20th Biennale of Sydney: The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed

Words by Donna Wheeler
April 5, 2016

The 20th Biennale of Sydney, Australia’s biggest contemporary arts festival, has opened in Sydney. Artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal’s The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed sprawls across Sydney with six major sites, as well as a number of ‘in-between spaces’ throughout the city and residential inner city neighbourhoods. With a focus on performance and collective practice, Rosenthal’s ‘embassies of thought’, her thematically delineated venues, feature 83 artists, hailing from 35 countries, with more than 200 individual art works spanning all mediums.

Rosenthal has shown an interest in art that deals with futurism and science fiction before at the Haywood Gallery, where she is chief curator, and in Sydney she uses the William Gibson-gleaned quote of the title as a starting point to explore a dizzyingly complex, wordy web of ideas. Under this umbrella, each of the embassies takes on themes that Rosenthal suggests are ones that have a particular urgency for artists at this point in history.

Cockatoo Island, a rambling former shipyard in the middle of Sydney Harbour and longtime favourite Biennale venue is The Embassy of the Real, which explores the increasing overlap between the real and the virtual. South Korean artist Lee Bul’s Willing To Be Vulnerable (2016), a key commission, completely occupies the soaring space of the Turbine Hall with an alternatively buoyant but ominous landscape of balloons, painted plastic drapery and a huge dirigible. Choreographer William Forstyth’s seductive and ethereal Everywhere at the Same Time (2015) by contrast affirms the corporeal while challenging our perception of space, its field of swinging pendulums enticing visitors to negotiate its length with the grace and precision of dancers. The cartographic drawings of Emma McNally, installed in a room that recalls its military usage, are also a highlight, their chaotic but beguilingly detailed surfaces occupying a space very much between the physical world and our perpetual representations.

The Art Gallery of NSW is home to the Embassy of Spirits, with a beautifully cohesive set of works that deal with the spiritual in all its forms. While seemingly a tangential articulation of the ‘future’, it’s a particularly rich and thoughtful one. Taro Shinoda’s Abstraction of Confusion (2016), a beckoning silent space of slowing peeling white clay and red ochre, honours both the artist’s Japanese heritage and the original Aboriginal owners of the gallery’s site. Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s ‘forest of memory’, a darkened passage of poles, draw visitors into a similarly dreamlike space, while Dane Mitchell’s Remedies for Remembering (AI) and Forgetting (NaCl) (2016), along with his work in the nearby Botanical Gardens, investigates the esoteric nature of homeopathy and the ever shifting nature of both elemental substances and our emotional being.

Celine Condorelli’s Additionals (2016), an appealingly decorative curtain made from the very loaded material of space blankets, the powerful monochromatic paintings of Daniel Boyd and the assemblages of Dayanita Singh form a satisfying core at the MCA’s Embassy of Translation, which otherwise does not seem to embody its aim to work with the reinterpretation of historical material.

Smaller venues include the Embassy of Transition at the Mortuary Station, where the arresting, evocative works of Marco Chiandetti and Charwei Tsai occupy a neo-gothic train station and the Embassy of Non-Participation at Artspace, a former naval gunnery and long-time squat. The later is given over entirely to the artists Karen Mizra and Brad Butler who present a number of immersive and precisely articulated works that have the provocative thrust- of activist politics, including the powerful Unreliable Narrator (2014-15), sourced from CCTV footage of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. While the ‘in-between spaces’ are too numerous to mention, Daniel Boyd’s installation What Remains (2016) – a dark wall covered in some 12,000 small mirrors in a Redfern street, is notable for the manner in which it plays with perception of space and its evocation of Boyd’s use of a painterly dots or ‘lenses’.

Final major site Carriageworks houses the The Embassy of Disappearance where a number of large scale sculptural and video works address themes such as absence, memory, history and archaeology and the politics of space. Curatorial collective Don’t Follow the Wind present two new works: Information Counter (2016) and A Walk in Fukushima (2016), featuring reclaimed and decontaminated artefacts from the Fukushima exclusion zone and an immersive 360-degree video piece viewed through the headsets made in workshops with former residents of the city. The Afronut (2012) works from Gerald Machona brilliantly encapsulate the notion of uneven distribution, not to mention disappearance, in his eerily looming spacemen bedecked in bright suits of decommissioned Zimbabwean and South African currency. Likewise, Jamie North’s Succession (2016), towering sculptures of concrete sprouting with opportunistic plants, seem straight from a post-apocalyptic future.

The Sydney Biennale runs from March 18 – June 5 and is a free event

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