Biennale of Sydney

March 25, 2014

One of ADR’s new online contributing editors reviews the Biennale of Sydney, an event that has evolved into one of Australia’s biggest and most popular contemporary art festivals.

Text: Woody Saulwick
Above image: Jim Lambie’s Zobop installation; courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow; photograph: Ben Symons

As you board the boat that delivers you to Cockatoo Island there is already a sense of fantasy: a consciousness of stepping into a portal to another world, where you don’t know what to expect or if you will leave a different person. Indeed, the first encounter with this new world of the island is imbued with the subtle yet melodic hum of the surroundings.

Once inside the Turbine Hall you can’t help but feel the history of the island and the skeletons it protects, while the hum reveals itself as emanating from Eva Koch’s I am The River – a beautifully scaled projection of a natural waterfall in the old and decaying built environment.

Gabriel Lester's 'Where Spirits Dwell'; Courtesy the artist; Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai; and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; Photograph: Gunther Hang

Gabriel Lester’s Where Spirits Dwell; courtesy the artist; Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai; and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; photograph: Gunther Hang

As the cascading waterfall passes, you are thrown head first into the strange world of Tori Wrånes’ performance Stone and Singer. Accompanied by a cast of brass players positioned in the scaffolding around the hall, Wrånes performs an enigmatic and eerie transformation while having a stand-off with a large rock suspended from the hall ceiling.

In keeping with the Cockatoo Island excursion into self-exploration and discovery, the next work encountered is Ulla Von Brandenburg’s Street, Play, Way. This work makes literal the idea of humans as individual strangers by taking the audience on a journey through mountains and valleys as a stranger being introduced to an array of characters, similarly strangers.

Joseph Griffiths' 'Ruins'; Courtesy of the artist; Photograph: Ben Symons

Joseph Griffiths’ Ruins; courtesy of the artist; photograph: Ben Symons

Once off the island, the world of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) offers an emotional realm of controlled and contained engagement. Douglas Gordon’s Phantom colours this world with intense emotion. Two Steinway pianos grace the stage: one standing, the other burnt to ash. A large eye stares deeply into your soul and allows the voice of Rufus Wainwright to creep in. Emotions flow – sadness, loss, hurt and decay – which coalesce to wash over the audience in a way that is at once particular and universal.

One room over, you are thrown into complete contrast. Roni Horn’s Ten Liquid Incidents is a collection of glass castings representing pools of water, wells or life itself. A brightly lit room with objects you could fall into, it inspires emotion, peace and life.

Artistic director Juliana Engberg claims the Art Gallery of New South Wales as the heart of the festival and this is without question. Angelica Mesiti’s In the Ear of the Tyrant strikes the emotion of profound loss that is at once haunting and eloquent. Filmed inside the Ear of Dionysius (a cave in Sicily known for its acoustic properties), the work pays homage to a cultural tradition of mourning the dead through female song.

Deborah Kelly's 'No Human Being Is Illegal' (In All Our Glory); Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney; Photograph: Gunther Hang

Deborah Kelly’s No Human Being Is Illegal (In All Our Glory); courtesy of the artist and Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney; photograph: Gunther Hang

Michael Cook’s Majority Rule continues his exploration of culture, politics and perception. Through the character ‘Joe’, Cook portrays a multiple persona within a parallel universe that asks us to not only think about the effects still felt by Australian Indigenous people, but what it might be like to live in a universe where the approach to Indigenous people was that of a friendly and welcoming state.

Venues of the 19th Biennale include Cockatoo Island, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks and Artspace. The 19th Biennale of Sydney, You Imagine What You Desire, opened on 21 March and runs to 9 June 2014.

Roni Horn's 'Ten Liquid Incidents'; Courtesy of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; Photograph: Ben Symons

Roni Horn’s Ten Liquid Incidents; courtesy of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; photograph: Ben Symons

The Biennale of Sydney is Australia’s largest and most exciting contemporary arts festival, and is the fourth oldest biennale in the world. Visitation has more than doubled over the last three festivals, with the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012 attended by record 665,488 visitors.

The Biennale has evolved from an elite event into a popular art festival; many who attend are not the regulars of the Venice Biennale, or the Whitney Biennial. Moreover, as many international artists travel to install and speak about their work, Biennale time has become an occasion for cultural exchange within the arts community.


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