Greetings from Sydney! It is so lovely to be back in this city enjoying all the amazing people, places and food. As well as, of course, the wonderful museums and heritage sites. Today I visited my favourite island in the entire world, Cockatoo Island, to see the 21st Biennale of Sydney. It is quite unbelievable to think that two years ago I was working on the island and actually guiding tours to see the artworks that were on display! I visited the island with one of my closest friends, Emily.
For those wanting slightly more context, the Biennale is a huge art festival held every two years at various venues in Sydney. Due to its size, Cockatoo Island usually gets some pretty large-scale works. These can be magnificently displayed in the Turbine Hall. Each Biennale has a different theme and showcases works by artists that can relate. The 21st Biennale has been entirely curated by Artistic Director Mami Kataoka who has selected works adhering to the theme of superposition.
I spent some time reading about what exactly this means and I will try super hard to relay that information in real terms. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you may already know that I can have serious issues with the language used surrounding art. Mainly, it can be incredibly isolating and pretentious causing significant issues regarding inclusivity.
Anyway, this theme looks at how artists can interpret things differently. For example, world events. It then goes one step further and aims to present works that balance and engage. For me, this theme was very vague. I didn’t really think about it too much as I was looking at the individual artworks. This is in complete contrast to the previous Biennale which had a very strong central theme.
On Cockatoo Island, twenty artists have displayed their artworks. These not only fit the broader theme, but, echo the history of the island addressing movement, migration, production and participation. This combination of heritage and art worked really well in the space and you could tell that the artworks had been carefully constructed for their environment.
We started our journey at the top of the island. The first artwork we came across was a dark room filled with screaming people. We decided to avoid this room and continue up the hill.
Displayed in the old Superintendent’s house were works by Dimitar Solakov. In two rooms of the house were around six large panoramic photographs of heritage sites in Bulgaria. These mainly focused on how poorly the sites have been conserved. Alongside these panorama shots were smaller images (drawings and paintings) of animals based on fossil records. I wasn’t a huge fan of this work. Even though he was exploring historical subjectivity, a favourite topic of mine, the way it was approached didn’t gel with me at all.
We then visited the ceramic work of Yasmin Smith. This display was fantastic. Smith uses art, archaeology and science to reflect on a specific site’s environment. In this ceramic display were cast mangrove branches with a wood ash glaze. Considering we have an exhibition in Gladstone regarding our mangrove ecosystem, it was an apt time to see this artwork.
One thing that really struck me about the island was that so many more buildings are now accessible. Meaning, you can now walk into more historical sites and actually see them up close! So lovely to see the island thriving.
Our final stop was the Turbine Hall. Inside is the enormous work by Ai Weiwei called ‘Law of the Journey’ – a 60-metre inflatable boat made from the same rubber used to make the boats that carry refugees from Turkey to Greece. It most definitely communicated a strong message.
My favourite artwork was saved until last (unintentionally!) – ‘Icarus Container’ by Yukinori Yanagi. After waiting in a queue to go inside, we listened to a quick briefing about what to expect. This included the volunteer telling us numerous times not to touch the mirrors. Needless to say, every mirror inside the installation had, in fact, been touched. The point of the work was to use mirrors and words to highlight modern day Icarus – aka reflecting on the consequences of capitalism. As you moved through the space, every mirror reflected the one before with great precision and you felt quite disorientated. We did not touch the mirrors.
Overall, the 21st Biennale of Sydney was a mixed bag but well worth seeing. Especially because it’s on the best island with some of the most incredible sites in Sydney!