View of “rīvus,” 2022, the Cutaway at Barangaroo, Sydney. Center: Jessie French, The Myth of Nature – agaG1, 2021–22. Photo: Document Photography.

View of “rīvus,” 2022, the Cutaway at Barangaroo, Sydney. Center: Jessie French, The Myth of Nature – agaG1, 2021–22. Photo: Document Photography.

23rd Biennale of Sydney

Various venues

View of “rīvus,” 2022, the Cutaway at Barangaroo, Sydney. Center: Jessie French, The Myth of Nature – agaG1, 2021–22. Photo: Document Photography.

Curated by José Roca

THE TWENTY-THIRD Biennale of Sydney seeks to give form to the seemingly unrepresentable: the profound scalar and ontological challenges to human thought precipitated by climate crisis. Titled “rīvus,” Latin for “brook” or “stream,” the exhibition chiefly attempts this act of representation through its emphasis on understanding waterways as individual entities with agency and rights and by honoring Indigenous ways of knowing, according to which rivers are ancestors or living things.

To take aqueous bodies—whether oceanic, estuarine, or amniotic—as a theme with a political edge is a well-established curatorial move. Artistic director José Roca himself produced “Waterweavers: A Chronicle of Rivers” in 2014. “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms,” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 2015 Istanbul Biennial, is another prominent example. Yet if “Saltwater” leaned on strategies of metaphor and poetics, “rīvus” resounds with literalism. Again and again, the works focus on legible identifiers of nature and ecology in ways that threaten to limit ecocritical analysis to artworks carrying overt ecological themes. In so doing, the exhibition risks losing sight of a more expansive framework through which audiences might learn to register the natural resources that make all artworks—indeed, the art world itself—possible.

Across its seven venues, each modeled as a “conceptual wetland,” the Biennale features a proliferation of artworks addressing specific bodies of water, which together begin to form a one-to-one map of the world. At the National Art School alone (and this is not an exhaustive list), artistic duo Latent Community are presenting a film about an artificial lake created from the deliberate flooding of a village in Fokida, Greece, in 1981; Carolina Caycedo displays a mural comprising imagery of the construction of the El Quimbo Dam over the Yuma River in Colombia; Pushpa Kumari depicts the Ganges in folk Madhubani-painting style; and the National Committee of the Friends of Myall Creek and Local First Nations Community present a possum-skin cloak commemorating the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838 in northern New South Wales. Though this repeated focus on existing bodies of water can in some respects feel monotonal, it simultaneously conjures the gathering force of a river or flood, or indeed the intensifying chant of a protest as it picks up new voices on the street.

Julia Lohmann, Corpus Maris I, 2022, seaweed, rattan, plywood. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney. Photo: Document Photography.

Repetition is also key to the exhibition’s design: At each of the five venues, an upright screen mounted on unembellished metal scaffolding features video-recorded statements by a “River Voice”—that is, an elder or guardian who speaks on behalf of a river that has been granted, or is currently engaged in the struggle for, the status of legal personhood. Presented as floating heads against white backgrounds, these custodians include Alexander Rodriguez Mena, who speaks for the Atrato in Colombia, and the Zápara elder Manari Ushigua, who represents the Napo River in Ecuador.

The choice to incorporate reusable metal scaffolding grew from Roca’s conviction that the ethic of sustainability should be not simply thematized but quite literally embedded in the show. To that end, Roca and the curatorial team—Paaschal Dantos Berry, Anna Davis, Hannah Donnelly, Talia Linz—have had the nearly six-hundred-page catalogue, Glossary of Water, printed on reclaimed as opposed to recycled paper, since recycling is an industrial process that is costly in energy and water. And the curator, aiming to curb travel-related emissions endemic to the peripatetic practice of contemporary art curating, relocated to Sydney for the sixteen months leading up to the Biennale. (Members of the broader curatorium are all locals.) Meanwhile, Cockatoo Island, reached by ferry, has been removed from this year’s list of venues, putting all the main exhibition sites within walking distance of Sydney Harbor.

Another of the exhibition’s innovations is to eschew the term artists in favor of participants. This choice is powerful in the way it gives equal weight to the contributions of artists, architects, designers, scientists, and communities, and purposeful where it centers the contributions of activists, particularly Indigenous activists, such as the group Torres Strait 8 (who are taking the Australian government to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations for inaction over the climate crisis), for whom the roles of art, ceremony, and land management are already substantially entwined. Undercutting anthropocentrism, the organizers have also listed as participants certain rivers, such as the Baaka (Darling) River, a branch of the Murray-Darling Basin in southeastern Australia, and the Birrarung in Naarm/Melbourne.

Again and again, the works focus on legible identifiers of nature and ecology in ways that threaten to limit ecocritical analysis to artworks carrying overt ecological themes.

But the blurring of roles under the generalized rubric of “participation” also highlights missed opportunities. Given the show’s efforts to consider its expanded carbon footprint, one could easily have envisioned a scenario in which the Biennale incorporated contributions by the show’s designer-participants into its physical infrastructure, as with the reclaimed paper in the catalogue. Yet installations presented by German-born Julia Lohmann, who researches the potential of seaweed and kelp as design materials, exist solely for aesthetic contemplation. Her Corpus Maris I, 2022, a biomorphic rattan-and-seaweed sculpture, appears to balloon out of a wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Similarly, Jessie French’s experiments in creating sheets of incandescent algae-based bioplastics are displayed at multiple venues merely as possibilities to behold—but not to actually use as, say, cups or plates in circulation in the museum café.

One of the subtler treatments of the exhibition’s themes can be found in its mobilization of the concepts of sound and aurality. Inherently porous and all-encompassing, moving through the world as waves, like water itself, sound links many of the disparate works. More specifically, the show summons communication across species, translation, and ventriloquy to answer the question posed by the curatorial collective: “If we can recognise [animals, plants, mountains, and bodies of water] as individual beings, what might they say?” The very formulation of the question is revealing in the way it foregrounds the capacity to speak as the precondition of agency. It reduces listening to a practice of decoding that would theoretically bring about more empathic human-nonhuman relations, as opposed to an attuning to the incomprehensible—the scalar-ontological challenge of climate crisis.

The Great Animal Orchestra, 2016, consisting of field recordings by Bernie Krause set to visuals by United Visual Artists and housed in a custom pavilion at Barangaroo, is an archive of animal vocalizations accompanied by an impassioned plea to listen to them before they are silenced by extinction. At the MCA, Jenna Sutela’s nimiia cétiï, 2018, deploys machine learning to interpret a bacterium used in natto fermentation, which, the artist notes, “usually cannot speak.” In collaboration with Google Arts & Culture, Sutela converted data derived from the bacterium’s movement into sound, which is, of course, not the same as intentional speech. (In a playful nod to her own process of mediation, the bacterium language refers to a nineteenth-century French medium who claimed to be channeling a Martian tongue.) In his video series “All Bleeding Stops Eventually,” 2019, seemingly designed for emaciated attention spans, at just forty seconds in length each, Will Benedict digitally ventriloquized animals, the sun, and the moon, such that they beg humans for recognition and respect—apparently underscoring humanity’s fundamental incapacity to undertake the kind of anti-anthropocentric listening required for environmental justice.

View of “rīvus,” 2022, Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, Sydney. Foreground: Julie Gough, p/re-occupied, 2022. Background: Clare Milledge, Imbás: a well at the bottom of the sea, 2022. Photo: Document Photography.

The Indigenous Australian practice of dadirri, which has been translated into English as unhurried “deep listening,” offers a different paradigm, one that does not place the emphasis on speaking subjects. Dadirri describes a holistic practice that entails a contemplative attunement of one’s self to place.

Rather than amplifying or orchestrating nature, a number of Indigenous Australian artists present works that attune to country and in so doing highlight the structural conditions that suppress their rights to access and care for it. Currently, Brisbane-based artist D. Harding’s family and community are seeking to use Ghungalu knowledge systems to check the health of Mimosa Creek, on Ghungalu Country in Central Queensland; to do so, they must walk its length, which means negotiating permission to cross various borders established by pastoral leases and agricultural fence lines. Harding’s Untitled (wall composition), 2022, acts as a map and a metonym of the waterway. First, the artist made up a long wall of carboard sheets adhered to one another with compostable tape. Then, prior to the show’s opening, they walked its length, backward and forward, hundreds of times, while rubbing a hand (dipped in water and gum arabic) against the surface to create a wet horizontal depression. Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough’s installation at Pier 2/3 also addressed the denial of First Nations people access to their land due to the colonial intervention of private property, which carves into segments natural entities, like rivers, that flow across borders. In the video component of p/re-occupied, 2022, the nose of Gough’s kayak glides freely down the rivers and estuaries in Lutruwita/Tasmania, guided by their currents. Images of stone tools, taken from her ancestors’ Country and stored away in museum collections, are superimposed over the land in a form of virtual repatriation. Gough has also adorned the kayak with photographs of the tools, and 3D-printed almost one hundred facsimiles of them—at once an index of loss and a gesture toward reparation.

If “rīvus” has not registered clearly in this review as a “good” biennale—and it would be fair to characterize the already published reviews as ambivalent—it is precisely because it is ushering in an emergent metric for its own evaluation. The very difficulty of gauging the show’s success is entwined with the need to radically overhaul conventions of exhibition-making on a warming planet, a project to which it offers an undeniably important contribution. Roca, among others, has rightly questioned whether the biennial model is exhausted and has begun to modify it accordingly: by ensuring that a show’s artists, artworks, and funders are responsible to an expanded ecology of stakeholders—an ecology that properly centers the land and waterways on which it unfurls. It’s incumbent on future custodians of the Biennale to take this newly capacious political ecology and diversify and deepen it further still.

The Twenty-Third Biennale of Sydney is on view through June 13.

Helen Hughes is senior lecturer in art history, theory, and curatorial practice at Monash University, Melbourne.