Winter in Sydney – Biennale 2018

Notwithstanding the fact that right now it is absolutely bucketing down, Sydney generally puts on a pretty spectacular winter.  Still, even when it is grey and glum, there are some soul satisfying things to do in Sydney in winter.

Like, the Sydney Biennale.

For Mothers’ day, I managed to wrangle the family out into the blustery weather to visit Cockatoo Island.  The wind and earlyish hour kept the crowds away, which is the way I prefer things.  It’s quick ferry trip across the harbour to this small but historically important island.  Wind swept, industrial, replete with rusted artefacts and empty warehouses, the history of the place is positively palpable, as though the ghosts of our wretched past walk beside us – a gentle reminder of how much progress we have made at easing human suffering over the past 150 years.

Of course, the highlight of the event is Ai WeiWei’s Law of the Journey.  A massive, dark, PVC rendition of a boat carrying refuges.  Faceless adults and children huddle together in the 60m long rubber boat.  It is, as would be expected, brilliant and confronting, and worth the trip alone. (The irony of having to travel to the exhibit on a boat is not lost on me, nor the fact that it is exhibited on what was once a convict labour camp and prison).


There are hundreds of other exhibits, of all shapes and sizes.  All testament to the power of the creative mind to question the status quo and hold a mirror up to ourselves.   Sometimes art stops you in its tracks.  Makes you sit up and take notice.  Other times, you have to stop and take the time to notice, to see the detail and open your mind to what the artist might be saying.

We saw creative endeavours from juxtaposed singing rituals across religious cultures (The Circle and the Square, Suzanne Lacy) to vast explosions of colour where paint had been left to interact with nature (Hover, Erupt, Erode – Mit Jai Inn).   Amongst others, there was Wong Hoy Cheong’s series of photos from inside multiple different manholes, and a quite excellent marketing campaign for fuel made from the urine of diabetics (Togar – Julian Abraham) – somebody get that man a job!

However, my favourite exhibitor turned out to be Yukinori Yanagi. I am not sure if it just because of my current interest in the skies, but his exhibit Icarus Container captured my attention.  Using containers, geometry and mirrors, together with poetry and an eerie sound scape, it’s a poetic feat of engineering that had even my son enthralled.  The roaring imagery of the sun, alive and hot and compelling is the start point.  And its presence is visible around every corner, as you walk back towards earth.  Looking into mirrors, you can see your past, and everyone else who has followed you in.  In my mind, anyway, the words tell the story of those who seek to fly, and those who pull them back to earth.  The power of dreams, and the power of fear and failure, and what that says about humanity.

Tucked away at the back end of Cockatoo Island, he has two other exhibitions – Landscape with an Eye and Absolute Dud.  It is the latter one, a mimic of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, that really reaches down into my gut and gives it a squeeze.   It hangs so quietly in a shed, a rusted leftover from a bygone industrial era.  So seemingly innocuous.  So forgettable. So deadly.


I think the thing that most compels me about artistry is the bravery of the creative spirit to invest precious time and energy into ideas, and then to present those ideas for human consumption.  But perhaps, compelled by some sort of inner fire, the alternative is mental anguish.  Regardless, artists remind us of what it is to be human, with all the possibilities and problems that presents.

Unfortunately, the Biennale is closing next week.  I’ve got to get me to the MCA and the Art Gallery of NSW before then!




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