Biennale of Sydney: AGNSW + MCA

The overall theme of the 18th Biennale of Sydney (BoS) is ‘all our relations’ with an emphasis on connectivity and how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit. It is fitting, then, that the exhibition occupies numerous locations and institutions across the city, connecting the art and views within new contexts. Co-curator of this year’s BoS, Catherine de Zegher, feels “the art walk from venue to venue will be a slow reveal, where an understanding is shaped in the participatory act, and where the full story will only come later”.

Each major exhibition venue addresses a sub-theme: The Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is titled ‘In Finite Blue Planet’ offering perspectives of the earth and its inhabitants; the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) ‘Possible Composition’ brings together disparate elements; and Cockatoo Island offers ‘Stories, Senses and Spheres’, uniting many of the ideas explored in other venues with an exploration of our
connection with the environment, each other and our own narratives.

When moving through the venues, the visitor recognises the different cultural backgrounds represented by the artists and through interaction and appreciation of the works, an understanding and unity is formed.

‘In Finite Blue Planet’ at the AGNSW, states the political issues which animate the overall theme of the BoS. Many works display geographical maps allowing the viewer to define their own existence by place and connect to one another through cultural escapism and/or cultural identity. Postcommodity, an artist collective, re-stage their sound and mixed-media installation Do You Remember When?. It is an act of Indigenous intervention by four Native American artists who cut a four-foot square hole in the floor of the AGNSW to expose the land of the Gadigal people below. Part of their practice in this instance, was to collaborate with local Aboriginal language speakers for an audio element of the work. The opening becomes a spiritual, cultural and physical portal – a point of transformation between worlds – from which emerges an Indigenous worldview engaging a debate on conservation. The viewer is exposed, like the earth, to the indigenous land that our evolved modern culture has almost forgotten. The cut-out concrete slab is displayed, like a sculptural piece, in the room reminding the viewer that these ancestral beginnings and the current cultural and political issues are what divide but ultimately link us together.

The MCA’s sub theme, ‘Possible Composition’, responds to current ecological, cultural and political issues. Themes of collaboration, connection and inclusion are evident in Lee Mingwei’s The Mending Project where the US-Taiwanese artist takes in items with torn fabric and mends them with a few stitches. The stitches are made with thread from one of the many thread-spools that fill two huge walls and remain attached. The garments are left with Mingwei and remain part of the exhibition until its end. It would be interesting to view the work in September when the artist’s space will be filled with a rainbow-skein of threads – a very literal and warm representation of connection and interconnection. Visitors who bring objects in need of repair converse with the artist as they are mended. This interconnection and interdependency assures that the visitor will take elements from the exhibition and connect them with their own experiences. The Mending Project gains insight into the relationships among self, other and our surroundings. By using a different colour thread to the garment, it is a celebration of the repair and of the social fabric.

The works thematically complement one another allowing for a mutual recognition and understanding from visitors with different cultural backgrounds and different cultural and political ideologies. They allow the visitor to develop new ways of thinking and an appreciation of the world and their geographical, cultural, and ethical place within it. The biennale allows one to ‘sew’ together differences and rebuild a new identity.

18th Biennale of Sydney
Until September 16, 2012

Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2009, mixed media, dimensions variable, MCA 2012 installation view
Courtesy the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York

Postcommodity, Do You Remember When?, 2009-12, site-specific intervention installation, cut concrete, exposed earth, light and sound, dimensions variable, MCA 2012 installation view
Courtesy the artists (Raven Chacon, Cristobal Martinez, Kade L. Twist, Nathan Young, and formerly Steven Yazzie)