I’m still digesting my thoughts around this years Sydney Biennale; three days of solid art is so exciting but it can make you go a bit strange! The variety and scope of work is overwhelming and I find it impossible to fully engage with all of it, so there are always interesting ideas that I miss. I thought I’d share some of the works that stood out to me personally in a two-part post.
Curated by Mami Kataoka, Superposition has a suitably all-encompassing theme that borrows it’s name from the theory that any multiple of quantum states can be added together or ‘overlaid’ to produce another valid quantum state. In the context of the Biennale we are looking at antagonistic, conflicting, collision states, many of which reflect on our current socio-political and physical world climate. The programme states “…the participating artists in the 21st Biennale of Sydney have not been chosen in order to represent or symbolise a particular theme. Rather, many of the artists reflect multiple and sometimes opposing perspectives within their work…” so that leaves it pretty open. The programme also stated that the works were chosen to be shown in the various venues due to the loose links they hold with the history and characteristics of the buildings. I’m not sure I really saw that (although too be fair I don’t know too much about the venues), but the theming of works within the venues was successfully symbiotic much of the time.
I like Carriageworks as a venue. It’s spacious, airy and has historic industrial features that make for an interesting building without impinging upon the experience of the works on display.
The first work that greets you when entering Carriageworks is Chen Shaoxiong’s “The Views” (2016) 4 channel video installation. There was so much about this work to enjoy! The painterly scenes with the subtly sporadic animation, the curved screens that can be viewed from both inside and out, the melancholy soundtrack, the monochromatic scenes that felt lit from within. The work evoked feelings of time and place without being tritely nostalgic, and somehow the images were more alive and real because of how understated the movement was. The scenes would appear still and then suddenly, out of the corner of the eye a tiny movement would be captured; a dog in the distance, a cyclist cross the tracks, the lights switching on or off in a building.
This work was one of the last Chen Shaoxiong completed before his death and captures the everyday views from his hospital window. There is a poignancy and resolution in the work that is difficult to describe.
Semiconductor have 2 pieces in the Biennale, one in Carriageworks and one in the Gallery of NSW. “Earthworks” (2016). This huge five channel video work uses a technique called analogue modelling where pressure and motion are applied to layers of particles to simulate plate tectonics. The data used comes from seismic data gathered in real world landscapes and terrain. The soundtrack is generated from the data and also controls the movement of the visuals. I enjoyed this work because, quite frankly, I always enjoy art/science crossovers! It’s immersive, it’s hypnotic, it visualises as undulating colour and form the kinds of processes that take millenia.
There were 2 works at the Carriageworks that highlighted the way the curation created an enhancing symbiosis. Firstly we watched a single channel untitled video by Laurent Grasso that explores the felt presences in the landscape around Yuendumu, Northern Territory using some of the imagery, such as floating light globes, found in his previous works. We then viewed the paintings of George Tjungurrayi with their rippling surfaces displayed vertically and horizontally. After watching Grasso’s haunting video we were primed to immerse ourselves into the outback landscapes of Tjungurrayi; the works enhanced and juxtaposed each other rewardingly.
Laurent Grasso (2018) “Untitled”
George Tjungurrayi – various works
This island is an amazing site in and of itself. The industrial buildings with all their old machinery, the huge rock in the centre crossed by tunnels and topped by colonial buildings are all fascinating. But – and take this with a grain of salt – I don’t always enjoy Cockatoo Island as an art venue. I feel that for some work the classic “white cube” is a better display choice because buildings like those on Cockatoo Island can overwhelm. Very large works (Ai Wei Wei’s gigantic inflatable refugee raft) and site-specific (or site-modified) installations thrive in the Cockatoo Island spaces, but some of the smaller and more restrained works are hard for me to engage with due to the fact that there is so much going on in the environs. This might just be my tendency to get distracted and it all very much depends on the artist’s installation intentions too, of course, but there were some works that I felt might have faired better in a more traditional gallery space.
Two stand-out works on the island were Yukinori Yanagi’s “Icarus Container” (2018) and “Landscape with an Eye” (2018)
“Icarus Container” is a labyrinth of steel and mirror that reflects on humanities quest for power and advancement through the structure of capitalism and the folly of ego. A giant burning sun at one end references nuclear fusion, while a sky mirror at the opposite end pulls the viewer into the void. Much like Icarus, humanity strives towards self-destruction through unrestrained recklessness.
I enjoyed the texts etched into mirror as you advance through the containers, they were all references to the Icarus myth and to our unsatisfied quest for dominion. When walking one way down the labyrinth the sky was visible, increasing in size behind the etched mirror quotes. Turn around and there was the fire of the sun heading off into the distance. The roiling madness of the furiously burning sun with it’s thunderous soundscape contrasted beautifully with the cool blue emptiness of the Sydney sky.
“Landscape with an Eye” is installed in a different part of the island and also examines humanity’s relationship with the harnessing of power through archival audio visual footage from nuclear explosions. A giant globe hangs suspended in the room with spherical projections giving the illusion that a disembodied eyeball is floating in space. The eye moves spasmodically, it’s iris expanding and contracting, blood vessels visible around it’s circumference. I found this work at once compelling and disturbing. I didn’t at any time feel that the eye was an observer of us, the viewers, but that we in fact were witness to the visions of the eye.