Works by Ai Weiwei are among the standout pieces at the Sydney Biennale
By Jane Ure-Smith
Among the industrial detritus of Cockatoo Island’s old Powerhouse, a big rusted object doesn’t look out of place. Then, slowly, the horror of what you’re looking at begins to dawn. Yukinori Yanagi, an artist who lives and works in Hiroshima, has created a full-size replica of the atomic bomb that obliterated the Japanese city on August 6, 1945, and suspended it from the rafters.
Like its Venice counterpart, the Sydney Biennale makes wonderful use of abandoned industrial spaces, most notably Cockatoo Island, which began life as a convict settlement, but by the second world war had become a vast naval dockyard employing 4,000 workers.
The Powerhouse, still equipped with machinery that enabled the war in the Pacific, is the perfect place to contemplate Little Boy, as the Allies so sensitively dubbed their weapon of mass destruction — “Absolute Dud” is Yanagi’s name for it. A chilling rumble filters through from the space next door, where the artist has installed a giant floating eyeball and projected on to it archive footage of nuclear weapons tests that continued in the Pacific until 1996.
Yanagi’s themes are misuse of energy, misuse of power: in “Icarus Container”, a third piece on Cockatoo Island, he invites us to step past a flaming sun into a long dark mirrored labyrinth of shipping containers. Along the way, barely legible words of warning allude to the ancient Greek story of the youth who flew too close to the sun, until ultimately we’re left confronting both ourselves and a void that can only represent the future.
The Japanese artist’s work is among the most evocative at the 21st Sydney Biennale, which brings together 70 artists from 35 countries in seven venues, including the once-controversial Sydney Opera House, whose opening in 1973 coincided with that of the first biennale. Twenty months in the making, this year’s exhibition, entitled Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement, is directed by Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum — “At last, a director from our own region!” was an enthusiastic refrain at the opening events.
The 2016 Sydney Biennale was inspired by the politics of people on the move and Kataoka picks up where that show left off by commissioning Ai Weiwei. In the Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island, he has installed “Law of the Journey”, a 60-metre black rubber inflatable boat crammed with larger-than-life, anonymous figures. The piece was fabricated in China in one of the factories that makes the precarious vessels that many refugees pile into to cross the Mediterranean.
At Artspace, a biennale venue since 1992, Ai presents a massive crystal ball mounted on a heap of discarded life-jackets. In the ball’s reflections and refractions we see ourselves in an upside-down world that the artist believes has forgotten how to respond with humanity. In conversation with Kataoka before a screening of his film, Human Flow, Ai came across as a committed activist, willing to explain his beliefs yet wary of engaging in the kind of critical dissection of his work that might be termed art-world luvviedom. In the Opera House concert hall, his words were hard to hear, but the audience loved him. His lack of pretension coupled with his continuing ability to create timely, often beautiful, political art makes Ai the show’s brightest star.
Kataoka’s concerns in this biennale go beyond refugees. She aims to “examine the world today” and borrows concepts from both quantum mechanics and Wuxing, an ancient Chinese knowledge system, in order to do so.
“Superposition”, she explains, implies an “overlap”— the possibility that phenomena may be dualistic in nature. Electrons, for example, exist both in the form of waves and as granular particles. It’s a concept that can be used to examine all sorts of things, from climate and nature to culture and the history of art, she argues — indeed, any of the topics addressed by biennale artists. And just as one can choose to look at electrons as waves or particles, we can take a “panoramic view” of these topics “coexisting in equilibrium” or “delve down into the workings of individual phenomena . . . through the lens of engagement”.
Wuxing, meanwhile, reduces the world to five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Collisions between them bring about change.
The latter enables Kataoka to note that there are increasing levels of conflict in the world, but beyond that it’s unclear how these concepts aid our understanding of a show where artists can, as she explains, “reflect multiple and sometimes opposing perspectives within their work, and loosely resonate with the history . . . of the venue”. By the time she declares “it is my hope that the biennale as a whole will serve as a microcosm of the history of the earth and the human race, as well as a condensed history of Sydney”, we are surely in the realms of meaninglessness.
This is a shame, since the biennale has so much appealing art to explore. Standout pieces include Marjolijn Dijkman’s “Navigating Polarities”, a seductively gorgeous film about the earth’s magnetism, in which old maps and jellyfish swirl around in a hemispherical dish at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). The main room at Carriageworks also sets the pulse racing: on one side is Chen Shaoxiong’s last work, a delicate monochrome four-screen animation and, on the other, a collection of bold “op art” canvases by George Tjungurrayi, one of the famous Papunya Tula artists who “invented” contemporary indigenous Australian art in the 1970s; and, at the far end, is Semiconductor’s “Earthworks”, a vast computer-generated work that draws on seismic data from earthquakes and incorporates a compelling pulsing soundtrack.
Other sound works are thrilling too, most notably those by Oliver Beer, who believes that every architectural space has its own notes, which can be brought to life by the unamplified human voice. At the Opera House, small groups can experience his remarkable “Composition for Tuning an Architectural Space”, in which four singers, their faces turned to the wall, release the music of an unremarkable, concrete stairwell, and send shudders down your spine.
The performance is complemented by a film at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in which Beer has persuaded two male and two female professional singers to explore the “architecture” of each other’s faces. Locked mouth-to-mouth in a big onscreen close-up, they sing through each other’s noses. Those viewers who stumble in unawares will puzzle over what must seem a strange erotic encounter.
Beer wove his singers’ earliest musical memories into his “staircase suite” and a similar notion underlies Akira Takayama’s “Our Songs” project at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. In a variant on kabuki theatre, he invited Sydney residents to perform a song or poem passed down through their family in the city’s (empty) town hall, while Hikaru Fujii filmed them. In the fragment I watched, people sang in Russian, Mexican, Polish and Spanish: as Australia embraces the past of its indigenous citizens and feels increasingly at home as an Asia-Pacific nation, here were some unexpected exotic pedigrees to add to the social richness.
A minimalist sensibility underpins the show as a whole. Sometimes it’s obvious, as at the AGNSW, where abstract works figure strongly, interacting with each other and raising questions. Paintings by the early Australian modernist Roy De Maistre, for example, share a space with a series of pieces by the young Dutch artist Riet Wijnen, whose interest in “the impossibility” of pure abstraction has led her to create a fictional dialogue between Grace Crowley (also a pioneering early Australian modernist), and the British constructivist Marlow Moss. Upstairs, Prabhavathi Meppayil incorporates 700 tiny metal tools used by goldsmiths in her native Bangalore into a minimalist wall sculpture that breaks as many rules as it follows.
But this pared-down sensibility seems equally in evidence in works at the MCA or Cockatoo Island that Kataoka suggests speak of everyday life and labour or the process of making art. Liza Lou’s “Clouds”, Yasmin Smith’s salt-glazed pots and even, in their repetition, Esme Timbery’s little shellworked slippers all seem to speak the language of minimalism. It is Mami Kataoka’s sense of order and love of the small-scale that gives this biennale coherence rather than her more grandiose attempts to “examine the world”.
The Biennale of Sydney runs to June 11, biennaleofsydney.art