Back to the Future
The 20th Biennale of Sydney Is Underway

Whether an art aficionado, a city tourist, or a person simply taking a stroll passes through this year’s Biennale of Sydney, it is a dream-like experience, a tantalizing mix of real and virtual worlds. At least that is the opinion of critics of what is probably the most important visual art event in the Asia Pacific region. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the Biennale, under the artistic direction of Stephanie Rosenthal, Chief Curator of London’s Hayward Gallery, has regained its former prowess. And it has a new urgency. The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed, is the title, inspired by the science-fiction writer William Gibson. With this motto, Rosenthal alludes to utopias as well as injustices. The future, with all its technological and communication possibilities, is accessible to only a few, while many do not seem to be offered a way out of their precarious living situation.

More than 80 artists from 35 countries reflect this theme from different perspectives. For the event, Rosenthal transformed seven atmospheric venues in the city into Embassies of Thought. At places including the former convict penal establishment Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor, an old cemetery, a former carriageworks, and the venerable Art Gallery of New Youth Wales, a framework was created in which artists could investigate poetic themes such as “Disappearance,” “Spirits,” “Reality,” and “Translation.”

In addition, site-specific works are scattered throughout the city, and the Biennale is embedded in an extensive supporting program consisting of performances, film premieres, talks, and workshops. This gesamtkunstwerk blends the Australian art scene with international positions in astonishing ways. The works are grouped in clusters in the different “Embassies” and the works in each cluster correspond with one another. Apart from indigenous Australian greats such as the Aboriginal artist and activist Richard Bell and the feminist performance collective Brown Council, visitors can experience many international stars and newcomers. Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time is the apt title of the pendulum installation by Frankfurt-based artist and choreographer William Forsythe that is suspended from the ceiling of a giant abandoned factory hall on Cockatoo Island. The feeling of being here yet not really here defines this Biennale. Cultural belonging, migration, the circulation of images on the Internet, and a reality that is becoming increasingly virtual are motifs that are taken up again and again. Often, for example in the case of the film installation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul of Thailand, the works have ghostly, eerie qualities. His flaming fireball projected on a huge glass ball conjures up both primitive rituals and today’s unrest and outbreaks of violence. Projection and reality can scarcely be differentiated. Adda Manok Mo, Pedro? (Do You Have a Rooster, Pedro?), the over seven-meter-wide painting by Philippine artist Rodel Tapaya, also combines an ancient world full of demons and spirits of nature with current images of aggression and terror.

At the Biennale, worlds literally collide. Like Tapaya, the Turkish artist Nilbar Güreş is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. In Sydney, she is showing her video Open Phone Booth (2007–2011). It examines a different kind of overlapping of realities – the situation in the small town her father lives in. For decades, residents waited in vain for their own telephone network. Now, they can finally contact friends and relatives around the world directly with their new mobile phones. To get good reception, however, they have to leave the village, which is nestled in a valley, and climb one of the surrounding mountains. Thus, the dramatic landscape of East Anatolia becomes an “open phone booth” – a symbol of the longing for community and communication.   

The Indian art photographer Dayanita Singh, to whom an entire floor of Deutsche Bank’s Head Office is devoted, also takes up this longing in reference to the art trade. She developed her mobile Suitcase Museum (2015) as an alternative to traditional museums, which are primarily located in metropolises and power centers. Her museum can be set up in regions where there is no infrastructure and thus can reach an audience that is far removed from the art world. At the same time, it expresses an everyday reality strongly influenced by migration. In times in which people who are fleeing or searching for a livelihood have to put their whole life in a bag, Singh’s exhibition fits in a suitcase. It doesn’t need walls, consisting solely of book covers and fanfold paper. By alluding to social inequality and the power of established institutions, Singh addresses one of the essential issues of this thrilling Biennale – in what contemporary form can today’s art communicate our history and reality.

20th Biennale of Sydney
until 5 June 2016