Biennale of Sydney
In search for a more just future

With think tanks, tent camps, and futurist operas, Australia’s most important art event approaches the reality of the post- Internet age. Anneke Jaspers, curator for contemporary art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, on an astonishingly political Biennale sponsored by Deutsche Bank.
When the Biennale of Sydney was inaugurated in 1973, the explosion of large-scale recurring exhibitions was still on the horizon. Venice and São Paulo were well established, along with documenta, but Sydney introduced an important platform for work from the Asia-Pacific region, including framing indigenous practices within an international contemporary art context. The exhibition emerged during a period of intense self-scrutiny about Australia’s position in the world, geographically, politically, and culturally, and as a consequence, its founding moment was underscored by a heightened tension between the desire to forge global connections and relevance, and the need to explore and critique local specificities.

The twentieth edition will bring back into focus the notion of a worldview particular to the times, prompted by artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal’s guiding question: “If each era posits its own view of reality, what is ours?” This provocation speaks foremost to the conditions of daily life, but also tacitly reflects on the evolutions that have shaped the cultural context of contemporary art and the biennale in the antipodes. Much has changed in the last decades, before the rise of the World Wide Web, as theories of globalization, post-colonial identity politics, and second-wave feminism were gathering pace. But on what fronts might we have imagined greater or different progress?

This leitmotif works in tandem with Rosenthal’s exhibition title The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, which takes its cue from a quote by the science fiction author William Gibson. The title alludes to a state of crisis and suggests connections to pressing social issues in Australia that are defined by inequality and injustice, and which resonate with circumstances elsewhere in the world. The unequal distribution of wealth, indigenous disadvantage, barriers to cultural belonging (exemplified by the refugee crisis), gender disparity, and the co-option of natural resources by private interests are all conjured by this guiding curatorial statement and will be explored throughout the exhibition.

As usual, the Biennale will be spread across the inner city, this year in seven main venues including the city’s two major art museums, key not-for-profits, and the spectacular World Heritage Site Cockatoo Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour: home to a sprawling labyrinth of buildings previously occupied by convicts and shipbuilders. In addition, Rosenthal has secured a number of smaller, surprising spaces for special projects, including a cemetery and a library. Extrapolating on the diplomatic notion of an embassy as a politically autonomous space, the main venues are being framed as “Embassies of Thought,” each dedicated to exploring an expansive, poetic concept, ranging from the “Real” to “Transition” and “Disappearance.”

Invoking the notion of an embassy in Australia is a particularly charged gesture, given the ruthless and politically dubious terms on which European sovereignty was established in 1788. Despite the clear presence of Aboriginal culture, the land was declared “terra nullius,” and thereby freely available for settlement, precipitating many decades of violence. In more recent times, the symbolism of the Western-centric notion of an “embassy” has been re-appropriated by the Aboriginal community in the form of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy: the world’s longest continuous protest action, established in 1972 outside Parliament House by Aboriginal activists from the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern.

As a consequence, Australian artist Richard Bell’s Embassy (2013–16) is a signal work in this year’s exhibition because it casts into relief Rosenthal’s embassy framework, speaks to the passage of time and change (or otherwise), and acts as a locus for a number of concepts that connect other works across the exhibition such as: territory and identity, social disadvantage and emancipation, information and power. Bell is a practiced provocateur, acclaimed for works that offer an indigenous perspective on Australia’s colonial legacies, typically with acerbic wit. Embassy pays homage to the Aboriginal tent embassy by restaging the original structure as a space for hosting events that continue to prioritize Aboriginal perspectives on issues including housing, land rights, and health. For the Biennale, the work will take up residence on the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s front lawn overlooking Sydney Cove, aptly in dialogue with the site of first settlement. Here it will provide an anchor for the “Embassy of Translation,” where Rosenthal will bring together practices that use strategies of restaging and rewriting.

At the more historically-oriented, collection-focused Art Gallery of New South Wales (Embassy of Spirits), Bell’s considerations of land, dispossession and the overlapping lineages produced by colonialism will resurface in Jumana Manna’s long-form video A magical substance flows into me (2015). This work evolved from her research into the German-Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann, who in the 1930s broadcast a radio program in Palestine on ‘Oriental’ music, which crossed the cultural divide between Arabs and Jews. Manna uses this as a departure point for exploring the enduring and evolving musical traditions of present-day Palestine, tracing shared aspects of heritage between communities alienated from one another through language, cultural belief and physical segregation. Of the film’s navigation between geographic locations, Manna notes: “I follow the path of Lachmann’s research, performing the radio waves as I travel to the different parts of the country…to where these groups live – even more segregated today than before.” “This labor, and the traversal of various borders…provide a space from which another Palestine can be imagined.” 

