The Future is Already Here: A Review of the 20th Biennale of Sydney

Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera, Reinvention of the Futurist (anti-)opera  Victory over the sun , 2016, mixed-media installation. image courtesy of Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Document Photography.

Justene Williams with Sydney Chamber Opera, Reinvention of the Futurist (anti-)opera Victory over the sun, 2016, mixed-media installation. image courtesy of Biennale of Sydney. Photo: Document Photography.

EDITED BY Virginia Were
Winter 2017


On an island in the middle of Sydney Harbour, in a building built by convicts, just as bat silhouettes start to dissolve into the night, a spectacularly-dressed man bellows: "Glory to the multifaceted dark!". This peculiar worship occurs at an intense moment in the presentation of the seminal 1913 Russian Futurist avant-garde opera Victory over the sun, performed on Cockatoo Island as part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney The future is here – it's just not evenly distributed. It is one of many performance-based works woven into Stephanie Rosenthal's theme that mines an array of topics including science fiction, spirituality, global mobility and the post-internet era.

Despite noticeably fewer artists than in previous Sydney biennales, Rosenthal delivered a sharp concept specific enough to justify her artist selection but also one that has perceptively been influenced by their practices. Borrowing her title from sci-fi novelist William Gibson, Rosenthal investigates how we envision our reality by blurring the lines between the physical and virtual worlds. And where many curators might just leave it at that, she has gone further to topically divide BOS 20 into well-articulated sub-themed 'embassies' pertaining to the six main venues.

For instance, Cockatoo Island is the 'Embassy of the Real', the Art Gallery of New South Wales as the 'Embassy of Spirits', the intriguing new addition of Mortuary Station is the 'Embassy of Transition' and so on. Plus a number of individual 'in-between' projects are scattered within walking distance to some of the venues. Throughout, she taps into a fascinating intersection of recent art trends alongside her forte of melding contemporary dance with visual art.

As in previous years, the highlight of the BOS 20 is definitely Cockatoo Island and it also seems to be where Rosenthal's concept is best demonstrated. It features a mixture of works that explore either the portent realities of science fiction, the digital's relation to the physical, or mindful corporeal perspectives.

The most successful sci-fi influenced work is undoubtedly Justene Williams' collaboration with the Sydney Chamber Opera to recreate Victory over the sun, famous for Kazimir Malevich's hand in designing the original wardrobe and stage set. The story is driven by a mad plot to destroy the sun upon the recommendation of some mysterious time travellers. Predictably the earth is plunged into a gloomy dystopia, a predicament evocative of our own impending future with man-made climate change. This enthralling adaptation, impeccably performed, captures the earnest absurdity that typifies the Russian avant-garde of the time. For Williams' part, she respectfully revamped Malevich's designs through plastics, colourful synthetic materials, props moved by electronic hoists and video projections adding digital intensity. All these elements enable this queer futuristic odyssey to achieve contemporary relevance without destroying the impassioned constructivist spirit so alien to us now.

Also part of the sci-fi mix is New Zealander Joyce Campbell's Walters Prize-nominated work Flightdream (2015). While the smallest artwork on the island, Campbell's video is one of the most sympathetically installed by being integrated within a sandstone tunnel wall as a response to the work's submarine subject.

Other works of note on Cockatoo delve deep into post-internet aesthetics. Of note is Korakrit Arunanondchai's installation Painting with history . . . (2015) that grandstands a highly-produced music video accommodated by a stone- washed denim beanbag lounge area. The work considers the digital as a gateway into the spiritual realm through the crystal clarity of high definition video and the godlike perspectives of drone footage.

Of the corporeal persuasion is William Forsyth's Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time (2015), a large-sale interactive installation designed to be walked through. It consists of an expansive array of string-suspended plumb bobs mechanically driven to oscillate in unison. As the metronomic tempo increased, you’re forced to weave your body through the undulating grid and, in doing so, are made all the more present and ‘in the moment’.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales the spiritual is evoked through a range of sculptural and video works. Tara Shinoda's Abstraction of Confusion (2016) is one of the standout works of BOS 20. By masterfully harnessing the traditions of Japanese architecture, Shindoa created a truly transcendent spatial experience. After removing your shoes you walk up and out onto a floating platform of tatami mats that looks out into a tall gallery space plastered with wet white clay left to dry, crack and fall to the ground.

New Zealand artist Dane Mitchell contributed All Whatness is Wetness, Homeopathic Meander Remedy, a new work of homeopathic solutions mixed at an industrial scale in large vats and placed either side of a large window looking out into the botanic gardens. His work gives a wry conceptual edge that balances out some of the more flaky inclusions in the AGNSW show.

While there were certainly disappointing moments for me, some failings in technical resolve and some works that were simply lacklustre, overall BOS 20 struck me as being thoughtfully entertaining and conceptually well crafted. No doubt this resolve was helped by Rosenthal's self-reflexive process of artist selection.

In her talk at Auckland Art Gallery a few months before the BOS 20 opening, Rosenthal mentioned that she actively questions her gender biases in artist selection, noting that it is easy to replicate the disproportionally male selection one sees in other exhibitions. She made a conscious decision to give large sculptural commissions in BOS 20 to female rather than male practitioners, who usually assume that position. For example she commissioned Lee Bul, who created a huge carnivalesque installation in Cockatoo Island's massive Turbine Hall, and Minouk Lim, who suspended a whole shipping container at Carriageworks.

There also seems to have been a conscious decision to include a significant indigenous component to the show, with close to half of the Australian artists being of Aboriginal decent. In the publication she also demonstrates an interest in Aboriginal philosophy saying that the idea to create 'embassies' was inspired by traditions of the Yolnu people.  

Richard Bell's Aboriginal Embassy (2013–) squatting outside the MCA unapologetically confronted blatant infringements of Aboriginal rights. This bold strategy seems so necessary when I viewed his videos revealing white Australians candidly sharing mindboggling disregard for anything indigenous. Bell's canvas tent was host to numerous performances and video viewings over the opening weekend. I was lucky to witness a live 'white slave auction’ that featured the sale of a skinny white male curator. "James is a curator in the making," declared the auctioneer, an actor dressed in striped jailbird fatigues. "He's a great purchase for any artist  . . . could be a chance to get in a show and have a slave!"  

In her curation of BOS 20, Rosenthal demonstrates that biennales can resist the common problem of catch-all concepts with little specificity, an absence of self-reflexivity and lack of respect for the locality. And for an event recovering from the controversial loss of a major sponsor, Rosenthal was a principled choice. What BOS 20 lacks in quantity in comparison to its predecessors it makes up for with rigour and ethical backbone. If the future of the Sydney Biennial is already here, it is one characterised by humble integrity.