21st Biennale of Sydney

Titled 'Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement', the invitation is to consider accelerating global conflicts from opposing perspectives

Mami Kataoka, the artistic director of the 21st Biennale of Sydney – titled ‘Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement’ – elaborates on her borrowing from quantum mechanics with the Taosist concept wu xing, aligning the modern scientific view that some entities are a sum of multiple distinct states (both wave and particle) with the ancient metaphysical idea that all being is composed of types of chi (earth, metal, water, wood, fire) in simultaneous interactions of generation and destruction. Her curatorial statement invites us to consider accelerating global conflicts in these terms; she frames the works of the 70 artists and artist collectives on view as a microcosm of ‘multiple and sometimes opposing perspectives’.

Neither multiple perspectives nor any shade of grey are the province of Kataoka’s headliner. Ai Wei Wei’s 60-metre black rubber Mediterranean migrant boat, Law of the Journey (2017), installed in Cockatoo Island’s industrial precinct, and his two-tonne Crystal Ball (2017) at Artspace, effectively advertise his film on the global refugee crisis, Human Flow (2017). (It was screened on the opening weekend, but outside the official list of works.) Shown last year in the Czech Republic, where anti-immigration and anti-Muslim anxiety has held unusual sway, through these pieces Ai adds his voice – with the rude force of legibility, scale and media access – to that of the United Nations in condemning Australia’s continuing offshore processing of asylum seekers. ‘There’s no refugee crisis, only a human crisis,’ his artist statement goes; and having lost the wires it floated from in Prague, his dinghy sits on a plinth with a crib sheet of quotations on cosmopolitanism, from Socrates to Hannah Arendt to the phrase that founded an Australian hashtag, local activist Arnold Zable’s line: ‘With the exception of Indigenous peoples, we are a nation of boat people.’

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Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Potentiality for Love – Mahdollinen Rakkaus, 2018, moving image sculpture in 3 parts, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Crystal Eye, Helsinki, and 21st Biennale of Sydney

Possibilities for imagining increased empathy are enriched elsewhere in the show by works such as Khaled Sabsabi’s Bring the Silence (2018) –  a literally multi-perspective, five-channel video installation, carpeted with mats and scented with rose oil, documenting a Sufi maqam in New Delhi where Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims seek blessings together– and Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Potentiality for Love (2018) – a multi-screen, lab-chic invitation to experience inter-species empathy with chimpanzees. More directly, though, Ai’s generalization of the issue of forced migration is complemented by work acknowledging the origin of the hot-button term in Australia, ‘boat people’. At Artspace, Tiffany Chung presents a sample of her ongoing research into the Vietnamese diaspora between 1975–96, following the American War, including the summary graphic of Reconstructing an Exodus History: Boat Trajectories, Ports of First Asylum and Resettlement Countries (2017), a mural-scaled, colour-coded embroidery.

This thread goes some way to uphold the cause of those artists who organized to precipitate a recent crisis in the Biennale. In 2014, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis resigned as chairman due to pressure over funding ties with Transfield Holdings, who manage services in Australia’s offshore detention centres. His immigrant father founded the parent company, construction giant Transfield, as well as the Biennale. Someone with some feeling for irony composed a wall label stating: ‘[Franco] Belgiorno-Nettis’s own words best convey his passion and commitment to the Biennale: “Art has no boundary and we should not put up fences.”’ It introduces the presentation of a new Biennale archive funded by a gift from Transfield Holdings, though the company is now acknowledged as a founding patron (as it happens, on a floor of the Art Gallery of NSW named for the Belgiorno-Nettis family). Poster summaries of each edition confirm what regular attendees might quickly surmise: that this is the smallest for some time. Funding figures are not included, but as well as the departure of the long-term principal partner, a wider neoliberal erosion of support for art in Australia must give context to the invitation in the same wall text ‘to consider the role of the Biennale in the future’.

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Khaled Sabsabi, Bring the Silence, 2018, video still, five-channel HD video installation with audio, infinite loop. Courtesy: the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane

In this spirit of retrospection Kataoka successfully involves historical works and has re-invited previous participants. At the Art Gallery of NSW, for example, Lili Dujourie (who exhibited in 1988) greets visitors with American Imperialism (1972); and work by Miriam Cahn (who exhibited in 1986) is hung intriguingly and effectively next to paintings by Wathaurung elder Marlene Gilson. Artists of a similar generation, though at the removed poles of folk art narrative and feminist neo-expressionism, they participate in a leitmotif of masked, faceless or generic figures (connecting with Michaël Borremans, Sosa Joseph and even CATPC and Sa Sa Art Projects, among others). Another, similar consistency coheres between pieces involving clay (by Anya Gallaccio, Geng Xue, Kate Newby, Yasmin Smith). Along such lines, the complex patterns that visually unify the installation at Carriageworks (including works by George Tjungurrayi, Semiconductor and Sam Falls) surface a limit to the curatorial engineering of harmony. The cloth-eared Eurocentrism of Laurent Grasso’s use of Yuendumu sacred sites as a backdrop to his sci-fi archetypes in Otto (2018) betrays every well-worn principle spelled out in Nguyen Trinh Thi’s lovely, nearby essay film Letters from Panduranga (2015). Here, equilibrium comes at the cost of what journalism calls ‘false balance’, the embrace of work that offers ‘beauty’ over engagement excessively diplomatic.

The 21st Biennale of Sydney ‘SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement’ runs at at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Carriageworks, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney Opera House and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art until 11 June.

Main image: Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, 2017, reinforced PVC with aluminium frame, 3 x 60 x 6 m, installation view, Cockatoo Island, 2018. Courtesy: the artist

Jon Bywater is a writer based in Waitati, Aotearoa New Zealand.

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