2016 Sydney Biennale review by Anthony Bautovich

The Heartbeat of the Island

The boycott of the 2014 Sydney Biennale was an attempt to highlight the plight of refugees in Australia’s detention camps. Little has changed since the resulting withdrawal of founding sponsors Transfield, managers of Australia’s detention facilities. The camps remain, as does our indifference. What appears to have been affected is the level of financial support for The Biennale.

The theme of this year’s Biennale, ‘The Future Is Already Here – It’s just not Evenly Distributed’, is borrowed from a comment by science fiction author William Gibson. His quote refers to the evolution of technology and the fact that many people are denied access to fundamental resources, specifically the Internet.

Artistic Director Stephanie Rosenthal has closely overseen her vision for the 2016 Biennale. Rosenthal, Chief curator at Hayward Gallery in London since 2007, has brought together 85 artists from 35 countries. Unlike previous Biennale curators she has chosen to live in Sydney since last September. This engagement with the locale is evident in her considered curation – her careful selection and grouping of artists into ‘Embassies of Thought’ emphasizes concepts rather than aesthetics. Dubbed the ‘Embassy of the Real’, Cockatoo Island is one of the major Embassy venues along with the AGNSW, MCA, Artspace and Carriageworks. With the paring back of this year’s program due to the downturn in funding, Rosenthal has cleverly repurposed a number of smaller venues forming a constellation of alternative, temporary sites scattered throughout Sydney’s inner east.

Stepping off the 301 bus at Circular Quay, I cross the street and ‘tap on’ at the dock. A ferry ride on the harbour is a simple pleasure for Sydneysiders. As Australians, our environment allows us freedom of choice, a diversity of possibilities and the entitlement to move freely. Passing between the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, the ferry filled with families, tourists and seniors heads towards Cockatoo island – the former penal colony and more recently Navy ship building facility provides an industrial backdrop for artwork by 21 artists: 2 are Australian.

Leaving the ferry, I head along Burma Road towards the Upper Island. Dozens of tents line the right hand side of the thoroughfare. Resembling a military bivouac, the site is the Island’s permanent camping ground. As I approach the first cluster of installations housed in the Convict Precinct, the air is filled with a constant, resonant beat. The pulsing, low frequency punch is the sound of Room of Rhythms – Long Distance Relationship, 2016, a work by Turkish artist and musician Cevdet Erek. With a background in sound design and architecture, Erek is known for his site-specific installations. His work for the Biennale is immersive both aurally and emotionally, and penetrates the Upper Island. As Burma Road steepens, and I near the doorway to the Convict Barracks, the pulse of Erek’s work intensifies like the heartbeat of the Island.

Entering the Convict Barracks through a single door, leaving the reverberation behind, my senses turn to the work of Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota. Shiota’s installation, Conscious Sleep, 2016 is housed in a dark, damp rectangular room. A minimal amount of natural light emanates from two small windows and the entry and exit doors. The room has a musty odour. Small, dimmed stage lights are perched adjacent to the ceiling. The lights subtly draw attention to the hundreds of metres of tangled black thread cocooning a series of beds. Their unadorned, metal frames lean against the sandstone wall at an acute angle. The beds are generously spaced unlike those of the original convict inhabitants; the linen is a pristine vivid white. Dust has started to settle on the web of black thread. The capture of memory and emotion of the enveloping thread is a trait of Shiota’s practice. Living and working in Berlin for 20 years, Shiota is renowned for her intricate, large-scale creations, using everyday objects, weaving them into their determined domain.

Passing through the room, a permanent plaque is fixed alongside the exit door. It is an excerpt from a report on the conditions of convict life on Cockatoo Island, 1861. A portion of the text from the plaque reads “…double tiers of double sleeping berths, with coffin-like apertures opening upon a narrow central passage. In this passage are placed night-tubs for the common use of the men during the 12 hours they are locked up… He often sees them at the iron gratings gasping for fresh air from without, and he ‘wonders how they can live’.”

There are parallels to draw with our nation’s cruel past and the treatment of refugees – perhaps not in severity but certainly in principal. The difficulty in making work about this level of callousness is undeniable; nonetheless Shiota’s work has the capacity to trigger our emotions.

From the exit door, several metres across a common gravel courtyard is the former Mess Hall housing the work of Miguel Angel Rojas. The 70-year-old Columbian artist challenges the viewer’s perception with his subtle examination of the impact of colonialism on indigenous cultures. Piedra en el Zapato, 2016 – meaning ‘stone in the shoe’, is an understated and resolved work.

The dominant feature of Rojas’ installation is the floor. Fashioned from earth and sand sourced from Cockatoo Island, the work is a painstaking reproduction of Victorian era tessellated floor tiles. Tonal browns and dirty white colours have been flawlessly arranged in a pattern, adding a performative element to the artwork. An enormous rock inhabits the right part of the room. Sandstone in appearance, the form has a number of Aboriginal style carvings on the upper surface. The tones embodied in the rock are identical to those of the tessellated tile pattern. The rock represents our indigenous peoples’ bond to the land and the heritage of their culture. Freshly welded prison like bars, suggestive of both the island’s history and the impact of colonization on the indigenous population, border the viewing area – preventing people from walking on the tiles.

Since the opening, visitors have either purposely or unwittingly disturbed the pattern of the outer tiles. ‘Do Not Touch’ signs and an accompanying low-level perspex shield have been installed. