Emily Karaka, Kingitanga ki Te Ao (They Will Throw Stones), 2020, mixed media on canvas, 78 3⁄8 × 109".

Emily Karaka, Kingitanga ki Te Ao (They Will Throw Stones), 2020, mixed media on canvas, 78 3⁄8 × 109".

22nd Biennale of Sydney

Curated By Brook Andrew

Emily Karaka, Kingitanga ki Te Ao (They Will Throw Stones), 2020, mixed media on canvas, 78 3⁄8 × 109".

ON SEPTEMBER 12, 2019—a lifetime ago—Biennale of Sydney artistic director Brook Andrew announced his curatorial framework for the event’s twenty-second edition: “The urgent states of our contemporary lives are laden with unresolved past anxieties and hidden layers of the supernatural. ‘NIRIN’”—the title means “edge” in the language of the Wiradjuri people, from whom Andrew descends—“is about to expose this, demonstrating that artists and creatives have the power to resolve, heal, dismember, and imagine futures of transformation for resetting the world.”

What no one could have anticipated in September was how, and how quickly, that “future of transformation” would arrive. “NIRIN” opened on March 14. I arrived in Sydney from Auckland the Thursday before, just as the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic and Donald Trump banned flights from Europe to the United States. Moored next to the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Circular Quay was one of the biggest cruise ships I’d ever seen, breathing travelers in and out of its infection-ready maw. On Saturday afternoon, I was at Campbelltown Arts Centre (C-A-C)—an important biennial venue in one of the city’s working-class suburbs—when a phone notification told me that all returning citizens and residents of New Zealand would be required to self-isolate for fourteen days on arrival. I write this review from Auckland, 1,300 miles from my subject, where not only travelers but the entire country is now under a strict lockdown in an effort to eliminate Covid-19 altogether. It is working, but at enormous cost. People are losing their jobs at a vertiginous rate. We don’t know when our son’s school will reopen. To be sure, New Zealand is among the luckiest countries in the world, with the virus largely contained. But, economically speaking, we are, like everyone else, thoroughly fucked.

Aziz Hazara, Bow Echo, 2019, five-channel digital video, color, sound, 4 minutes 17 seconds.

This is globalization’s most decadent era—environment-obliterative, debt-laden, enthralled by the vanity of the present—beginning its death rattle. And that it must end was, intuitively, Andrew’s overarching message. What was so brutally unfair about the Covid-19-induced suspension of “NIRIN” (the show continues in an online form) is that, for those few days it was open, it skewered many of our worst excesses. Without a whiff of tokenism, Andrew foregrounded Indigenous knowledge systems to emphasize the existential truth industrialized modernity has fought so hard, and failed, to overturn: that, despite all our efforts, we are not in control of the future of our planet or, for that matter, the pathways of our own lives.

Brook Andrew foregrounded Indigenous knowledge systems to emphasize the existential truth industrialized modernity has fought so hard, and failed, to overturn.

For First Peoples around the world, this is a given. Identity is formed and maintained through a deep and intergenerational connection with place, and settler-colonialism’s conversion of land into exploitable property and its consequent effects on the people it was expropriated from were consistent themes throughout “NIRIN.” Among the historical collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Andrew hung paintings by Ma-ori artist Emily Karaka that referred to her ancestral relationship with Ihuma-tao in Auckland. The area’s volcanic stonefields are among New Zealand’s earliest sites of Ma-ori settlement. Karaka’s paintings—brightly colored, expressive landscapes overlaid with text—invoked both this history and the current situation at Ihuma-tao, now the site of a land dispute and occupation stretching back to 2016, when it was sold for private residential development. This focus on land rights and sovereignty was echoed at the C-A-C by John Miller and Elisapeta Heta’s installation documenting Ma-ori protest movements over the past several decades. At Artspace and Cockatoo Island, the collective Tennant Creek Brio—the group’s name refers to its small Northern Territory hometown—displayed a number of “pokie machines” (as slots are known in Australia), punkishly overpainted with abstract marks and cartoonish figures and mounted on empty plastic crates. Alcohol and gambling—and pokies in particular—have had notoriously devastating effects on Aboriginal Australians; the collective itself began as an art-therapy group.

Mayunkiki with traditional sinuye tattooing and ethnic clothes of the Ainu, 2018. Photo: Hiroshi Ikeda.

Andrew’s solidaristic approach extended across national boundaries, framing Indigenous activism as a global struggle against late capitalism’s repressive and extractive effects. At the MCA, the artist and musician Mayunkiki presented SINUYE: Tattoos for Ainu Women, 2020, a photo-essay documenting attempts to keep alive the facial-tattoo traditions, banned under Japanese law, of the country’s Ainu people. And at the C-A-C, Adrian Stimson, an artist from the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta, Canada, reprised his Buffalo Boy alter ego and a newer persona, Naked Napi, through a kind of coyote-summoning shamanistic camp, both in a video in which he squirts cum from a massive prosthetic cock at an oncoming Canadian Pacific train and in photos in which he dances through the desert wearing animal skins, fishnets, and pearls. 

Adrian Stimson, Shaman Exterminator, 2004, wallpaper, 84 × 48".

