The 23rd Biennale of Sydney Once Again Tackles A Global Perspective In Times Of Crises, But Did It Deliver?

Installation view, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.
Badger Bates, Barka The Forgotten River and the desecration of the Menindee Lakes, 2021–2022. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.
Ackroyd & Harvey, Testament (aka Barbara), 1998 (first grown), 2010 and 2012 (regrown). Commissioned by Hangar Bicocca. Installation view in “Terre Vulnerabili 1/4” at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 22 October 2010 – 1 February 2011. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Image courtesy of the artists and Hangar Bicocca.
Naziha Mestaoui, One Beat, One Tree, 2017. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from Penelope Seidler AM. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.
Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016, multimedia installation, 1h 32min. Part of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain Collection, acquired in 2017. Installation view in “The Great Animal Orchestra” at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2 July 2016 – 8 January 2017. © Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists. Photo and © by Luc Boegly. Image courtesy of the artists and Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.
Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016, multimedia installation, 1h 32min. Part of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain Collection, acquired in 2017. Installation view in “The Great Animal Orchestra” at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2 July 2016 – 8 January 2017. © Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists. Photo and © by Luc Boegly. Image courtesy of the artists and Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.
Installation view, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at the Cutaway, Barangaroo, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists and Biennale of Sydney.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Substitute, 2019. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at the Cutaway, Barangaroo, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous assistance from the UK/Australia Season Patrons Board, the British Council, and the Australian Government as part of the UK/Australia Season. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists and Biennale of Sydney.
(Left to Right) Kiki Smith, Harbor, 2015; Cathedral, 2013; Spinners, 2014; Congregation, 2014; and Underground, 2012. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from Goethe-Institut Australia. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist, Pace Gallery, and Biennale of Sydney.
Milton Becerra, Lost Paradise – Vibrational Energy H2O, Sydney (detail), 2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from the Embassy of France in Australia and l’Institut français. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.
(Left) Aluaiy Kaumakan, Semasipu – Remembering Our Intimacies, 2021-2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Taiwan Ministry of Culture and Cultural Division, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Sydney and assistance from the Council of Indigenous Peoples. (Right) Yoan Capote, Requiem (Plegaria) (detail), 2019-2021. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists, Ben Brown Fine Arts, and Biennale of Sydney.
(Foreground) Julie Gough, p/re-occupied (detail), 2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from Arts Tasmania and the Australian Museum. (Background) Clare Milledge, Imbás: a well at the bottom of the sea (detail), 2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists and Biennale of Sydney.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

The 23rd Biennale of Sydney reflects on rivers and other bodies of water and the ecologies they sustain but in a dramatic sweeping change. Although its attempt to pull together a perfect harmony between art, nature, science, sustainability, and collaboration while staying politically correct is commendable, it hardly impressed, Michael Young reports.

TEXT: Michael Young
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

The 23rd Biennale of Sydney (BoS23) titled “rīvus” (Latin for stream) takes “conceptual wetlands and imagined ecosystems”, and their degradation at the hands of mankind as its core theme, and is ultimately a disturbing model of what future biennales might well become if all other global, socio- and geopolitical concerns, aesthetics, are pushed to the fringes in favour of a singular didactic ecological drumbeat. 

Comprising 330 installations and artworks by more than 80 participants—a term favoured by artistic director and Colombian curator José Roca reflecting the “diverse talents, skills, practices, and modes of being that extends beyond the realm of the visual arts”, BoS23 and its extended programmes span across six venues in Sydney—and, like past iterations, remains flawed.

The biennale’s strident activism was thrown into sharp focus when its launch in early March coincided with Australia’s east coast experiencing the worse deluge in living memory. Several river systems burst their banks followed by extensive flooding throughout the region. While countless thousands lost their homes beneath layers of silt and muck, some 22 people died. The river systems that flooded causing countless misery for thousands, were far from the benign, mystical, and anthropomorphic beings portrayed by many of the participants in the biennale.

That the world is on a slippery slope to extinction is a chilling axiom with climate change no longer a future catastrophe but one happening now. Global warming, pollution, water security, the burning of fossil fuels, and renewable energy all need urgent attention beyond the remit of art activists who at best can only ever scratch the surface of the ecological problem and who, like the rest of us, must keep their fingers crossed those things will improve. The artworks in BoS23 appear to do little to address the urgency of the world’s degradation beyond conscious raising. 

In 2018, Mami Kataoka,  artistic director of BoS21 already remarked that change was vital for the future health of the biennale. In 2020, Australian artist Brook Andrew helmed BoS22, titled “NIRIN”, and grasped the idea of change with both hands. But while Bos22 was rife with global activism, Andrew cleverly never lost sight of how good art is predicated on aesthetic values, above and beyond any inherent messaging.

In many ways “rīvus”, in comparison to “NIRIN”, takes a passive backward glance and in the process displays a lack of urgency in its artistic vocabulary as though the majority of artists had settled into a flatlined reality. 

