Mikhail Karikis, Children of Unquiet, 2013–14, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes 30 seconds. From the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

Mikhail Karikis, Children of Unquiet, 2013–14, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes 30 seconds. From the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

19th Biennale of Sydney

Various Venues

Mikhail Karikis, Children of Unquiet, 2013–14, digital video, color, sound, 16 minutes 30 seconds. From the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

The Nineteenth Biennale of Sydney may be remembered more for a boycott by participating artists than for the curatorial vision of artistic director Juliana Engberg, who subtitled the show “You Imagine What You Desire.” It is the blackest irony that the curator’s vision of art “imagining a world beyond the prosaic grounded life” should be ambushed by the festering political controversy surrounding Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. The target of the artists’ protest was the Biennale’s sponsorship by Transfield Holdings, a shareholder in Transfield Services, which runs Australia’s offshore detention centers on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru. These camps are central to a government policy of deterring “unauthorized” refugee arrivals.

While one local politician accused agitating artists of “vicious ingratitude” and another advised them to confine political statements to their art, the threatened boycott got results. The son of Transfield’s founder resigned from his position as chairman of the Biennale board, and the reconfigured board severed financial ties with the company. While the Biennale’s lead-up was overshadowed by these events, Engberg put together a show overflowing with aesthetically engaging, thoughtful, and—yes—political works. As in the past, the exhibition sprawls across vastly different inner-Sydney sites, from conventional museum spaces at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Museum of Contemporary Art to the abandoned maritime and penal architecture of Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. Artists from Australasia and Europe (East and West) are plentiful, with a smattering of low-key works from Chinese artists (among them Zhao Zhao and Yingmei Duan) and big-production videos from Wael Shawky and Yael Bartana.

Especially bountiful and impressive this year are offerings of moving-image art, ranging from displays of hypervisual grandeur to more intimate, meditative, or gritty works. At the MCA, a new video installation by Pipilotti Rist, Mercy Garden Retour Skin, 2014, opts for eye-popping spectacle. Visitors are assailed on all sides by color-saturated, high-definition, and magnified video footage of stunning terrestrial and ocean environments. Other videos at the MCA contrast starkly with Rist’s extravaganza. The washed-out interiors and unresolved detective story of Corin Sworn’s The Rag Papers, 2013, cater to the pleasure of watching almost nothing happen for twenty minutes. Ann Lislegaard’s shorter 3-D animation work Oracles, Owls . . . Some Animals Never Sleep, 2012–13, presents the uncanny spectacle of owls talking sexual politics and science fiction. Also at the same venue, “Tombeau de Ferdinand Cheval” (Tomb of Ferdinand Cheval), 2013, a series of luminous black-and-white photographs by Aurélien Froment, inventories naive decorative motifs from an architectural folly built by a postman in rural France.

The challenging spaces of Cockatoo Island traditionally test Biennale artists and curators. To Engberg’s credit, the island is not cluttered with artworks, as in the past, and most artists have engaged meaningfully with their allocated sites. Among the highlights here are a sculpture installation by Mikala Dwyer, video works by Mikhail Karikis and Ignas Krunglevicius, and a sound piece by Sonia Leber and David Chesworth. Dwyer’s constellation of large transparent plastic sculptures The Hollows, 2014, was free-formed on site with a heat gun and suspended from the roof of a decaying dockyard building, with a view onto the sea. Situated in a disused bureaucratic space, Krunglevicius’s video Interrogation, 2009, is based on the transcript of a police officer questioning a woman suspected of shooting her husband; palm-sweating tension is imparted simply by visualized words on two video screens and a throbbing electronic sound track. The audio work by Leber and Chesworth, This Is Before We Disappear From View, 2014, is installed in an old coal bunker, where an antiquated loudspeaker transmits an authoritarian voice speaking with poetic obliquity of submission and resistance to penal systems. In Karikis’s sixteen-minute video Children of Unquiet, 2013–14, a group of children play, sing, chant, and read aloud amid the ruins of an abandoned Tuscan village, surrounded by industrial detritus and geothermal activity. The children’s falsetto vocals and recitation of philosophies of biopolitics intermingle with sounds of hissing steam, bubbling geysers, and straining metal. Engberg is no fan of didactic or analytical art, preferring conceptually layered and poetic practices in all media. Luckily, her eye for established and emerging artists working in this vein is at its most discerning in this Biennale.

Toni Ross