By blowing open Western conceptions of art, time, and property, Andrew also reframed and reenergized works by members of the more recognizably internationalist art-world set. On Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, Laure Prouvost’s Into All That Is Here with the Two Cockatoo Too, 2020, snaked through one of the location’s most distinctive spaces: the nearly 600-foot-long Dog Leg tunnel, constructed in 1915 to facilitate the transportation of workers and materials across the island. Prouvost’s work took the viewer on a journey through, and past, a series of memento mori vignettes, which included objects like dried fish, a half-consumed stick of butter, an open Aussie beer can, and a lone mandarin orange. Scattered throughout were surreal animal totems that resonated with the site, such as a shark with a fish in its mouth, the head and tail made from ceramic, the body from driftwood. Syrupy voice-overs accompanied videos of oneiric landscapes, displayed on mucky screens or projected straight onto the dank floor. The installation was calling, in a sense, to Cockatoo Island’s traumatic past as a colonial prison surrounded by shark-filled waters and, later, as a brutal reformatory for young Sydney women who’d found themselves on the wrong side of Victorian laws.

Laure Prouvost, Into All That Is Here with the Two Cockatoo Too, 2020, mixed media. Installation view, Cockatoo Island. Photo: Jessica Maurer.

High above in the convict precinct on the cliffs was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Once Removed, 2019, a two-channel video in which the artist interviews Bassel Abi Chahine, a young historian convinced he is the reincarnation of a teenage soldier who died in the 1984 Lebanese Civil War. Past and present were also collapsed in Mohamed Bourouissa’s immersive installation Brutal Family Roots, 2020, which draws connections to his childhood memories in Algeria of Australian wattle tree flowers, which he knew as “mimosas.” Saplings dotted the space, its floor a perfect wattle yellow, while a soundtrack relayed spoken poetry by Yuin hip-hop artist MC Kronic and Egyptian-Australian poet, MC, and singer Nardean. Their reflections on displacement, shape-shifting, and putting down roots were engineered by Jordan Quiqueret to be successively staged from multiple speakers, while electricity generated by the young trees’ growth was recorded and fed back into the sound design.

Arthur Jafa, The White Album, 2018–19, digital video, color, sound, 29 minutes 55 seconds. Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

The Cockatoo Island works cumulatively produced an ecospiritual haze, enhanced by the strange emptiness of the place just a couple of days before the exhibition opening. (Adding to the sublime fug was Ibrahim Mahama’s No Friend but the Mountains, 2012–20, one of his overwhelming environments of Ghanaian jute sacks, used to ship cocoa and, later, coal.) Elsewhere in the biennial, this romanticism was cut with a more explicit politics. On large screens, arranged in a pentagon so that viewers stood in the middle, Aziz Hazara’s Bow Echo, 2019, showed five young boys fighting strong winds to reach the top of a rock in the hills of the artist’s home province of Wardak, Afghanistan, each trying to hold his footing while playing a plastic bugle—the piece an elegy of sorts for the death and devastation caused by suicide bombings in the capital city of Kabul below them. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, surrounded by nineteenth-century paintings, Arthur Jafa’s The White Album, 2018–19—an assemblage of toxic whiteness, Iggy Pop vocals, Black memes, aerial footage of guided missiles, and portraits of the artist’s friends—laid bare the escalating violence of the internet and its platforming of white supremacy. A teenage girl rehearses a typical “reverse-racism” YouTube rant; a bearded young man, framed by the narrow rectangle of his phone, horrifically demonstrates concealed-carry techniques designed for mass murder, retrieving magazine after magazine from his person, as well as an entire semi-automatic rifle from the front of his baggy jeans.

Mohamed Bourouissa, Brutal Family Roots, 2020, mixed media with audio, acacia, and carpet. Installation view, Cockatoo Island. Photo: Jessica Maurer.

March 15, the day after “NIRIN” opened to the public, was the one-year anniversary of the murder of fifty-one Muslims in Christchurch by a lone gunman who broadcast the massacre live on social media. Jafa’s work prompts a question that should be floating through all our minds: What the hell is going on with white people? One answer—at least in Australia and the Pacific—might be the long, atomizing, devastating histories of colonial modernity, captured and excoriated not only by contemporary works throughout the show but in a series of curatorial interventions Andrew titled “Powerful Objects,” in which he distributed culturally charged artifacts from private and museum collections throughout the biennial’s venues. At the MCA, for example, above Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka’s massive Tongan tapa cloths, and mounted on Eric Bridgeman’s abstract mural Rot Bung (Junction), 2019–20, was Frederick McCubbin’s A bush burial, 1890—a classic Aussie painting ennobling the mortal hardships of frontier life. And at the C-A-C, a cabinet contained a Ned Kelly helmet, manacles, and a book of photographs of Japan by Yo-nosuke Natori from 1937, open to an inscription in German to “Meiner Rosemarie.” The message is translated thus: “National Socialist racial thought and its underlying racial science does not lead to contempt or low estimation of other peoples, but much more to the realization of the task of the necessary survival and continuation of life of one’s own people.” It is dated 1939 and signed “Adolf Hitler.”

By the end of the opening weekend, it was clear that Covid-19 was going to be the most consequential global event since Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Since then, more than one hundred thousand people have died, scores of millions have lost their jobs, and hundreds of millions of children are at home looking at adults and wondering what the hell happens next, while we hide the truth from them: that we have no clue. Like everything else, the art world will be permanently transformed. “NIRIN” was a short glimpse into its stranger, spikier, fairer future, a brilliant light that flared briefly at the bottom of the world. I am thankful to have seen it; I wonder if we’ll ever see anything like it again. 

Anthony Byrt is a critic and journalist based in Auckland.