A Less Conflicted Future

This years’ Biennale of Sydney is devoted to alternative forms of communication and being, far from the controversies and political protests from two years ago.

Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable (2016) at the Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island.
Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable (2016) at the Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island, one of the biennales recurrent venues located in Sydney Harbour.

Dark clouds and rain dampened the mood during last weeks’ preview of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed. Artistic Director Stephanie Rosenthal has curated a biennale featuring 83 artists hailing from 35 countries, loosely centred around notions of agency and identity in the digital age, through seven so-called «embassies of thought» at multiple venues around central Sydney, including a mobile book stall dedicated to the Polish author Stanislaw Lem by Singaporean artist Heman Chong.

Two years ago there was a sense of despair in the air after massive protests against the founding sponsor, Transfield, and by extension against the previous Artistic Director Juliana Engberg. A new major sponsor is now in place, The Neilson Foundation, and the controversies around the biennale seem to have simmered down. However, massive cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts were announced in the aftermath of the Transfield protests. Cuts that will be haunting Australian artists and institutions for years to come.

Ming Wong, Windows On The World (Part 1), 2014,
Ming Wong, Windows On The World (Part 1), 2014.

German curator Stephanie Rosenthal is currently Chief Curator of the Hayward Gallery in London, where she has staged a number of rigorously researched solo and thematic group exhibitions. For the 20th Biennale of Sydney Rosenthal has managed to create a well-paced and meditative exhibition, while avoiding the politics and protests that can both enliven critical conversations and at the same time create painful experiences for artists and audiences.

To shape The future is already here, Rosenthal used an increasingly popular curatorial mode of outsourcing aspects of the research and exhibition making to a group of trusted peers. Thirteen «attachés» – curators, writers and theorists – provided contours and content for the exhibition. Unlike Engberg’s biennale which featured over a dozen Scandinavians, there are only four artists from the region in this edition: Danish artist Nina Beier is joined by fellow Dane Mette Ingvartsen, Norwegian Mette Edvardsen and Swedish artist Bo Christian Larsson, who contributes an ongoing workshop where he and a group of assistants are sewing white covers for the headstones at Camperdown Cemetery in central Sydney.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, You are the prime minister, 2015
Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, You are the prime minister, 2015.

The William Gibson quote which the biennale borrows for its title signals a desire to discuss issues of technology and class. These issues are present through the show, but it rarely manages to address questions concerning means of production and distribution, which are surely the key concerns of the title’s second clause. The use of concepts like «embassy» and «attaché» can also be somewhat misleading, as geopolitics is not a central theme in the biennale. Rosenthal is more interested in the embassy as a place outside normal regulations, where alternative forms of communication and being might be possible. The room which most strongly creates a universe of its own, where sound is quieted and time is made visible, is the immersive installation by Japanese artist Taro Shinoda – a platform hovering within a monumentally tall room covered from floor to ceiling in drying clay.

It is in the works where things change and bodies are set in motion that this biennial finds its strength: performances by Adam Linder, Alexis Teplin and Boris Charmatz or installations outside of art spaces such as those by Keg de Souza and Archie Moore. These works create their own environments where the predictability of museum exhibitions is broken, and the otherness hinted at in Rosenthal’s use of the term embassy rings true.

Noa Eshkol, The Creation, (1995), to the left & The Four Seasons, (undated, 1980s) to the right.
Noa Eshkol, The Creation, (1995), on the left & The Four Seasons, (undated, 1980s) on the right.