Sydney Biennale Part 1

On the 15th March Justine and I spent 3 days at the Vernissage of the 2016 Sydney Biennale. We spent hours and hours each day walking and looking at artworks which was both exhausting and exhilarating. I’ve divided our viewing into 2 posts which just feature a few of the works I enjoyed the most. I’m not going to write too much about them, just shorts notes about the artist and a little about the work as a bit of a memory marker for me.

Our first stop was the ‘Embassy of Translation’ which was housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia on the waterfront.

“The Embassy of Translation revisits historical positions, concepts and artefacts by means of current technologies and working methods, and reconsiders them in the light of contemporary concerns. The works in this Embassy address the question of how we can use our access to the vast past to translate and re-contexuralise history.”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: Biennale of Sydney.

I only recorded one work here; Céline Condorelli (2012-2013/2016) Structure for Communicating with the Wind
I enjoyed the idea of a device for communicating with the wind. The movement of the fabric plus the reflections onto the floor were silent and mesmerising.

We caught the ferry across the harbour to the ‘Embassy of The Real’ on Cockatoo Island. The island itself was very interesting, being both an ex penal colony and shipbuilding yard, so the buildings and overall feel of the island is unusual. We had a look around the large industrial buildings first.

“The Embassy of the Real poses a question central to the Biennale: If each era posits a different view of reality, what is ours?”
Rosenthal, S. (2016) The Guide. Sydney, Australia: Biennale of Sydney.

IMG_2322Lee Bul (2016) Willing To Be Vulnerable

Korean artist Lee Bul works with large scale, immersive installations. her site specific work on Cockatoo island deals with the memories, dreams and aspirations of humanity. This was one of many site-specific installations we saw at the Biennale. I really appreciated the artists’ use of space and site for the works shown on Cockatoo Island.

IMG_2328William Forsythe (2013) Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No.2

We had a lot of fun with the William Forsythe work. Below is a video of Justine running through the moving pendulums. This work was originally developed to be part of a choreography performed by a dancer. In this case the work is activated by the viewers.

IMG_2333Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

Chiharu Shiota has constructed her installation Flowing Water within old prisoner barracks. The work explores the relationship between sleep and waking, between the body and the mind, the states of hypnogogia that are experienced between waking and sleeping. We spent time talking to the attendant who explained how long it took the multitude of assistants to create the work. The feeling within the work was cloying and unnerving with the black threads creating the illusion of a white mist – don’t ask me how that works!

IMG_2342Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

IMG_2338Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

IMG_2334Chiharu Shiota (2009/2016) Flowing Water

There was a very engaging sound-based work by Cevdet Erek called “Room of Rhythms – Long Distance Relationship”. I don’t have any photos because it wasn’t the kind of work that could be experienced visually. Within some ruining buildings on the island were large outdoors speakers pointing in different directions. As the participants moves around the site the rhythmic beat changes and morphs into new beats. It was very hot outside so we didn’t spend as long with this work as we would have liked to.


Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

Bahrti Kher’s ‘Six Women’ are cast from real women, who are also sex workers, in her New Deli studio. The casts are incredibly poignant portraits that show up the subtle bodily characteristics of the women even when displayed in cold, white plaster. They had a natural weight and fleshiness that gave the impression they could move a hand or adjust their posture at any moment. When I walked behind the women and looked over their shoulders I got a sense of intruding into another persons personal space.


Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women


Bahrti Kher (2013-2015) Six Women

In another sector of Cockatoo Island we found Emma McNally’s ‘Choral Fields’ installation. These giant cartographic drawings were displayed on either side of a constructed angular runway on big display boards. McNally’s works are described as inhabiting the overlap between the virtual realm and the physical world, of tracing the things that are sensed rather than seen. The works can be experienced as diagrams of data moving through unseen pathways, communicating between the real and virtual worlds.


Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12


Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12


Emma McNally (2014-2016) Choral Fields 1-12

Joyce Campbell (2015) Flightdream

“This Monster first approached me through a dream. I was the monster, or so it seemed. I was flying as one flies through the air in dream. I did not know I was under water…And then I saw myself.
Unseen, it may be accurate to call the Monster beautiful. Full of the beauty of nakedness so secret it might as well be dead. It has no arms, no legs. It extends a nervous system into pure volume. A sensory flowering, delimning the currents as they stream deep through the frigid hydrosphere.”
Mark von 
Schlegell, Flugtraum (excerpt)


I find it hard to describe how mesmerising I found this moving image work and the accompanying soundtrack by Pete Kolvos. The changing, disintegrating forms flow in slow motion within a landscape that could be equally the depths of space or the bottom of the ocean. It could be a journey through a nebula, an encounter with an intergalactic entity, or the birth of a diaphanous sea beast. The forms are suspended within a blackness so deep that it’s volume is unknowable and the light that illuminates them shifts and pulses with the scrape and groan of the soundtrack.


The 25min looped video was inspired by the short story Flugtraum (Mark von Schegell) which was in turn inspired by Campbell’s Marianas (2002-2003) photographic series – interesting to see an artist and a writer reflecting back and forth upon each others work. Flugtraum is apparently about a diver plummeting into the ocean’s depths onboard a bathysphere in search of a ‘monster’ and with the knowledge that his own end will be found within the belly of the beast. The formless strangeness of the beast is conjured in Campbells ephemeral shapes and movements, tendrils and uncurling systems. I was even more excited to discover that the process of creating these forms was by electrochemical corrosion within a liquid bath. Knowing how much I love chemical (and alchemical) processes the whole idea of the creation of forms through the destruction of other forms through a chemical reaction was very appealing to me.


Thoughts about works by Tracey Tawhiao and Tiffany Singh at Te Uru

Justine and I visited Te Uru gallery last weekend to have a look at the current exhibitions. There were 2 that were of particular interest to me due to their intersection with, differences and similarities to my own work.

Tracey Tawhiao’s work is part of a group show called  IOIOIOIOIOIO that examines the hidden order unifying our Universe. She examines the language of sacred geometry,the names of the Māori Creator IO and the simple but unifying language of binary code. In her work she is exploring the same sort of esoteric language that I enjoy and is taking both a universal and local approach by combining both western mysticism (in the form of ideas such as the Metatron Cube and the Tree of Life) with her ancestral understanding through mātauranga Māori. I related to this work because of her interest in sacred geometry and western mysticism and I enjoyed the relationship between the languages of the different traditions that resulted in a very universal work.



Tracey Tawhiao (Ngai te Rangi, Whakatohea, Tuwharetoa), IOEAU (God and I), 2014, acrylic paint on paper, Te Uru Gallery [there is a material not listed in the artist’s statement which is the acrylic disks overlaying the painted words]

Tiffany Singh was also exhibiting at Te Uru with an exhibition called “Life is But a Vapour” that concerns itself with the grieving process and art as a process to come to terms with grief, death and dying. Over a three month period members of the public were invited to visit Singh’s studio and create memorial string which were incorporated into the work. The work displayed at Te Uru was a combination of this piece and several other in collaboration with other artists. The wall itself was a jumble of objects and symbols, the memorial strings combined with many other items of cultural significance. It felt overwhelming and despite being a participatory artwork I felt it did not invite the viewer to participate. Many of the objects incorporated into the wall were already loaded with heavy religious and cultural meaning so instead of being an inclusive collaboration from many different people it seemed more like a clash of cultures with the viewer being left wondering whether the artist could actually speak for and to all of these peoples who sign their scared items. It felt like a rather cavalier display of symbolic items that the artist might not fully comprehend, rather than a genuine and thoughtful enquiry.


Tiffany Singh, I Have Died Many Times But Your Breathe Makes Me Alive Again, Ongoing collaborative work, Te Uru Gallery 2015

Tiffany Singh had another piece in the gallery that was concerned with a similar idea but was very different in the way it approached the subject matter. “Earth Air Fire Water Ash” is a suspended glass ash receptacle holding charred remains and suspended above a shallow bowl. There is none of the blatant religious and cultural symbolism in this work, but the materials and their display make it very clear what the viewer can explore in the work. It has a quiet poignancy that speaks to me of grief and death far more than the cluttered wall. The work is open ended, the elemental nature of the materials is understandable to all, it invites the viewer to experience it and it doesn’t block the reading through complex, and potentially exclusionary, symbolism. This was very useful for me to observe because its something I have been grappling with in my own practice.


