More than 73 artists from 37 countries will descend on Sydney for the 20th year of the Biennale of Sydney next year. The event will be will be curated by German-born and London-based curator Stephanie Rosenthal. She has chosen international artists who represent what it means to be alive in the 21st century. Rosenthal is a curator and art historian who’s been chief curator at the prestigious Heyward Gallery since 2007. Today, her program for Sydney has been released.

“We’re trying to understand where we are, which is related to all the technologies we’ve got access to without even really understanding them,” Rosenthal says.

To that end Rosenthal has created seven themed “embassies” in seven locations that will feature visual arts, craft, performance, dance and music. The themes are what Rosenthal feels are relevant to the 21st century: the occupation of land, racism, climate change and the huge advances in technology.

“I call them ‘embassies of thought’ because an embassy is a metaphor for a free space for thinking, for beliefs. So even if I’m thinking about something in one way, someone else should have the space to think about it in another,” she says. “It’s quite political.”

These venues or embassies range from the old Mortuary Station at Central to Artspace and Carriageworks, where Taiwanese-American artist Lee Mingwei will make a 30-metre re-creation of Picasso’s Guernica from sand in the appropriately themed Embassy of Disappearance.

Cockatoo Island or "Embassy of the Real" looks at an historic site that cheerfully displays film sets from Angelina Jolie’s film Unbroken alongside important naval memorabilia. There acclaimed US choreographer William Forsythe will present Choreographic Objects, where the audience is invited to ‘dance’ with swinging pendulums; alongside Korean artist Lee Bull whose huge installation in the Turbine Hall explores the overlap between the physical and the digital.

Korean artist Lee Bull, whose huge installation in the Turbine Hall at the Powerhouse Museum, explores the overlap between the physical and the digital.

At the Embassy of Spirits (Art Gallery of NSW) US-born, Paris-based Sheila Hicks will wrap the gallery’s columns in brightly coloured wool. Japanese artist Taro Shinoda ponders the place of indigenous culture in a 21st world, inspired by his trip to the remote community of Yirrkala. The huge clay-covered room will deteriorate over time and reveal red ochre underneath, a pigment symbolic to Aboriginal peoples.

Australians Richard Bell, Justene Williams, Mike Parr, the Sydney Chamber Opera, Swiss-German-American artist Shahryar Nashat and American Michele Abeles are just a handful of other artists invited to take part.

There will also be “in-between” sites: a bookshop, the cemetery in Camperdown, the longest travelator in Australia and possibly the world and a space between two houses in Redfern. They’re all spaces in which Rosenthal hopes to surprise passers-by with unexpected experiences of contemporary art.

“I’m very interested in the spaces that sit in between, and how art can open them up, because that’s what art should do. A biennale is about a city, more than just one venue, and I wanted to create shows that could work well by themselves but at the same time encourage people to visit more than one venue,” Rosenthal says.

With so many art fairs, festivals, visiting artists and regular exhibitions, is a biennale still relevant? And why would Rosenthal choose to direct one?

“I have a fantastic job in London, I do great shows, I can work with anybody I want, so why would I do a biennale now? It was a question for me,” Rosenthal concedes. “But a biennale is still a place where you can be more experimental because you’re not plugged into the whole bureaucracy of having shows to deliver – it’s about having an outsider looking at the city, opening up the venues and making people walk around and look. And it is an opportunity for artists to do new work and engage with the site, and that usually isn’t the focus of a show. And it’s free. I think it can generate a new audience for contemporary art just by being in different places and I think that’s very, very important. That’s why it’s exciting for me.”

The Biennale of Sydney runs from March 18 to June 5 in various locations. Entry is free.