At Carriageworks, a lively multi-disciplinary venue housed in a refurbished inner-city railyard, Keg de Souza’s participatory installation We Built This City (2016) will foster Manna’s gesture towards an alternative future while creating a noteworthy dialogue with Bell’s Embassy. In a city where the cost of living is astronomically inflated, de Souza will respond to the social dynamics at play in Redfern, which has been subjected to rampant gentrification in recent years. A makeshift architecture constructed from salvaged tents will house the Redfern School of Displacement. Here de Souza will “host dialogues centered around locally relevant issues of displacement that have global parallels,” stemming from the impacts of conflict and colonization, climate, urban development, and social inequity, “promoting learning as a useful tool to combat the forces of dispossession.”

As with Bell, de Souza’s approach emphasizes self-determination and alternative models of pedagogic exchange, strategies that equally inform Making History (2016) by the all-female collective Brown Council, which has played a significant role in reinvigorating the local performance art scene in recent years. The group will take over a defunct commercial gallery, hosting talks and reenactments that explore the history of performance art in Australia from feminist and queer perspectives. They are particularly interested in how the process of fabrication and exclusion that informs the making of archives applies to performance, “a medium that [already] deals in slippery translations … mediation, fiction, memory, rumour, and gossip.” By carving out a space for marginal perspectives and “unofficial” forms of knowledge, “‘Making History’ seeks to project a future in which we can all actively take part in the production … a future that is polyvocal and collectively devised.” With its emphasis on the partial and subjective foundations of history, Brown Council’s project highlights how knowledge is formed and information circulates, themes that are absolutely key to this year’s Biennale. Rosenthal’s curatorial narrative emphasizes “how the common distinction between the virtual and the physical has become ever more elusive,” clearly pointing to the impact of the Internet on perception.

Working on the related question of how images shape perception and how the Internet, in which images are orphaned from context and authorship, changes our relationship to modernism is Justene Williams. Her eccentric, energetic performances for video have established her as a singular voice within the Australian art scene. Williams’s elaborate mise-enscène channels the absurd actions and visual excess of live events staged by the early twentieth century’s avant-garde, based on surviving scraps of documentation. For the Biennale, she will collaborate with the Sydney Chamber Opera to present a radical re-take on the 1913 Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. Responding to Kazimir Malevich’s original geometric set and costume design, Williams’s version will draw a connection between the infamous Black Square (1915), a radical provocation for future art, and the void-like space of the digital flat screen. On another level, her restaging of this cult theater work draws into dialogue the utopian fervor that was a hallmark of modernity and the post-utopian pragmatism that marks the contemporary moment, mired as it is in discord and uncertainty.

Given Rosenthal’s theme, this tension between progress and inertia is an important touchstone for the exhibition, one more directly negotiated by Ming Wong’s Windows on the World (Part 2) (2014), which will show at Cockatoo Island’s “Embassy of the Real.” In this epic 24-channel video installation, Wong brings together the genres of Chinese science fiction cinema and Cantonese opera to consider the push-and-pull between radical reform and continuity of tradition that underpins Chinese modernity. Wong sees science fiction as a vehicle for reimagining identity, an idea he embodies literally in this work, and his practice more broadly, by “mis-casting” himself in the roles of multiple characters to disrupt simple readings of gender, language, and ethnicity. More specifically, in the wake of the Occupy Central protests, he has noted that the “Windows on the World” cycle engages with China’s current social challenges by probing the questions: What is the future of Hong Kong? Utopian or dystopian? Who belongs to Hong Kong? Who does Hong Kong belong to?

Through this statement, Wong highlights the interplay between concepts of cultural belonging and custodianship, a further connecting thread in the exhibition that links back to Bell’s Embassy, with its concern for land rights, and more tangentially to works addressing environmental exploitation. In Australia, where mining is a key driver of the economy, the decimation of ecosystems for corporate profit is a fraught political issue that will be gently evoked in a sculptural field by Jamie North. Using the refuse known as “slag” from industrial steel processing, North creates structures that house native Australian plants, juxtaposing the careful cultivation of nature with material derived from its calculated ruin. His work will be shown alongside that of Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga at Carriageworks, whose installation with live performance will continue her engagement with land as a repository of contested cultural histories and materials of trade. Nkanga brings a more explicitly postcolonial perspective to this theme: by channelling sensual and emotional connections with the environment and the way physical and psychological terrain map onto one another, her work highlights the cultural relativity of systems of value that accrue to land and natural resources.

The poetics of Nkanga’s work, compared with Bell’s strident, activist-inflected approach, reveal something of Rosenthal’s curatorial method: her rallying of artists with disparate stylistic sensibilities and cultural perspectives amplifies the “unevenness” pointed to in the exhibition title. On the other hand, a shared artistic desire to imagine alternative futures to the one “already here” appears to remain keenly felt among the participating artists in the face of relentless crisis and accelerating alienation. De Souza sums up this position in simple terms, defining her work as an attempt “to think towards a future of equality,” a sentiment that could describe the 20th Biennale of Sydney as a whole.

20th Biennale of Sydney
until 5 June 2016