Shahryar Nashat, Parade, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 38 minutes. From the 20th Biennale of Sydney.

Shahryar Nashat, Parade, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 38 minutes. From the 20th Biennale of Sydney.

the 20th Biennale of Sydney

Shahryar Nashat, Parade, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 38 minutes. From the 20th Biennale of Sydney.

For her first outing as a biennial artistic director, Stephanie Rosenthal (chief curator at the Hayward Gallery, London, since 2007) has adopted the words of science-fiction writer William Gibson as the show’s title and theme: “The Future is Already Here—It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed.” But there is more to Rosenthal’s conceptual repertoire than this warning that not everyone has equal access to the technological advancements of our time. A number of traditional Sydney Biennale venues have been rebadged as fictional “embassies” or “safe spaces for thinking and conversation.” For example, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Embassy of Spirits) explores different belief systems. The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (Embassy of Translation) provides a platform for revisiting history in the twenty-first century. Art located in abandoned industrial sites on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor (Embassy of the Real) addresses overlaps between the actual and the virtual. The cultural precinct at Carriageworks, previously a railway workshop complex, renamed Embassy of Disappearance, hosts works about absence, memory, history, archaeology, the politics of space, land ownership, and ecology. This conceptual overload may not have prevented the Twentieth Biennale of Sydney from echoing themes familiar from many recent biennials around the world, but still, Rosenthal has assembled some compelling works.

Her self-professed interest in experimental performing arts has made its presence felt strongly. In the opening week, French choreographer Boris Charmatz delivered a scintillating keynote address at Carriageworks, followed by a one-off presentation of his work manger, 2014, with thirteen performers from his Musée de la Danse in Rennes, France, enacting just about every form of oral activity imaginable: eating (paper), gulping, choking, spewing, singing, speaking, grunting, coughing, and gasping—bringing to mind a crèche of hyperactive, orally fixated infants.

A massive rectangular space once used for shipbuilding on Cockatoo Island housed choreographer William Forsythe’s new edition of his performance installation Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, no. 2, 2013. Visitors were invited to navigate hundreds of swinging plumb bobs activated by computer programming. The effort to avoid collision with the pendulums transformed each participant into a light-footed dancer. As a modality of participatory art it felt both constrained and liberating. Another brilliant rendition of performance practice in Shahryar Nashat’s video Parade, 2014, has proved a popular exhibit at the MCA (Embassy of Translation). Nashat offers a filmic translation of dancer/choreographer Adam Linder’s accomplished reworking of Jean Cocteau’s Cubist ballet Parade, conceived for the Ballets Russes in 1917. Nashat designed the set for Linder’s rendition using a simple palette of black, white, and luminous green to suggest a trade-fair stand, echoing the choreographer’s aim to create a “stage version of a press release.” But the emphasis on contemporary dance’s conditions of production and consumption could not outshine the disciplined precision, agility, and comic timing of dancers Delphine Gaborit, Kotomi Nishiwaki, and Linder himself.

As has become the custom in Sydney Biennales, indigenous Australian artists are well represented, with works by Richard Bell, Daniel Boyd, and the collective Erub Arts, among others. Archie Moore’s A Home Away from Home (Bennelong/Vera’s Hut), 2016, provides a touching response to Australia’s colonial history. Encountered in a secluded corner of the Royal Botanic Garden, the work is bordered by the sails of the Sydney Opera House and the Gothic Revival pile of Government House. Here Moore installed a one-to-one-scale replica of a brick hut built for Woollarawarre Bennelong in 1790 by order of Arthur Phillip, governor of the new British colony. A member of the Wangal clan, Bennelong was captured by the invaders but subsequently formed a friendship with Phillip, becoming an interlocutor between local indigenous and settler cultures; he is often taken to symbolize the tension between collaboration and reconciliation.

Of a number of ethnographic video works included in the Biennale, the Taiwan-based team of Yannick Dauby (sound) and Wan-Shuen Tsai (video) presents the most compelling integration of serious ethnographic fieldwork and deft audiovisual aesthetics, though it is ill served by the cavernous industrial architecture of Carriageworks. There are many other terrific works in this biennial, but I can’t help hoping that for future editions curators will develop more modest, less predictable themes, or wondering whether the industrial spaces of Cockatoo Island and Carriageworks are entirely appropriate for the sympathetic exhibition of visual art.

Toni Ross