The 18th Biennale of Sydney, curated by Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, runs under the umbrella concept of ‘all our relations’ (lowercase intended). From June through September this year five Sydney city spaces – The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay, Cockatoo Island and, for the first time, Redfern’s Carriageworks – are hosting the works of more than 100 artists from over 40 countries. With such a glut of astonishing Art (and to pay the artists the respect of more than a cursory line or two for all their blood, sweat and tears), my review will be divided into three parts – the MCA, the AGNSW and The Rest.


I started my look at The 18th Biennale of Sydney at Circular Quay’s Museum of Contemporary Art because to me, this venue is the one that has held the radical spirit of the Biennale from the start. The AGNSW has recently played modernist catch-up (in a pretty earth-shaking way) but the MCA, like the Biennale, has always hosted works that make you prick up your ears, open your eyes and peel back your mind.

The BOS18 works take up the entire first and third floors of the MCA under the subtitle ‘Possible Composition’ –  a concept as catch-all and vague as ‘all our relations’, which allows a wide wide net to be cast conceptually. Adding to the ‘all our relations’ idea of collaboration, conversation and compassion, ‘Possible Composition’ features a number of artists who pull together odds and ends and flotsam and jetsam to create Art so beautiful it makes you reel.

Thailand’s Pinaree Sanpitak hangs a ceiling with gray origami boxes and blown-glass, fibre-optic-lit breasts. As you walk around under its impending gravity, your passage sets off sensors which play sounds and drifting music over your head. It is called ‘Anything Can Break’ and it is a dream. From now on, you are in another world, or parallel worlds divided by the gallery walls.

The large middle room on Level 1 is dominated by Lee Mingwei’s ‘The Mending Project’. The US/Taiwanese artist takes in your torn clothes, toys etc and mends them with a few stitches. The stitches are made with thread from any one of the hundreds of thread-spools that fill two huge walls and remain attached (you leave your clothes with him till the exhibition ends – trust is another theme). As the exhibition is still young there were not a lot of threads – I very much look forward to checking in around September when the artist’s space will be filled with a rainbow-skein of threads – a very literal and warm representation of connection and interconnection.

In their BOS18 catalogue essay curators de Zegher and McMaster talk of the movement in the radical arts away from themes and strategies of disruption, separation with its oppositional, negative stance towards collaboration, connection and inclusion. No one could express this new ‘niceness in Art’ more at the MCA than Lee Mingwei and his Mending Project – sure, the artwork itself is a lovely, poetic and direct expression, but his own personality – and the simple act of sitting in a gallery, talking to members of the public as he humbly stitches their torn teddy bears and shirts (in effect, climbing down from the stage of Celebrity) – is hugely connecting. As I am sure, Mr Mingwei is fully aware.

Up on the third floor I am struck by Ghanan El Anatsui’s royally coloured red and gold crumpled blankets adorning the walls. Drawn closer their texture I see that they are woven entirely from bottle cap rims, cut off the cap, flattened and stitched into a hard sheet with wire. With its themes of alcoholism and African colonialism these works (‘Afor’ and ‘Anonymous Creature’) are a knockout – beautiful African blankets made from an alien poison.

The cap-C Craft virtuosity is carried right through Level 3. Kamin Lertchaipresert has crafted 365 wryly comic Buddhas out of masticated Thai banknote (yes, money!) papier-machê which sit in a glass case running the length of the floor – have a close look at them all, many are drolly hilarious. Liu Zhuoquan fills a room with hundreds of black vessels (from little pill bottles to massive glass oil-jars), all dark green with a hint of snake scales roiling inside each one. Looking closer into his technique I find that they have all been ‘inside-painted’ with a snake-skin texture – an artisan technique that leaves the impression of snakes in black-green oil filling all these bottles. It is truly breath-taking.

But the Level 3 virtuosity is not all of the loud, eye-poking variety. Liang Quan’s tea-stained paper collages and the moon-vases and porcelain works of Koreans Yeesookyung and Park Young-Sook are works of satori – moving into me like a Zen gesture, affecting the mind long after their cool stasis has faded from the retina.

We leave Level 3, the MCA and this part of The 2012 Biennale through a dimly lit hall which houses Australian Judith Wright’s ‘A Journey’. Of all the staggering works I have taken in today, this one strikes me the hardest but oddly leaves me the coldest. A de Chirico-esque nightmare parade of amputated mannequins, eyeless dolls and man-animal composite torsos, they move forward in broken baby carriages, metal bathtubs, children’s coffins and boxes. At the front, a wooden child leads in a wheelchair, but looks back at her motley train of walking wounded. Knowing that Wright began this work out of her sorrow at losing a baby soon after birth cannot help but affect one. I was equally affected by the deliciously creepy Freud-fest of her stitched-together beings. But putting aside my (far from subjective) worship of all things Surreal, I felt – especially against the clear and sharp originality of all else I had seen here – Wright’s ‘A Journey’ was vaguely derivative and strained for effect unnecessarily.

But make your own mind up. Every two years we are blessed with this Art manna from every corner of our wonderful world – a free feast for your senses. I am impatient to see what else BOS18 holds.

Published July 2012 on

  1. Collette Signore says:

    i love to visit art galleries because i also have an eye for art. I love to do some painting myself. `'”,” Take care healthmedicinelab

  2. […] Exhibition review: 18th Biennale of Sydney – Part 1 MCA […]

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