Less than two weeks ago, over one hundred Sydney Biennale artists, staff, and visitors from around the world stood in a half circle on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, waiting for an Aboriginal smoking ceremony to begin. Brendan Kerin and Nathan Moran from the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council lit fragrant gum leaves, enveloping everyone in smoke, to ward off bad spirits before performing a ‘Welcome to Country’ ritual, an increasingly common practice at major events in Australia that acknowledges whose land people are gathered on. As of last week, crowds over a hundred were banned throughout the country in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19. The same week, Australia closed its borders to international visitors; the country is now in lockdown and the Biennale is closed indefinitely.
What role will art, criticism, and reflection take in the face of a global pandemic? We are not sure, but here are some observations and thoughts on 22nd Biennale of Sydney – perhaps the last major art event in the world to open in the spring of 2020. This edition is led by artist Brook Andrew and is entitled Nirin, a word meaning “edge” in the language of the Wiradjuri people of central New South Wales. Andrew’s wide-ranging practice – spanning everything from painting to participatory installations, often created in collaboration with others – has made him one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. In 2012, he curated the critically acclaimed exhibition Taboo for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The show centred on issues of race and brought together Australian and international artists with Andrew’s personal archives, postcards, press photography, and pieces from the museum’s collection. The distinctive approach and voice created by that iconic show, we believe, is one of the reasons he was chosen as the biennale’s artistic director.
After a couple of unfocused editions, Nirin stands out in its thoughtful layering of contemporary artworks, museum art collections, historical objects, and artefacts such as letters and postcards which help tease out histories of violence, race-based discrimination, and colonisation. The exhibition features more than seven hundred artworks and objects by 101 artists, collectives, and makers from central and remote locales around the world, including Sami artists Sissel M. Bergh and Anders Sunna, as well as Inuit/Canadian Taqralik Partridge, from Scandinavia. Nirin’s ambition is more encompassing and less centred on the art world than recent editions. The biennale’s public program, Wir or “sky”, features bush walks, hip hop festival, poetry slam, exercise and dance classes, and a special event for three hundred Indigenous students from schools across Australia. It is heartbreaking to think how many of these will be cancelled in this time of social distancing.
The opening weekend saw the launch of an Indigenous-led series of talks and performances, Aabaakwad (It clears after a storm), bringing together artists, curators and scholars from twenty-four First Nations and twelve countries. It was co-organised by Andrew and Wanda Nanibush, an Anishinaabe curator and activist who works at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada. There was a strong Nordic presence during this four-day event, with Liisa-Ravna Finborg, Máret Ánne Sara, Taqralik Partridge, and Britta Marakatt-Labba. Unfortunately, we had to leave the second day of the gathering. Like most international visitors, we had to return to our home in Aotearoa New Zealand before its borders closed.
The eeriest connection between the current viral disaster and the key narratives of the exhibition is the devastating impacts of viruses carried around the world to populations without immunity. Remembering the catastrophic loss of life caused by the introduction of colds, flu, and small-pox to Indigenous peoples around the world was explicitly prompted by a conversation between Nanibush and Mi’kmaq artist, Ursula Johnson. With the spread of a deadly contagion front of mind, however, and with the acknowledgement of these disastrous past examples propelled by colonisation being raised as well as the vulnerability of already precarious communities becoming increasingly apparent, many artworks in the show find new resonances.
Jes Fan’s gloopy installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art bring together silicone, soap, and glass with estrogen, testosterone, and melanin in semi-scientific apparatuses which look like the aftermath of viral research gone bad. Ibraham Mahama’s installation at art Artspace, A Grain of Wheat (2015–2018), comprising 400 first aid stretchers from the Second World War which the artist collected near a refugee camp in Athens, brings a sickening smell of mould, smoke, and earth into the gallery, and evokes moments of triage, loss of life, and human cruelty. Major installations by Anna Boghiguian, Teresa Margolles, Aziz Hazara, and a participatory work by Tania Bruguera speak poignantly to social ills and the vulnerability of specific populations: refugees, Indigenous peoples, women, transgender people, and children.
Other works created the conditions for sharing culture in ways that give us something to look forward to when we can gather again. Eric Bridgeman and Haus Yuriyal have created Suna (2020) – meaning “middle ground” or “safe space” in the Yuri language spoken in Papua New Guinea – a round house for community gathering, ceremony, and exchange which is vividly painted in graphic yellow, red, and black patterns. In a project about raising awareness about the Stolen Generations [the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families by the Australian government during the period 1910 to 1970] and healing its wounds, Tony Albert’s Healing Land, Remembering Country (2020) is a greenhouse under a timber geodesic dome containing many baskets woven by hand in Indigenous communities around Australia. The baskets hold memories by children, and visitors are invited to write down their own on paper imbedded with seeds and either place them in the vessels or plant their seeded thoughts. Live events such as performances by Aboriginal collective Tennant Creek Brio, the festival FUNPARK, and Kylie Kwong’s project, True Nourishment, which encompasses ceremony, storytelling, gratitude, and sustainable food with native ingredients, are energising projects which push the bounds of expected programming for an international art biennial.
A few days ago, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney announced that it will be the first major art event to be fully accessible online, through a partnership with Google. Sitting now at our kitchen table in isolation in Ngāmotu New Plymouth, it feels strange to revisit the exhibition virtually; for us Nirin was quite a located and physical exhibition experience. It now feels hard to imagine where and when we might all be able to gather, share food, and talk about the big questions through the lens of visual art. For now, we are grateful for that moment of togetherness, conscious that we will yearn for it again soon. We are grateful for our health, and mindful that others are currently facing down a very real threat. Nirin has given us a complex network of positions, histories, and possibilities to consider in this moment where we need more to think about than the latest report in the 24-hour news cycle.