COCKATOO ISLAND is a former naval shipyard. Covered with buildings in various states of decay, the island’s physical history is ever present: Huge rusting cranes tower over slipways built by convicts in the early nineteenth century, while remnants of World War II fortifications—constructed for Japanese air raids that never came—abut veranda’d colonial houses. Cockatoo was established in 1839 as a prison in Sydney Harbor for convicts who’d been transported from England but were too wicked to ever give up their criminal ways. Things have not really changed; claimed by some as “our Arsenale,” Cockatoo has become the main venue of the Biennale of Sydney since its inauguration as a venue in 2008. It’s also the site of the hot-ticket event of the biennale’s opening week, last Tuesday’s Artists’ Party.
To get to the island and the party, you needed to get on a ferry. To get on the ferry you had to get in a line, and, with more than fifteen hundred people on the guest list all arriving at Pier 2/3 at the same time, some wags noted a resemblance to the evacuation of Dunkirk. And so we waited, and waited, better dressed perhaps than those hapless survivors of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 France, but just as desperate to rejoin friends and loved ones separated in the panic.
Once we had reached Cockatoo, the crush at the bar in the cavernous Turbine Hall was intense. Above our heads, Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune Stage One—seven cars suspended from the roof exploding with disco lights—provided a spectacular decorative counterpoint to the mayhem below. With Brook Andrew’s adults-only Jumping Castle War Memorial situated just outside the “VIP Bvlgari Bar,” these were just about the only works of art visible at the party, the rest of the show cordoned off lest overrefreshed art lovers fall down a hole. The artists’ party was all about drinking beer and singing along to the tracks the DJ spun for the crowd—solid gold ’80s hits including “Tainted Love” and “Mad World”—these being, I am reliably informed, universal signifiers for art-world parties everywhere.
To get a head start on the art of BoS17, you had to attend the combined media preview/vernissage that had begun bright and early the previous morning at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Speeches from BoS governor Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and artistic director David Elliott made some bold claims for Elliott’s particular curatorial gambit. Titled “The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age,” the biennale is, Elliott says, his “post-Enlightenment show” that is “symphonic in structure” and dedicated to “the 50 percent of the world’s population who earn less than $2.50 a day.” It was an admirable if slightly uncomfortable dedication for those at the media launch. As we breakfasted on gourmet chocolate-chip cookies and cups of tea served by waiters, it occurred to me that it’s a good thing entry to all BoS venues is free, since $2.50 wouldn’t even get you a coffee at the MCA restaurant.
As the press toured BoS17’s seven harborside venues, Elliott’s grand plan was revealed to be a survey of contemporary art with a folksy tinge: haptic, crafty art that opts for sincerity while avoiding sensational grandstanding and high-end gloss—although there’s a fair bit of that too. Conrad Botes’s graphic art/comic series Cain Slays Abel is a typical lo-fi example, as is Jake and Dinos Chapman’s 2009 Shitropsective—cardboard remakes of their iconic works of the ’90s—or Sherry Siopis’s anime-style horror painting Ambush or Fiona Pardington’s haunting photos of life casts of the heads of Solomon Island warriors. The high end of artmaking includes a monumental foam Paul McCarthy sculpture, Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift 2, at Pier 2/3; Cai’s cars; and AES+F’s mind-bending nine-screen video art extravaganza The Feast of Trimalchio at Cockatoo.
Mindful of my writerly duties, I took a notebook and pen with me to the artists’ party. Problem was, no one in Australia knows what international artists look like, simply because they rarely visit. Attempts to get into the “VIP” bar were rebuffed by Bvlgari security, and my notebook remained mostly blank. At one moment I thought I’d improbably spied Klaus Kinski in the Turbine Hall, but the crowd was mostly Australian art-world notables celebrating like it was 1989. Reuben Keehan of Artspace—where Tokyo’s SuperDeluxe has set up shop for three months—told me that the following night’s opening at his venue would feature Japanese DJs and musical acts, but the details were obliterated by Toto’s “Africa” booming out of the speakers. Someone asked whether I would make it to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s keynote address that weekend and all the exciting art and musical performances coming up, and my honest answer was I had no idea. Plans seemed futile at this stage: After all, we still had to get back on the ferries to the mainland.