22nd Biennale of Sydney – NIRIN

In the wake of COVID-19 and the lockdown that defines it, we were told to stay at home to protect vulnerable communities; to ease the burden on the health care system. We were told to care for people we had never met; to be conscious with our actions. It altered an inwardly-looking nation into a community as we all turned to the digital to engage with the same content: living room concerts, Facebook live, and ample baking.

As we all know, galleries were closed, and the art world shook. One causality was Brook Andrew’s 22nd Biennale of Sydney (BoS), ‘NIRIN’ – welcoming physical visitors for only ten days before closing on Tuesday, 24 March 2020.

Installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2020. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy Biennale of Sydney

Established in 1973, and the third oldest biennale in the world, was for the first time in history, First Nation artist-led. Already designed with extensive public programming with events that bring the audience and artists together, ‘NIRIN’ rewrote the BoS substructure, and now engraved the framework for the world’s first entirely digital Biennale. And they remind us, ‘at times like these, it is more important than ever that we find ways to connect, to help each other, to listen, collaborate and heal — all core themes of NIRIN.’

The BoS had to consider a slowing of systems in the way they brought information to the public, ensuring that the labour of the artist is always considered, and the content is responsive to the audience’s engagement throughout the entire pandemic. ‘It’s very much a program that’s in motion,’ Paschal Daantos Berry, the Curator of Programs and Learning and Co-Head of Communications and Community Engagement, shares. ‘What makes this completely fertile ground to play with, is that Brook’s edition was always going to be centred on the artists’ experience, and so we adapted our digital program to be refocused on the life of the artists.’

With the formal spaces closed, the BoS proceeds to examine what it means in terms of representation of First Nations people, before and after colonisation — especially critical timing with the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing. These messages are fed through the seven fundamental principles of ‘NIRIN’ online:

BILA, focusing on the physical environment, locally and globally communities with playlists and podcasts. GURRAY, using transformation as a tool for change, through tours of the exhibition spaces, artworks and processes. MURIGUWAL GIILAND, social media takeovers and watch parties from ‘NIRIN’ artists. NGAWAAL-GUYUNGAN, performances, readings and conversations that explore potent ideas and the power of objects. DHAAGUN using concepts of ‘Earth, Sovereignty and Working Together’ manifesting every Friday in a series of conversations between Andrew and artists and curators.

Installation view in the Grand Courts, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2020. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy Biennale of Sydney

In YIRAWY–DHURAY (Yam-Connection: Food) and BAGARAY-BANG (Healing), the Biennale invites thinking on ‘How can we gather in isolation?’ — working beyond the digital space with recipes and intergenerational activities such as workshops using recycled materials, craft projects, readings and gardening.

There are several ways to access the Biennale’s online program; the first is through their website. I start digging, revealing layers, through a multitude of clicks and links, finding an invitation to make fish curry with Ibrahim Mahama and Breaking Bread, a Cape Town-based art collective who use food sharing as a method of social engagement. A humble dish enjoyed by nations across the world offers more complex thinking in forced migration in South Africa from the Dutch colonisation and slave trade in South East Asia. The digital world feels like a connection I already have. I know how to search for fish curry recipes, yet the relationship between art and these now normal-quarantine practices situates ‘NIRIN’ within a global community.

Tony Albert’s artwork, Healing Land, Remembering Country (2020) on Cockatoo Island has been reinterpreted for an online experience with a downloadable learning pack, and in place of the physical greenhouse, a video welcomes the audience to explore and consider the themes of his work. ‘It is a space for gathering, sharing, learning together, healing, reflection and play,’ Albert shares. ‘As a new gesture of ‘memory exchange’, visitors and families are invited to use the greenhouse for reflection and conversation.’ Where in the physical space, the audience were encouraged to write memories and messages on paper imbedded with seeds of native plants from New South Wales, on the website we are given the tutorial on making the seed paper and can continue what Albert intended.

Tony Albert, Healing Land, Remembering Country, 2020, greenhouse nursery, hand-woven baskets, native plants. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Biennale of Sydney

The videos and podcasts are also uploaded to YouTube, and subscribing keeps you up-to-date on the content. Easy to navigate headings split the content into digestible media: Artwork Highlights; Social Tours with Curatorial Assistant, Sebastian Henry-Jones; Podcasts; and the delightfully raw interviews between Brook Andrew and the artists. ‘I wanted the wider audiences who perhaps don’t know what a Biennale is to know that they can see people and communities who are creating artworks or experiences that maybe reflect their own experience,’ Andrew shares. ‘As we move the Biennale to digital spaces, I hope people will open themselves up to things that they haven’t thought about and empathise with the shared experiences of others.’

Ibrahim Mahama, No Friend but the Mountains 2012-2020, 2020, charcoal jute sacks, sacks, metal tags and scrap metal tarpaulin, dimensions variable. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Courtesy the artist, White Cube; and Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

‘NIRIN’ online is active in a way that encourages communities across Australia and the globe to think collectively together, but it also invites a disconnection to consider a slower pace. No longer a static exhibition, the BoS urges repeat viewings and activates the curious mind. With the new intimate format, ‘NIRIN’ achieves its goal of searching for the edges and dismantles the Western art hegemony — through manipulation of the virtual, ‘NIRIN’ creates its own democratic model and space for thinking, learning, and sharing.

Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based arts writer.

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Re-opening dates:

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Artspace
1 June to 27 September 2020

Campbelltown Arts Centre
1 June to 11 October 2020

Cockatoo Island
16 June to 6 September 2020

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
From 16 June (closing date TBC)