rīvus n. stream, brook
It is true that rivers have mouths, but if bodies of water could really speak to us, what would they say? This is the question contemplated by Colombian Artistic Director José Roca and his team for the 23rd Biennale of Sydney in 2022, titled rīvus.
The idea for this iteration of the Biennale came from a previous exhibition that Roca had undertaken in 2014 at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York called Waterweavers: The River in Contemporary Colombian Visual and Material Culture. This exhibition was used as a point of departure for rīvus and from it a broader cultural context was born, focused on aquatic environmentalism and sustainability at large.
“The first idea was to do a project around rivers and other bodies of water and the ecologies they sustain. That was the origin of the project,” Roca says. “But when I started working with our cocurators this idea branched out into many other themes, like rites of nature, voices of nature, and in general, voices of the non-human. That is what the Biennale really is about, despite the name rīvus, which would suggest only rivers and water, but it is much more than that.”
Roca was also inspired by recent developments with rivers like the Vilcabamba in Ecuador and the Atrato in Colombia, which were both given their legal rights by the courts against provincial government pollution and degradation. To this, Roca says, “If they could be represented in court, why couldn’t they be represented in an exhibition?”
Through a series of locations presented as conceptual wetlands, including partner venues Art Gallery of New South Wales, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, and Arts and Cultural Exchange (A.C.E.), rīvus uses artworks, experiments, activisms, and research to give local and international bodies of water a voice. Roca elaborates, “We contacted people that are either the legal representatives or the ancestral custodians of the given river, and then we asked them to speak on behalf of that body of water, sometimes as if they were that body of water. This is the case with the Burramatta (River) and Auntie Julie Bukari (Webb) at [A.C.E.]; we have a very beautiful video speaking of her as if she was the river . . . We have those river voices as hosts or hostesses at each one of the venues.”
Ideas such as river horror, creek futurism, Indigenous science, cultural flows, queer ecologies, and water healing form a part of the Biennale’s waterscape by which to understand human impact on the natural world. As Roca operates the non-profit contemporary art space FLORA ars+natura from his home city of Bogotá, he was intent on extending the dialogues between art and environmental sustainability into the creation of rīvus. Towards minimising the impact of travel, Roca primarily focused on sourcing talent locally: “I worked with a team of local curators (as representatives of the exhibition venues), and they brought to the table lots of ongoing conversations they have had with artists, so instead of travelling around trying to identify new artists, they would bring to the table practices that they were very familiar with, and artists that they have worked with in the past that were new for the rest of us.”
As part of the Biennale’s experience, Roca wishes for audiences to have a moment of reflection on our impact on those natural phenomena that remain without agency, “We are just one of the voices, the one that has caused the most problems, and we need to acknowledge that and start to be more aware of the impact we are having on the environment.”
Jaimi Wright is a Perth-based arts writer who has also published with Seesaw Magazine, and an art historian with a passion for community engagement.
23rd Biennale of Sydney: rīvus
12 March to 13 June 2022