The 18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations

Posted: 20 Feb 2013

All our relations wove the popular thematic thread connections, conversation and exchange across The Art Gallery of NSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cockatoo Island and Pier 2/3. This concept is informed by the partnership of curators — Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster — and an emphasis on collaborative, cross-disciplinary and participatory practices that call for active viewers. This year’s show encompassed over 100 artists from forty-four countries. 220 works incorporate a variety of surprising media, performances and installations at Carriageworks, Biennale Bar at Pier 2/3 and a busy education and public program. All our relations invited audiences to engage with specific local social, political and environmental issues within the context of Sydney and this international platform. Employing storytelling to underline a postmodern ‘global proposal’ of contemporary art to illustrate how we as individuals, and our streams of creative thought, are interconnected as never before.

The well-curated In Finite Blue Planet at the Art Gallery of NSW boasts a convincing eclectic body of work that is a highlight of this biennale. Processes of mapping were a strong theme — a fabulous example being Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili’s powerful eight-channel video installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008–2011). Khalili’s intelligent work challenged normative cartography by documenting an alternative map of the Mediterranean through ‘clandestine journeys’ of undocumented refugees, giving voice to minority languages as the faceless narrators poignantly trace their breathtaking journeys on maps in thick, black pen. In contrast, Thai artist Nipan Oranniwesna employed idealised and interconnected urban topography in his sweeping City of Ghost (2007–2012), assembled from cut-out city maps traced in baby powder to astonishing effect. Australian artist John Wolseley’s marvellous project Flight of Ventifacts: Mallee (2006–2012) took an organic approach to mapping and drawing, to articulate “subtle changes in the dynamics of wild fires” in Northern Victoria. Wolseley released sheets of paper (both blank and marked by burnt trees) into the wind. Weeks, or months later, the artist ‘harvests’ the crumpled stained pages and charts their journey. The curators play on this, as Wolseley’s pages are ‘blown’ throughout the AGNSW; scattered along a corridor, squashed down the side of an escalator or as a landscape of living paper in the lower galleries.

Highlights at the MCA’s Possible Composition included Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project (2012), which explored relationships between self, other and environment by inviting viewers to bring fabric to be repaired by Mingwei in the gallery. Sydney-based Thai artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt’s sumptuous paper installation Not for Sure (2012) drew on her muralist skills to enable writing to “perform a counter-conversation”. Paper crafted from Thai plants, patterned with personal stories and local literature, is strung throughout the gallery like a maze of textured words and images. Also utilising the hand-made is Arin Rungjang’s The Living are Few but the Dead Are Many (2012), for which the Bangkok artist collaborated with orphans of the Rwandan genocide to explore their experiences through pottery workshops at a ceramic factory in Kigali. In a moving display, the earthenware vessels were exhibited alongside honest video portraits of the participants — using the act of making and sharing — to “contemplate how we perceive commonality not difference”. Rungjang expanded this process by engaging disadvantaged children in Sydney in related activities. Also working in ceramics, Park Young-Sooks and Yeesookyung’s collaboration is an exquisite dialogue between traditional and contemporary South Korea. Twelve of Young-Sooks flawless white porcelain Moon Jar (2012) curve around the gallery facing Yeesookyung’s Translated Vase – the Moon  (2012), a round vessel constructed from shattered pieces of Young-Sook’s porcelain.

On Cockatoo Island there were strong works scattered throughout Stories, Senses and Spheres, although the overall curatorial thread didn’t achieve the difficult task of connecting the disparate corners and architecture of the site, and the upper island lacked vigour with many of the works feeling a little lost. More successful was the Lower Island’s Industrial Precinct, particularly the Turbine Hall, a powerful space that needs strong work to compete with its sublime scale and atmosphere. This was tackled by Dutch/UK duo Reiner Rietveld and Craigie Horsfield’s effective installation Confusion (2012) — the immensity of the soundscape pulsated through the cavernous hall, mingling with seagull screeches and fog drifting in from Fujiko Nakaya’s Cloud Installation (2012). Similarly, New Zealander Peter Robinson’s Snow Ball Blind Time (2008) is the first work I’ve experienced that visually challenged this space. The towering installation of meticulously carved white polystyrene chains entangle and smother the rusted shell. Further along, Canadian-based Phillip Beesley’s fantastical kinetic installation Hylozoic Series (2011) flickered with light and trembled with movement, as quivering white fronds curled up defensively and fascinated viewers wondered around in disbelief.

Located in one of the precinct’s smaller buildings was Colombian-born Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s and Sydney artist Ross Rudesch Harley’s collaborative piece The Museum of Copulatory Organs (2012). This extraordinary display included ‘micro-artworks’ and video footage, depicting undeniably beautiful specimens of insect genitalia. The still darkness of the space suggested the hush of a museum — lending secrecy, voyeurism and eroticism to the exhibit. Interesting participatory projects included Eva Kot’átková’s The Theatre of Speaking Objects (2012), Nadia Meyer’s The Scar Project (2005-ongoing) and Erin Manning’s Stitching Time – A Collective Fashioning (2012), although their inclusion begs the question as to whether participatory art loses agency in long-running exhibitions, especially on sites like Cockatoo Island, where on quiet days these works can sit empty and flat. This is also true for politically driven projects such as Susan Hefuna’s Celebrate Life: I Love Egypt (2011), which doesn’t work away from the energy and context of its making in Cairo and London.

The 18th Biennale of Sydney offered audiences the chance to experience some exciting artists’ practices that explored All our relations, emphasising the viewer’s subjective experience and involvement in making meaning through these processes of participation and conversation. And while there were some wonderful artworks, the curatorial cohesion across venues and inaccessible theoretical framework didn’t extend these artist’s dialogues as one would hope, to allow new narratives and relations to emerge.

Images from top:

Pinaree Sanpitak, Anything Can Break, 2011, handmade glass, paper. Courtesy the artist.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso and Ross Rudesch Harley, Museum of Copulatory Organs, installation at Cockatoo Island, 2012, Photograph Nicholas Sullivan.

Khaled Sabsabi, Air Land, 2011, 8 channel digital video. Courtesy the artist.

Philip Beesley, Hylozoic Series, installation view, 2010, 3000 x 1500 x 400cm. ©Philip Beesley Architect Inc. Photograph Nicholas Sullivan.

Nadia Myre, The Scar Project, 2005, installation view, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Art Mûr, Montreal. Photograph Alan Wiener.

Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2009, table, chairs, 800 spools of thread, sewing needles, mended garments.

Park Young-Sook, Moon Jars, 2006–2008, white porcelain. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Hyundai, Seoul.

Judith Wright, A Journey, 2001, installation view. Courtesy the artist; Sophie Gannon Gallery, Sydney; Jan Manton Art, Brisbane; Jensen, Sydney; and Fox/Jensen, Auckland.


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Issue 38