Enter the website for ‘NIRIN’, the 22nd.Biennale of Sydney, and you’re greeted with the following words: ‘We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation; the Boorooberongal people of the Dharug Nation; the Bidiagal and Gamaygal people on whose ancestral lands and waters NIRIN gathers.’ Curated by artist Brook Andrew, a Wiradjuri man and the biennale’s first Indigenous artistic director, ‘NIRIN’ takes its title from the Wiradjuri for ‘edge’, a space – mental, physical, symbolic – that Andrew broadly understands as a site of healing. In his catalogue essay, he explains: ‘I wanted to break what a traditional biennale is, its colonial legacy and northern hemisphere trajectory of what art is supposed to be; I wanted to bring it to its knees. […] It is through the eyes of challenging the self, on the precipice, on the edge, that is where we need to be to see it.’ What form ‘it’ takes, of course, is up for grabs.
The Biennale’s ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ is a gesture now widespread in Australia. When the continent was colonized 250 years ago, more than 250 languages were spoken; now, just 140 or so remain in use and only 13 are considered not endangered. Yet, when the explorer Lieutenant James Cook claimed Australia for Britain in 1770 – an event that is, to varying degrees, being commemorated and mourned this year – he declared the country terra nullius: nobody’s land, a devastating legal falsehood that enabled the British to claim it as their own, which wasn’t overturned until 1982. Following Cook’s reports, Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in what is now Sydney with the First Fleet in 1788 to establish the British penal colony of New South Wales. This is how I came to be Australian: some of my ancestors arrived in the country as convicts.
Flying to Sydney from where I now live in London usually involves 25 hours of leg cramps and bad movies. Not so this trip. In the blink of an eye, I journeyed 17,000 kilometres to visit ‘NIRIN’, which was closed only ten days after it opened in March due to Covid-19 restrictions. Works by 101 artists and collectives – many of them First Nation – from 36 countries are presented in six venues across the city: Cockatoo Island, Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), the National Art School, Artspace and Campbelltown Arts Centre. The show is arranged around seven themes, each of which is titled in Wiradjuri: Dhaagun (Earth: sovereignty and working together), Bagaray-Bang (healing), Yirawy-Dhuray (yam-connection: food); Gurray (transformation), Muriguwal Giiland (different stories), Ngawaal-Guyungan (powerful ideas: the power of objects) and Bila (river: environment).
Like so many exhibitions across the world, the Biennale has had to migrate to a digital platform. ‘NIRIN’ hosts links to films, talks, healing workshops, recipes, playlists, Aboriginal land management and photojournalism. You can listen to the Papua New Guinean / Australian artist and radio broadcaster Namila Benson’s six-part series ‘Behind the Biennale’ and take virtual tours of two of the six venues: the MCA and Campbelltown. Brook Andrew greets visitors to the MCA with a video introduction, explaining how his selection process was about celebrating kinship ties, community and art’s reparative role in First Nation cultures. Pedro Wonaeamirri, from the Tiwi Islands, talks movingly about the personal and cultural significance of the ceremonial funeral poles he created with fellow artist Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri, using natural ochres and ironwood. Joël Andrianomearisoa, from Madagascar, describes his dark, multi-storey textile installation, There Might Be no other Place in the World as Good as Where I’m Going to Take You (2020), as ‘research about the “materiality of emotion”’. On the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s website, the power of Pitjantjatjara artist Kunmanara Mumu Mike Williams’s installation Kulilaya munu nintiriwa (Listen and Learn, 2020) leapt off my screen. A political activist, cultural leader and traditional healer who died last year, Williams’s vision for the biennale – large-scale banners espousing the power of Indigenous teaching, created with the young men in his community – was realized posthumously by his widow Tuppy Ngintja Goodwin, his friend Sammy Dodd and artists from the Mimili Maku Arts collective, which he founded. (In situ, translations from Pitjantjatjara into English can be viewed using augmented-reality goggles.)
The Biennale’s Instagram account is a whole world in the palm of your hand. Every Friday at 8pm, an artist is invited to ‘share their story, their influences and inspirations, their joys and challenges’. During the week, it’s regularly updated with conversations, music, performances and art works. At time of writing, BE. collective had posted films and stills from the launch of #NIRINHAIVETA: a ferry transporting passengers to Cockatoo Island that honours Pasifika matriarchs.
Now ‘NIRIN’ is online, its title might appear something of a misnomer: the internet is a space without an edge. For the participating artists, however, the theme remains an infinitely pliable metaphor. In the catalogue, Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino describes ‘NIRIN’ as a ‘digital cloud where everything is together’; her delicate watercolours, on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, depict Afro-Brazilian women, with skin as malleable as clay, morphing into trees and animals, like the classical archetypes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE). The Pakistani-American sculptor Huma Bhabha – one of whose monumental carved figures at MCA is aptly titled The Past Is a Foreign Country (2018) – channels William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ (1919) with its declaration that ‘the centre cannot hold’: everything has become the edge. Zimbabwean artist Misheck Masamvu – whose (self-described) painterly ‘mutants’ are on view at the MCA and Campbelltown – understands the idea of an edge as a ‘heartbeat’. Mexican artist Jose Dávila whose enormous sculptures are created from found materials on Cockatoo Island – believes it’s a place where ‘the content merges together with the container’. The Australian Yolngu painter Noŋgirrŋa Marawili – who limits herself to using ‘either natural media or recycled material destined for landfill’ to create her deliriously beautiful paintings – suggests the idea of the edge as a mystic intertwining of the body, the sea and the temple; the boat and the shore.
‘NIRIN’ has more than risen to the challenges of lockdown: you could spend as many days exploring it online as you could running around Sydney. Andrew’s proposal that creativity is an important means of truth-telling, however complex that truth might be, is a bolt of much-needed optimism. ‘Now is a potent time’, he writes in his catalogue essay, ‘to heal and feel the rush and tension of new futuristic possibilities.’
The 22nd Biennale of Sydney will be open free to the public from 16 June to 6 September 2020. Exhibition dates at each venue are as follows:
Art Gallery of New South Wales 1 June – 27 September 2020
Artspace 1 June – 27 September 2020
Campbelltown Arts Centre 1 June – 11 October 2020
Cockatoo Island 16 June – 6 September 2020
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia 16 June – 6 September 2020 (closing date TBC)
Main image: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, 2019, installation view, 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney. Courtesy: 22nd Biennale of Sydney; photograph: Zan Wimberley.
Jennifer Higgie is editor-at-large of frieze, based in London, UK. She is the host of frieze’s ﬁrst podcast, Bow Down: Women in Art History. Her book The Mirror and the Palette is forthcoming from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.