A Common Thread


Museum of Contemporary Art Australia director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor with Biennale of Sydney artistic directors Gerald McMaster and Catherine de Zegher. Right: Art Gallery of New South Wales director Michael Brand.

WHEN I ARRIVED at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last Tuesday night for the first of the weeklong celebrations for the Eighteenth Biennale of Sydney, the forecourt was packed with local dignitaries waiting to hear Michael Brand’s maiden speech. It was only Brand’s second day on the job as gallery director, but his opening remarks were charmingly good-natured, good-humored, and, perhaps most significantly, in good taste. His acknowledgment of the gallery’s staff, as well as the other big Sydney institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and its director, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, did not go unnoticed. Indeed, after the thirty-three-year tenure of Edmund Capon, the excited buzz over a new order somewhat overshadowed talk of the biennial.

For many among the international contingent, which included Art Basel Hong Kong director Magnus Renfrew and dealers such as Finola Jones (of Mother’s Tankstation), Courtney Plummer (of Lehmann Maupin), and Tyler Rollins, Sydney was the last stop on a vigorous itinerary counting art fairs (Frieze, Art HK, Art Basel), exhibitions (Manifesta, Documenta), and, let’s face it, lots of parties in the name of “work.” There would be no shortage of celebrations here, so before we commenced the carousing, we all got a glimpse of the show.

Left: Collector Stephanie Grosse, biennial artist Alwar Balasubramaniam, dealer Deepak Talwar, and collector Julian Grosse. (Photo: Dave Wade) Right: Biennial artist Pinaree Sanpitak with dealer Tyler Rollins.

Earlier that day, the BoS’s artistic directors, Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, took us through each of the five venues (the AGNSW and the MCA, of course, as well as Pier 2/3, Carriageworks, and Cockatoo Island) and their individual themes. Cockatoo Island (theme: “Stories, Senses, and Spheres”), located in the middle of Sydney Harbor, had been a primary site for the previous two biennials. Its history as a former prison and naval shipyard makes for an evocative viewing experience, although it’s not easy to find works that sit comfortably within its enormous industrial spaces. De Zegher and McMaster underscored this predicament by emphasizing works that utilized ephemeral materials. As the skies opened, I shared an umbrella with some colleagues and began to explore, leaving behind those taking their time with the (impressive) works housed undercover, such as Peter Robinson’s polystyrene sculpture and Cal Lane’s exquisite carpet of red sand. Walking through the mist of Fujiko Nakaya’s cloud installation—even on a rainy day—was disorienting and beautiful. And it was easy enough to be consumed by Philip Beesley’s immersive installation Hylozoic Series, Sibyl, which bustled with variegated white plumage and dangling vials filled with mysterious liquids. It was like wandering through a mechanical forest.

As the week progressed, the public openings (each night was dedicated to one of the venues) grew increasingly convivial. At the recently redeveloped MCA Australia, the speeches were entirely drowned out by the lively crowds that congregated on the outside patio. Overlooking the harbor, attendees such as Emma Bugden (of New Zealand’s Dowse Art Museum), Lisa Havilah (of Sydney’s Carriageworks), and Brisbane-based dealer Josh Milani took advantage of a break in the wet winter weather.

It was an affable, animated meet-and-greet, but when talk turned to the show proper, conversations took a more diplomatic turn. Some lauded the biennial’s “expansiveness.” Others thought it was “earnest.” Some went so far as to call it “boring,” but I thought the slightly more generous “bling-less” was the most apt description I heard. In this glittering harbor city, contemporary art aficionados are accustomed to the spectacular. The artists, at least, seemed happy with the freedom afforded them by de Zegher and McMaster, with Khaled Sabsabi labeling them “artists’ curators.” Among the critics, though, the main question was whether their subtle, erudite approach was good biennial strategy. Does a series of intimate exhibitions make for a galvanizing citywide festival?

Left: Biennial artist Lee Mingwei and Biennale of Sydney chairman Luca Belgiorno Nettis. Right: The Artists' Party at Cockatoo Island. (Photo: Sebastian Kriete)

On Thursday night it was the opening of Pier 2/3 and the Artists’ Party, which brought us back to Cockatoo Island. The Artists’ Party is the highlight in the series of opening fetes, and in the weeks leading up to the event, a plus-one became a valuable commodity for any local hoping to make (or keep) some friends. The cavernous turbine hall is a great place for a shindig, but its obstinate island-ness means there’s always the added drama of making sure you’re at the right dock at the right time with a printout of your ticket. (Unless you’re a pro swimmer, gate-crashing is pretty much an impossibility.) Then once you’re in, tracking down your posse amid the thousand-strong crowd becomes a kind of choose-your-own-adventure exercise, entailing countless reunions with colleagues you haven’t seen for “ages” (meaning, since the last big hoopla opening). I spent an hour making my way to “the right of the cheese stand” only to realize that there were two—one at either end of the hall.

On the ferry back to the mainland, discussions revolved around the overarching idea of connectivity and the BoS’s (deliberately lowercase) title, “all our relations.” Were the wide-ranging themes—storytelling, indigenous reinterpretations of history, collaboration, the planet’s finite resources, the schism between micro and macro viewpoints—merely the catchcry of the standard contemporary-art biennial? Many remarked on the slew of textile works on view, including various participatory projects involving sewing circles. (“Join us to design a garment, craft an environment, take a nap, sew a button, have a conversation,” reads the advertisement for artist Erin Manning’s ongoing “proposition,” Stitching Time.) Will ordinary punters sit down and put needle to thread? Or will they take their tailoring elsewhere? As we disembarked at Circular Quay and sidled to the front of the taxi queue, we figured that, at the very least, this bespoke biennial deserved a second look.

Jane Somerville