floors here, the building playing its part in the old/new mix that typifies Woolloomooloo today. You’re in an old inner city workers’ housing area, struggling to avoid annihilation. Those precious harbour views are dear to the hearts of developers and its proximity to the city sings a sirens’ song to investors.
At the MCA
Whatever the Sydney Biennale offerings in the galleries, don’t miss the upstairs courtyard at the MCA. It’s open air, partly covered to give shade and shelter.
To go with your (very good) coffee you’ll get an intimate slice of the Rocks, Sydney harbour and the bridge. And I’m very fond of the sculpture there, too.
In Sydney’s inner suburban ring, Carriageworks provides another fragment of Sydney’s history you’ll take in along with the art. The huge old buildings in which the railway carriages were built and serviced are still in the process of being converted into spaces for today.
Apart from the Sydney Biennale it hosts weekly farmers’ markets, contains performance spaces, bars and restaurants with more yet to come. The area is still a delightful part of town: long rows of terrace houses with their tiny gardens. Inevitably, it seems, new developments are creeping in at the edges.
Sydney Biennale – The Verdict
There’s never a shortage of art to visit. You can spend all day without a break and barely scratch the surface (as I do each year at the Sydney Biennale vernissage).
So don’t try to do it all in a day. If you have less than a day go to one place – and that one should be Cockatoo Island or the Art Gallery, the later minimising even the travel time.
Half a day would be the minimum to allow for Cockatoo Island and a day would be perfect, allowing you time to enjoy the ferry ride going to and fro as well as the island itself.
The MCA can usually be visited in small chunks perhaps before and after ferry rides. It tends to break quite easily into doable segments.
Leave enough time to properly view the videos that form a big part of most of the exhibitions – individually they’re not long, but three minutes here, ten minutes there, it all adds up quite quickly. And you won’t want to miss them.
The art gallery usually needs a good half day at least. More if you enjoy stopping for a coffee or lunch in between. Or break up the day’s art with a stroll around the Botanical Gardens or Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.
Carriageworks often contains longer works. A short visit will let you experience a rather limited selection. Artspace is a more intimate venue and won’t usually take as long.
If you really have only an hour or two for the Sydney Biennale?
I’d plump for the Art Gallery of NSW.
Keep an eye out for special performances, lectures, artist talks and other Sydney Biennale events that will be on for the entire period.
The #21BOS will be held in 2018. In the meantime you can check out
Commissioned by the 19th Biennale of Sydney as a City of Sydney legacy artwork, The City of Forking Paths, 2014, takes you on an immersive video walk through The Rocks district.
The work is part of the City of Sydney’s public art collection and can be experienced from Customs House Foyer between dusk and 9:30 pm, Monday to Saturday. Mobile devices are available for loan from the concierge desk, or alternatively you can download the free app onto your own device.
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Opera on the Harbour. Relax with a blockbuster, outdoor spectacular on a floating stage – and that’s after you’ve enjoyed the sun going down over the Opera House and the harbour bridge! Usually on for a month, from late March through most of April, it’s an experience worth looking out for.
The Archibalds. Sydney’s pre-eminent portrait prize. It’s on every year at the art gallery from late July to early October. Often controversial, it’s always up to the minute as all entries must be painted in the preceding 12 months.