The Sydney Biennale has come a long way since its inception in 1973, showcasing the work of nearly 1800 artists and counting. The 21st Biennale of Sydney draws on the concept of "Superposition"– a term from quantum mechanics referring to a system comprised of overlapping, interconnected parts. The theme guided artistic director Mami Kataoka, who has chosen a line-up of 70 solo artists and collectives from across the globe to take part in the free three-month exhibition.
It’s a giant event, and it begins today. Here are Broadsheet’s highlights.
Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey
One of the world’s most famous living artists Ai Weiwei will unveil his hotly anticipated 60-metre long inflatable black rubber boat, Law of the Journey. It’s a powerful statement on refugees containing 300 or so faceless figures the artist describes as “very cold, very brutal, almost intimidating”. The installation is made from the same material used to make precarious vessels used by refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Australia is the second country to display the work, which was first shown in Prague last year.
Ryan Gander, Other Places
British artist Ryan Gander is known for creating spellbinding and imaginative fictional spaces. His ground-floor installation (spread across two rooms) includes a snow-covered streetscape in an English housing estate, drawn from his own childhood. Gander’s art says more by way of omission, rather than what it includes. By leaving out critical details, he urges viewers to see things from an entirely different perspective.
Yukinori Yanagi, Icarus Container
Icarus Container by Hiroshima-based artist Yukinori Yanagi will also be on Cockatoo Island. The intriguing work is a 100-metre-long tunnel made of shipping containers, based on the labyrinths of Greek mythology. It questions the consequences of modernisation and global capitalism.
Yasmin Smith, Drowned River Valley
This young Parramatta-based ceramicist encourages community engagement with her work. She has built an installation from materials harvested by the public from Parramatta River, including wood and salts. “I try to understand places I live and work in through the elemental nature of the environment,” she says.
Her work explores the long history of abuse Parramatta River has suffered since colonisation – through industrialisation and urbanisation – which has changed the foreshore line and the makeup of its vegetation. The objects were fired in a salt kiln using a salt glaze; while her Smith’s objects are glazed with mangrove ash.
Art Gallery of NSW
Late Bardi elder Roy Wiggan shared the stories of his people through his art. The colourful, sculptural artwork’s title ilma refers to both ceremonies performed by the Bardi people and hand-held objects used to teach traditional stories, songs and law.
Oliver Beer, Composition for Mouths
English artist Oliver Beer developed this series of films as artist-in-residence at Sydney Opera House. Bending sound and space, as well as ideas of “inherited music”, the pieces involved the artist approaching singers, asking them to recall the songs they encountered first in childhood, then working them into experimental, nostalgic and unnerving compositions.
N.S. Harsha, Reclaiming the inner space
Born in Mysore, India, Harsha was commissioned to create this 12-metre-long mirrored work, which involves hand-carved wooden elephants sandwiched between unfolded cardboard packaging (sourced from friends, family and recycling facilities all over the world) and acrylic mirror. Printed graphics face inwards, and can only be seen as reflections. The work comments on modernisation and mass-consumption, as well as the British Raj’s social and institutional impact on Indian society.
Ai Weiwei, Human Flow, Crystal Ball
The idea for the film Human Flow came to Weiwei during a visit to Greek island Lesbos with his young son and partner. A refugee-filled boat washed up on the beach before them. He spent the next 18 months visiting 40 refugee camps in 23 often dangerous, war-torn countries, conducting more than 600 interviews and shooting 900 hours of footage. The result is a compelling but deeply distressing film he hopes will bring international awareness, compassion and action for the 65 million people worldwide currently considered refugees.
“At its core it’s about human dignity, human rights,” he says. “How do we define ourselves? How do we treat others? Millions and millions of children will never have education and the average refugee will stay a refugee for 25 years – that means their lifetime. I don’t think any kind of tragic situation can be bigger than this. And if we don’t ask or face that question in the media or universities or social discussion, then we miss a big point.”
Michaël Borremans,The Storm
This Belgium-based artist has built a reputation on his meticulous paintings, which carry such fine detail they’re almost photographic. Here, Borremans presents a series of drawings, paintings and sculptural maquettes, as well as a film titled The Storm. The sometimes melancholic works feature unsettling still lifes and ambiguous figures resembling half-remembered dreams.
Goel presents a selection of layered paintings and fresco works alongside a site-specific wall drawing. Interested in deconstructed architecture, the Indian artist uses materials collected from demolished modernist-style houses built in Delhi between the ‘50s and ‘70s. She creates her own pigments from charcoal, aluminium, concrete, glass, soil, mica, graphite and foils.
Marco Fusinato, Constellations
The Melbourne artist and musician crosses a variety of mediums and disciplines in his practice. Constellations is interactive and combines noise with an examination of human action and decision-making. A purpose-built, freestanding wall divides the gallery space in two. One side remains empty, but beyond a wall, visitors will find a baseball bat on a long steel chain. They’re encouraged to pick it up, strike the wall, and wait to see what happens.
Chen Shaoxiong, The Views
Born in 1962 in Shantou, China, Shaoxiong this four-channel computer-generated animation is one of the final works he created prior to his death in 2016. It documents some of the views he experienced from his hospital window, and is projected onto curved screens suspended from the ceiling.
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Jacob Kirkegaard, Through the Wall
For this imposing piece, the Danish artist and composer travelled to Palestine and Israel to record sounds of the Israeli West Bank Barrier or the “Apartheid Wall”. He used vibration sensors and acoustic microphones to collect resonances and reverberations from either side of the structure. A composition comprised of the ambient recordings is played through a speakers built into a monolithic replica of the wall. Put your ear against it and you might hear car horns, voices or the call to prayer. Kirkegaard refrains from expressing his political position, but the work is designed to highlight the power of listening.
Esme Timbery, Shellworked Slippers
Bidjigal elder and senior artist Esme Timbery continues the traditions of the coastal La Perouse Aboriginal community by crafting objects, including fish hooks and jewellery, from locally sourced shells. In the 1880s, women from that community would sell similar shell-worked objects at Circular Quay and Botany Bay. Timberley’s Shellworked Slippers is a wall-mounted installation of 200 delicate children’s slippers with intricate shell designs and glitter. The piece depicts the suffering experienced by Aboriginal people through colonisation and the successive government policies that have led to dispossession and entrenched disadvantage.
Haegue Yang, LethalLove and The Intermediates
Haegue Yang’s work is known for its adaptation of everyday objects. Three video essays are “embedded” in LethalLove, a venetian-blind installation with scent emitters and moving lights. In the same dark room is Yang’s The Intermediates, a collection of “anthropomorphic sculptures” and three “creatures” suspended from the ceiling.
The 21st Biennale of Sydney runs across various venues from March 16 to June 11.
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With reporting by Sarah Norris, Amanda Valmorbida, Jane Albert and Sammy Preston.