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 (see here), the AGNSW (see here) and The Rest.

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For the final part of this three-part review of the 18th Biennale of Sydney I hit the non-gallery spaces. Away from the somewhat sterile (and often quasi-holy) ‘white cube’ art spaces of the big museums, the 18BOS artists had some real fun and came up with some startling results.

I will start with the smallest – Carriageworks in Redfern is, for the first time hosting a segment of the Biennale presenting the Australian premiere of a series of contemporary dance performances (11–15 September 2012), in addition to a site-specific installation throughout the duration of the exhibition. The installation comprises work from UK-born Ann Veronica Janssens: a huge loose square of foil moves in the breeze from floor to ceiling in ‘Untitled (Golden Section)’. Behind it, six glass boxes hold oil, water and supersaturated planes of colour in quiet, meditative immiscibility.

Over at Walsh Bay’s Pier 2/3, New Zealander Tiffany Singh fills the gaping wooden hangar with floor-to-ceiling rainbow ribbons, each holding a coconut wood chime, set in undulating rows into the distance. As I walk between the rows of ‘Knock on The Sky, Listen to The Sound’ the wooden chimes clack, like feet walking on a road. (Over at Cockatoo Island, the grid of wood chimes in Singh’s companion piece, also titled ‘Knock on The Sky, Listen to The Sound’, almost deafen me clacking like mad wood-beaked birds in the driving wind).

At the back of the cavernous Pier 2/3 space, Belgian Honoré d’O has constructed a plunging geometry called ‘Air and Inner’ out of paper curtains and rolls hung from the ceiling. His explanatory notes are as idiosyncratic as his artistic vision: “For the eye: no relevant pseudonym; For the air: extra inner”. In his white world, it all makes sense.

Saving the jewel of the Biennale for last, I cross the waters to Cockatoo Island on a grey day, hungry for colour. I am particularly excited about the Island’s artworks as they are all site-specific – worked in, around and between the rooms, spaces and cranes of the old broken down maritime workshop-island. Taken out of the blank whiteout of the traditional gallery space, the artworks have an extra layer of play – they are as much about where they are as what they are.

‘Stories, Senses and Spheres’ is the Island’s slice of ‘all our relations’ – continuing the collaborative and conversational theme. The strong ecological thread here ‘opens up the senses to water, wind and earth’.

I had crossed the water, was being sliced by the icy wind, and Jonathan Jones’ ‘untitled (oysters and teacups)’ now supplied instant ‘earth’. A midden pile of oyster shells, it looks so casual and nature-formed that you accept the polite teacups scattered throughout its pile – the purple edges and lips of the oyster shells blend sweetly with the mauves and greens of the teacups’ dainty floral patterns. Jones’ other work here, the jagged tunnel-long neon installation, ‘Barra’, gently jars equally but with less poetry.

In another darkened tunnel, Dan Roosegaarde’s ‘Dune’ surprises with the benign chatter of a small garden of LEDs on stalks – the lights flow in waves of a natural randomness as you pass. Natural un-nature seems a trait many of the Cockatoo Island works share.

Two circular island air raid shelters (yes, this place has history) house video works: the first, Bahar Behbahani and Almugal Menlibayeva’s ‘Ride The Caspian’ – a striking work of nature hard up against oilwells, I watched with my feet crunching sand underfoot – and Khaled Sabsabi’s ‘Nonabel’  – screeching audio with scattered video of Arabic characters reading “if you destroy the image of violence, it will disappear.”

On the way to view the heavy-hitters of the Island’s Industrial Precinct, I am drawn into two magical wunderkammers – The Theatre of Speaking Objects and The Museum of Copulatory Organs. The first, the work of Czech Eva Kot’átková is a theatre of objects through which a person speaks – this involves theatre performances with props throughout the week. One room is a huge area with musty piles of books that recedes into a darkened distance, which – like the best Surrealism – allows us to fill with our own uncoiling dreads and fears. The walls are covered with Kot’átková’s precise collage-works. The Dada flavour of the collages and use of old-weird wooden furnishings made it all a little old-hat.

The Museum of Copulatory Organs is not Art at all, but it is possibly the most successful of all here to open us up to nature. Essentially a collection of beautifully modelled insect and snail spermatozoa, reproductive tracts and penises – modelled from glass, metal and waxy 3D-printed resin – it is truly wondrous. The Artist, Maria Fernanda Cardoso took us around, explaining each piece, the wonder obvious in her voice. Evolution has made this collection of dazzling shapes and reproductive devices, but – same as it ever was – it takes the Artist to bring it out for us to see.

In the cavernous halls of Cockatoo Island’s Industrial Precinct the big works rule – each a world where pure scale ‘opens up the senses to water, wind and earth’.

Canadian artist/architect Philip Beesley’s ‘Hylozoic Series: Sibyl’ hangs like a phantasy forest of glass around and above you. As you move, it reacts to your presence; as you touch them, the fine, transclucent fish-tail ‘leaves’ arch up, in vaguely sexual pleasure. Trees and branches of oil-pods and dangling plastic alveoli cluster way up to the ceiling where hang breathing balloons, breathing in your CO2 and expelling oxygen. Hylozoism is the idea of “life arising out of material… seeing the world as an oscillation” and, even though I know I am in an entirely man-made structure, I am surprised at how quickly I accept it as Nature.

Peter Robinson’s humourously titled ‘Gravitas Lite’ fills a huge room of rusting machinery with enormous swathes of chain made from white styrene foam. Everything native to this Industrial Precinct room is enormous – machinery, hoists, pipes – and blackened/reddened with rust and the peeling skin of age. Robinson’s huge styrene chains (wrapped in smaller and smaller ropes of chain) are pristine white and perfectly square cut. The contrast is… well… gravitas lite.

Emerging from the Industrial buildings I am washed by Fujiko Nakaya’s cloud installation – no more than a damp fog of mist that we all spin around in like children. A fitting absolution, refreshing me with its simplicity and child-like delight after the battering my mind and soul have taken by the end of this Biennale.

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It is as impossible to ‘sum up’ the 18th Biennale of Sydney as it is to give every work by every artist its due. I know that my eyes, ears and head were opened up yet wider than ever. I was gratified to see more inclusion of Asia-Pacific artists and Arab artists – their perspectives have knocked mine off kilter, in a positive way. Last word will go to co-curator Gerald McMaster, who said in an interview in Broadsheet art magazine “…Rather than think in terms of large-scale (where there will be some) and ‘crowd-pleasing’ (where there will be some), we thought more interns of art that would be memorable… I think that a work of art is just the beginning of an engagement for critical reflection.”

 

Published July 2012 on liveguide.com.au

 

 

 

 

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