For BoS23, Roca—who has spent most of the past two years in Sydney—has worked with a curatorium of four—Paschal Daantos Berry, Head of Learning and Participation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Anna Davis, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia; Hannah Donnelly, Producer, First Nations Programs, Information + Cultural Exchange (I.C.E.); and Talia Linz, Curator, Artspace.

 

Badger Bates, Barka The Forgotten River and the desecration of the Menindee Lakes, 2021–2022. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.
Ackroyd & Harvey, Testament (aka Barbara), 1998 (first grown), 2010 and 2012 (regrown). Commissioned by Hangar Bicocca. Installation view in “Terre Vulnerabili 1/4” at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 22 October 2010 – 1 February 2011. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Image courtesy of the artists and Hangar Bicocca.
Naziha Mestaoui, One Beat, One Tree, 2017. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from Penelope Seidler AM. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.

 

While “rīvus” is a curiously diminished biennale, several works deserve attention. Badger Bates’ enormous monochromatic mural Barka the forgotten river and the desecration of the Menindee Lakes (2021–22)—described by the gallery as “wallpaper”—which runs the length of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) entrance hall is one such example, not so much for its size and ecological messaging but as an illustration of how large-scale works are not necessarily better than their smaller compatriots. Several small prints by Bates with similar themes are embedded in the “wallpaper”.  Bates is a Barkandji Elder, an environmental activist, and a contemporary artist. Born in 1947 he has continued a lifelong fight for the safety and health of the Barka (the Darling River). 

The highly architecturally decorative vestibule at the AGNSW which dates from the end of the 19th century has come into its own in recent years exhibiting contemporary art to great effect. The English duo Ackroyd & Harvey—described by The Arts Society Magazine in 2019 as “rebels with a cause”—show two large-scale prints on Australian grass that create living portraits of Australian environmental activist, Lille Madden, and her grandfather, Gadigal Elder, Uncle Charles (Chicka) Madden. Over time the portraits will fade, in a poignant call-to-action addressing the climate crisis. As a by-product, the work is also visually stunning although light levels in the vestibule are low.

The star attraction of “rīvus” can also be found at the AGNSW. It is One beat, One Tree (2012) by late Belgian environmental artist Naziha Mestaoui. Standing on a movement sensor mat in front of a large digital screen, visitors can plant a virtual tree and encourage it to grow through their body movement. It is a work that blends the boundaries between art and technology. According to the BoS website, for each virtual tree, a real tree will be planted in Australia. 

 

Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016, multimedia installation, 1h 32min. Part of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain Collection, acquired in 2017. Installation view in “The Great Animal Orchestra” at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2 July 2016 – 8 January 2017. © Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists. Photo and © by Luc Boegly. Image courtesy of the artists and Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.
Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016, multimedia installation, 1h 32min. Part of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain Collection, acquired in 2017. Installation view in “The Great Animal Orchestra” at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2 July 2016 – 8 January 2017. © Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists. Photo and © by Luc Boegly. Image courtesy of the artists and Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

 

American soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra (2016) will probably prove to be the Barangaroo’s major drawcard, and deservedly so. Housed in a large marquee on the Stargazer Lawn, the orchestra is comprised of thousands of recordings of animal vocalisations accompanied by large-scale visualisations that evoke sheet music, supplied by London-based collective United Visual Artists. Krause has been recording animal vocalisations for decades and now has over 15,000 recordings from marine and terrestrial habitats from several continents. He returns to a venue over several years which allows him to record and monitor how manmade degradation of the environment causes irrevocable damages to biodiversity, changing the sound signatures in the process. The Orchestra dates from 2016 and is premiered in Australia in partnership with Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. Although access is free—as indeed is everything at BoS—it is worth booking a half-hour session in advance. One just stands or sits in a dark room and listens. For those interested in Krause’s extraordinary mission, it is worth listening online to a TED talk he gave in 2013. It is elucidatory, fun, intelligent, and deeply sad, and will change your life and the way you regard the future of the planet, forever.

 

Installation view, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at the Cutaway, Barangaroo, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists and Biennale of Sydney.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Substitute, 2019. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at the Cutaway, Barangaroo, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous assistance from the UK/Australia Season Patrons Board, the British Council, and the Australian Government as part of the UK/Australia Season. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists and Biennale of Sydney.

 

Close to the Stargazer Lawn at Barangaroo is the Cutaway. At 120 metres long by 30 metres wide and 19 metres in height it could be considered an engineering marvel. The Cutaway opened for business in 2015 but this is the first time it has been used as a BoS venue. Its website does it no favour when describing it as a “super-sized concrete void” and cultural  venue. Which is precisely what it is. It is also a deeply disappointing place to view art installations. Even Australian superstar artist Mike Parr’s immense Blind painting of a falling tree (2022), a six-hour durational performance work resulting in black, almost abstract, squares painted on rough wooden boards, look like something left over from a building site rather than an appeal to save the Brazilian rainforests, which it is. Of course, the work is a mere echo of the actual performance that most visitors would have missed, as indeed I did too. Which is one of the major problems with performance art at such an event.

