Your Guide To The Biennale Of Sydney
Sydney is Los Angeles and Melbourne is Manhattan, or so the stereotyped comparison often goes, implying the former Australian city is all sun and surf while the latter is the only location for serious arts and culture, but as anyone who’s been to Sydney recently knows, this generalization is long outdated.
In 2007 Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore (her real name, I swear) made a very public commitment to public art. This was followed by a series of city-backed art initiatives, and a profusion of new private galleries cropping up in diverse neighborhoods. The pièce de résistance of Sydney’s emerging visual arts scene is its Biennale, which has become a major art world event approaching the level of anticipation heaped upon Venice’s or Berlin’s. Though not quite as attended yet from abroad as its European counterparts, it still attracted over 600,000 people in 2012.
The 2014 Biennale of Sydney recently opened on March 21 and runs for 13 glorious-weather weeks, bringing together the work of 90 different artists from 31 countries. This year it’s a politically controversial event. In February, many of the artists involved demanded the Biennale cut ties with Transfield Services, a major sponsor with links to a company involved in the offshore processing of asylum seekers. (Australia’s mandatory detention policy is an extremely hot-button issue.)
Nine artists withdrew their work, but after the Biennale agreed to end its relationship with Transfield, seven of them returned. With the controversy mostly behind them, those involved in the Biennale hope the focus can return to the art itself. And there is some wonderful work on display, if you can make the there as I did recently.
I began by taking a ferry to Cockatoo Island, a former penal colony turned recent Biennale venue. It’s the Biennale space that caters most to kids, where they can. For example, poke around Randi & Katrine’s The Village, a fairytale version of a Danish village where the buildings resemble human faces: hair for rooftops, windows for eyes and shutters for ears.
Nearby, Eva Koch’s gigantic projection of an Icelandic waterfall with accompanying soundtrack whooshes through a large hall. A few buildings away a giant gym built out of recycled equipment begs to be used. But Gerda Steiner & Jorg Lenzlinger’s installation isn’t any old fitness center. When I pedaled an elliptical machine, a rigged-up skeleton danced to my movements. When I lifted weights, a chain reaction led to unexpected fart noises that sent two tiny twin girls watching me nearby into a fit of giggles.
As for adults, artistic director Juliana Engberg says the center of the island is for “sweet things while the edges get a little bitter.” My favorite more “bitter” piece on Cockatoo Island — my favorite piece in the Biennale, in fact — is Ignas Krunglevicius’s Interrogation. It’s based on the police transcript of a 2004 murder investigation in the U.S. after Mary Kovic allegedly killed her husband with his own shotgun. In this arresting video work, sections of the transcript are projected onto a blank screen while a drum-heavy soundtrack plays in the background, highlighting both text and the subtext. It’s 13 minutes long and practically hypnotizing.
The other four Biennale venues are back on the mainland and there is an abundance of fantastic art in each one. In the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I loved Meric Algun Ringborg’s The Library of Unborrowed Books, Section 111: SMSA Library, Sydney. The installation makes a library out of all the books never signed out from the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts Library. Nobody tell Rick Moody, whose tome The Diviners made the unenviable list.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art, I could have sat for hours in front of David Claerbout’s quietly powerful black-and-white images of the Brittany shoreline. Because they are projected over a mirror floor, you feel like you can step right into them.
Carriageworks, an old, massive railway workshop complex, is a newer Biennale venue. A variety of work bleeds together in the cavernous exhibition space, but for me it was all about a short video called Freedom Requires Free People. In it, Ane Hjort Guttu profiles an 8-year-old’s experiences in a Norwegian school that seems to operate with a “rules for rules sake” philosophy.
Artspace is the Biennale’s smallest space. You’ll have to watch where you step, as artist Ugo Rondinone’s little birds are scattered all across the floor, as are the bodies of amateur photographers trying to capture them.
Artspace also happens to be across the street from Sydney’s most famous meat pie cart: Harry’s Café de Wheels. And while Sydney might only recently be emerging as a city with a serious art scene, it’s been serious about pies for as long as any resident can remember.
Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure. She has also written for The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, and AOL Travel, among others.