Tiffany Singh, Earth Air Fire Water Ash, 2014, Glass and ash, collaboration with Isaac Katzoff Monmouth Glass studio, Te Uru Gallery

These two exhibitions gave me a clarity about my own practice that I had understood to some extent before, but now have SEEN in the work of others. I can now understand exactly why work like this can be exclusionary and ways to approach subjects to make the art interesting for a wider range of viewers; to make the work better. I am going to hold these images and my realisations about them in my mind when creating my own work so that I move one way and not the other.

Local/Global Part 1

I find my mum a great source of fodder for thinking about art and the contemporary art world. She is a very intelligent person – she teaches calculus at AUT – she also has no connection to the art world, but comes to see the work produced by us MFA students at Whitecliffe and also the occasional exhibition that I want to go to (she enjoyed the Light Show).

She said something to me last week that I think is echoed by a great many people outside the academic art sphere: that the contemporary art world makes it difficult for ‘outsiders’ to understand and access the content of the work.

I can see why people feel this way, but at the same time there are a number of reasons why this is the case;

1) All good things require time and effort.
When the general public looks at art they generally feel that they should be able to stand in front of it for a couple of minutes and all of a sudden every subtle nuance and meaning will become obvious and the viewer can make a decision on whether they ‘like’ it or not.
Liking a work is, of course, irrelevant. It can be a very successful work and you can personally find it tedious or just not to your taste.

Taste is obviously subjective, whereas the qualifying factors around whether a work is considered ‘good’ or not need to be, for the most part, objective. This is where the global art world comes in to play. Being a rather academic subject art is debated, pulled apart and contextualised by experts the world over who place the work in it’s historical, social, cultural and contemporary setting to see whether it is communicating in a valuable way. In order to be able to do this the viewer needs a decent knowledge of art practice and context (context is going to come up again in Part 2), both local and global, without this the work is experiential only. If a member of the public would like to have more knowledge and access to this context all it requires is some time and effort to do a bit of reading, watch some videos and visit more galleries – for an academic subject it’s far more accessible to the lay person than, say, astrophysics. But you have to put in the time.

Speaking of time, this is another aspect of art viewing that the public haven’t always grasped. Looking at a work for 2 minutes then moving on the the next one until you have viewed 20 pieces at a sprint is ultimately going to be unfulfilling. Many contemporary works need time and consideration to appreciate fully, and in our time-poor culture most people aren’t used to taking that quiet time to look and to think. Yet again, this is completely doable by most members of the public, but not only have we not been taught to read visual language, we also have been conditioned to have very short attention spans, so sitting or standing still to contemplate can be anathema to how many people live their lives.

2) Art is not illustration.
Many of my friends are impressed when I draw or paint something realistic, “Those apricots look so real! I thought they were a photo!” (actually, I didn’t use photography because you can’t get an apricot to look that good on a chocolate box). Their understanding of what makes successful art is limited to how accurately it represents something in real life and how difficult they think it would be for them to try and do that themselves. The fact that art exists as an academic discipline, influencing global culture – actually pushing the boundaries of thought – is not something most people recognise. To the wider public art is something nice you look at, not something that causes you to think.

This is where the anger people feel when they don’t like something or don’t ‘get’ something comes in. There is an expectation that artwork should be impressively realistic, it should be hung on a wall or displayed on a podium, it should be tangible, it should exist in a house or a gallery. David Joselit captures this change in the nature, format and location of art in “After Art” where he examines the way art has moved from the walls and podiums into a global space and how art has become an informer of, a reflection of and a creator of global cultures and ways of thinking;

“Art links social elites, sophisticated philosophy, spectrum of practical skills in representation, a mass public, a discourse of attributed meaning to images, financial speculation, and assertions of national and ethnic identity… the art world links valuable cultural capital associated with philosophical discourse to mass appeal and bald financial power.”
Joselit, D. “After Art” (2013) Princeton University Press, Princeton: USA.

Talking to my mum I realised that there is a whole world that most people are unaware of; the world of art fairs, biennials, critics, art writers, museums, collectors, dealers, investors, galleries and the artists themselves. A whole movement informing the way we think and see things that most people don’t know exists – although often they are aware of the trickle down of ideas into film, music videos, advertising, fashion and design.

The art world is there for everyone to enjoy and be part of, on both a local and global level in city galleries and huge biennials. It just requires a bit of time and commitment to learn the language and become a part of the conversation.

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