Disembarking visitors to the 18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island first encounter fog rising from a crevice between sandstone cliffs and the island’s abandoned buildings. A site-specific work by Fujiko Nakaya, it exemplifies the intentions of the artistic directors - to open our senses to water, wind, and earth. Jonathan Jones, of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations, created a midden of oyster shells and porcelain teacups, a poignant reference to the original inhabitants, the Gadigal and Kameraygal people, and to their colonisers. It speaks of memory and loss embedded in the landscape, and of how everyday objects attain a significance beyond their materiality. Ed Pien’s ethereal ‘Source: Corridor of Rain’ provokes a sense of wonder. A labyrinth of interconnected chambers with walls made of translucent paper, onto which shadowy changing images are projected , it is an immersive and magical environment. Peter Robinson’s ‘Snow Ball Blind Time’ is an enormous structure of machine parts, wheels, cogs and heavy chains carved, preposterously, from polystyrene. He says of his chosen material, “Its industrial neutrality is fraught with a sense of massive inauthenticity.”
Notions of fragility, disposability and ephemerality imbue many works – there is a dominance of paper and fabric, from yards of silk died with Fanta, to woven textile constructions, to Monika Grzymala’s collaborative project with the Aboriginal artists of Euraba Papermakers, an installation of delicate paper forms swooping from the ceiling, transforming the grimness of the space. In Sachiko Abe’s performance ‘Cut Papers #11’ the artist silently cuts paper into long strips. The sound of her scissors and the slight movement of the paper in an otherwise silent space make for a mesmerising experience.
Li Hongbo’s ‘Ocean of Flowers’, a room filled with brightly coloured folded paper forms, at first evokes lanterns and Chinese folk art. On closer inspection, however, these objects are revealed to be AK47 machine guns and bullets, inviting us to consider the seductive nature of violence. Jin Nu’s ‘Exuviate 2 – Where Have All the Children Gone’ consists of twenty tiny starched children’s dresses, turning gently in the slightest air current. The artist denies any intentional connection with China’s one child policy, and the many little girls who were never born as a result. But discarded clothing, especially children’s clothing, inevitably evokes mourning, suggesting the passage of time and the fleeting nature of childhood.
Back on dry land, in the MCA, highlights include ‘Anything Can Break’ by Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak. As you walk beneath hundreds of origami cubes and breast-shaped glass clouds, motion sensors trigger music. Lee Mingwei’s ‘Mending Project’ invites visitors to bring an item to be repaired with one of the colourful spools of thread attached to the gallery wall. The artist chooses a colour which makes the mend obvious, as a way of celebrating the act of repair. It will then remain attached to the wall by its thread until the close of the exhibition, when it will be returned to its owner.
Tibetan artist Gade, in ‘Precious Objects’, depicts three hundred lotus thrones, each containing, not the expected spiritual symbol, but everyday objects of global culture – a cigarette, a coathanger, a telephone, a toothpaste tube, and also (slyly) Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. This is, after all, an artist who describes his hometown as ‘Lhasa Vegas’ and challenges western notions of Tibet as an unchanging place of tradition and spirituality.
One of the most interesting works in this Biennale is by Liu Zhuoquan, who has mastered the art of ‘neihua’ or ‘inside bottle painting’, once used in intricate snuff bottles. He creates large scale installations of discarded glass bottles with intricately detailed paintings inside them, representing the natural world of plants and insects, as well as Cultural Revolution images and contemporary events. “My work is like a scientific laboratory,” the artist says – the bottles contain beautifully painted, miniaturised ‘experimental material’ relating to nature, biology, and human societies. He spent many years in Tibet, and the beliefs and practices of Tibetan Buddhism have profoundly affected his world view and his art practice. His installation for the Biennale suggests scientific specimens – coiled black snakes appear just barely contained within their black glass vessels – and evokes a sense of danger and mystery.
With almost 220 artworks by over 100 artists, De Zegher and McMaster have created a contemporary ‘wunderkammer’ which both engages and challenges the viewer.