Initially I suspected the title of the 18th Biennale of Sydney, the trendily lower case ‘all our relations’, might be one of those curatorial conceits that work better as an intellectual device in the abstract than in the physical reality of the exhibition. I was wrong. Joint artistic directors Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster have successfully created a coherent and evocative series of narratives which make apparent the connections between artworks and their five different iconic Sydney sites. The two artistic directors want us to see “how things connect, how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit”, and have identified significant shifts in thinking which now inform the work of artists across the globe. Their Biennale focuses on these shifts – “inclusionary practices of generative thinking, such as collaboration, conversation and compassion, in the face of coercion and destruction” (de Zegher and McMaster).
In this first report from the Biennale, I focus on the Art Gallery of New South Wales and ‘In Finite Blue Planet’, presenting artists who explore themes of globalisation, migration, consumption, displacement and survival. A number of works contrast memory and tradition with waste and over consumption, often using unexpected materials. Hassan Sharif’s constructions reflect the rapid transformation of traditional societies and economies in the Arab world, evoking ‘arte povera’ in their integration of mundane consumer items made of plastic with primary materials such as aluminium and wire, rope, wood, paper and rags. Yuken Teruya’s wonderful ‘Constellation’, a universe created in discarded black shopping bags and shoe containers, cleverly uses the light projected through thousands of carefully pierced holes to suggest an infinite cosmos. Juxtaposed with the beautiful minimalism of this work, his shopping bags from temples of high commerce (Saks 5th Avenue, Chanel) and of high art (the Venice Biennale, MOMA) as well as those of more downmarket mass culture (Starbucks, McDonalds) contain painstakingly intricate cut-outs of miniature trees, apparently growing inside each bag. Minutely detailed, subtle and delicate, they evoke the tiny ‘magic’ gardens that fascinated me as a child, blossoming with the addition of water, as well as Edo period woodcuts. Here they seem to reproach us for our unceasing consumption of material goods, transforming throwaway items into something exquisite and precious.
Jin Shi’s ‘Mini Home’ is a replica in miniature of a migrant worker’s living space. His ‘Small Business Karaoke’ features a tricycle of the kind seen everywhere in Chinese cities, where they carry enormous loads of everything imaginable. On it he creates a gaudy mobile karaoke ‘parlour’, complete with fairy lights and blaring television. His artworks speak of the lives of people so poor and insignificant that they are ‘made small’, their lives miniaturised and overlooked. Gao Rong uses the embroidery she learned from her grandmother in her art practice, making works about memory and family. Here she creates a simulacrum of her grandparents’ simple home in which everything – the ‘kang’ with its flowered quilts, the stove, the sink, the ancestral portraits, the very walls and doors – is embroidered. It is a trompe l’oeil labour of love, in which the particularity of individual lives lived out in humble domestic spaces becomes a palpable presence in the space of the gallery.
Binh Danh deals with powerful themes of loss, mortality and spirituality through the medium of the found image. His moving ‘Remains of the War’ is one of a series of ‘photosynthetic chlorophyll prints’, photograms created on leaves, using archival photographs from the Vietnam War. Judy Watson’s ‘Burnt Vessels’ is constructed from the remains of scientific instruments from Heron Island Marine Research Station, destroyed by fire in 2007. These small objects, described by the artist as “delicate, resilient survivors of trauma”, cast spindly, distorted shadows on the wall, reflecting the tenuous survival of an environment under threat, and also, perhaps, the fragility of human attempts to scientifically measure and quantify it.
Many works are connected by the politics of geography, from the wonderful ‘City of Ghost’ by Thai artist Nipan Oranniwesna, created by dusting talcum powder over a complex stencil cut from street maps of ten different cities, to Jorge Macchi’s ‘Liliput’ with its floating map segments, cut and torn into new shapes, some pinned back to front or upside down. Bouchra Khalils’s ‘Mapping Journey Project’ records migrant workers recounting clandestine journeys across borders, the hidden geography of the émigré or asylum seeker. These works explore the interrelationships between contemporary migrations and colonial histories, physical journeys as well as those of the imagination.