A crowd-pleaser at The Cutaway is London-based Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s life-sized recreation through A.I. of the now almost extinct northern white rhinoceros. The last male died in March 2018 leaving two solitary females—mother and daughter—who live their lives under permanent armed guard in Kenya. Over the space of a few minutes, the rhino in The Substitute (2019) grows to full-size from a pile of small building blocks accompanied by real-life sounds which in themselves are disturbing given the eventual size of the A.I. creature. Kids during the first public weekend of BoS23 loved it. And so did I, although I was left with a distinct feeling of distress at the life-sized creature being confined to a bare room even though it all took place on an immense screen. Maybe my unease was the point of the exercise, apart from the blending of boundaries between art and technology the work underscores a paradox: “our preoccupation with creating new life forms, while neglecting existing ones”, according to the artist’s website. It was all very Jurassic Park.

Running the length of The Cutaway’s ceiling is Flow (2021) by Cave Urban, a Sydney-based multidisciplinary studio comprising artists, architects, and designers. Apparently inspired by the flow of a river and spanning 600 square metres, the work weaves through the expanse of The Cutaway moving between and around the architecture and hovering above the other artworks. It is said to be the largest bamboo structure ever produced in Australia.  I couldn’t help but think, why did they bother, it was conceptually pointless and aesthetically inadequate.

 

(Left to Right) Kiki Smith, Harbor, 2015; Cathedral, 2013; Spinners, 2014; Congregation, 2014; and Underground, 2012. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Presentation at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from Goethe-Institut Australia. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist, Pace Gallery, and Biennale of Sydney.
Milton Becerra, Lost Paradise – Vibrational Energy H2O, Sydney (detail), 2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from the Embassy of France in Australia and l’Institut français. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artist and Biennale of Sydney.

 

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) struggles—as it always does—to make much sense of its long corridor gallery on Level 3. But in the adjacent double height space, four tapestries by Kiki Smith continued the idea of animal extinction. It was a real treat to see Smith’s work in the flesh, so to speak. 

I’ve always thought of myself as slightly medieval, another way perhaps of saying, out of date and old fashioned, and these tapestries by Smith were inspired by the largest known medieval tapestry commissioned in 1373 which depicts an apocalyptic narrative from the Book of Revelation. Smith’s tapestries evoke environmental degradation and species vulnerability. I would certainly give a lot to have one of Smith’s wolf tapestries hanging on my wall at home. 

At the MCA, Venezuelan artist Milton Becerra presents an installation with three large stones held in space by a network of coloured thread. The tension between the two is palpable. The stones appear to levitate as central points within the mass of energy. The lines that radiate from them simulate orbits that create vibrations and subtle sounds. I couldn’t help but mentally compare them to the wondrous installation by veteran Australian artist Ken Unsworth, Suspended stone circle II (1974–77/1988), occasionally on show at the AGNSW. Unsworth traverses the same ground with a great deal more aplomb.

 

(Left) Aluaiy Kaumakan, Semasipu – Remembering Our Intimacies, 2021-2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Taiwan Ministry of Culture and Cultural Division, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Sydney and assistance from the Council of Indigenous Peoples. (Right) Yoan Capote, Requiem (Plegaria) (detail), 2019-2021. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists, Ben Brown Fine Arts, and Biennale of Sydney.
(Foreground) Julie Gough, p/re-occupied (detail), 2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from Arts Tasmania and the Australian Museum. (Background) Clare Milledge, Imbás: a well at the bottom of the sea (detail), 2022. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts. Installation view in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, “rīvus”, at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, Sydney, 12 March – 13 June 2022. Photo by Document Photography. Image courtesy of the artists and Biennale of Sydney.

 

Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay returns as a venue for the first time in a decade following a major redevelopment as part of the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct. And what a disappointment it proved to be. Not the building itself but the work it contained. Much of the exhibited work is visually dull. One work by Cuban artist Yoan Capote, Requiem (Plegaria) (2019–21), speaks of sheer artistic perseverance. It is a large-scale gold leaf-coated depiction of a seascape where the water’s surface has been created by hundreds of black fishing hooks knitted together, a rather obvious commentary on the overfishing of the world’s oceans. Much else at Pier 2/3 can be passed over in silence.

For all its insistence on the harmony between art, nature, science, sustainability, and collaboration in a world where everything now needs to be politically correct, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney remains devoid of any “wow” factor. What I imagine is what happens when an artist’s imagination is confined by a rigidly thematic conceptual premise.

I have been attending BoS for well over a decade and undoubtedly it has changed, much as Kataoka predicted it would. But whether that change is for the better or not we will have to wait another two years to see.

 

23rd Biennale of Sydney: rīvus
12 March – 13 June 2022
Various locations, Sydney

 

 

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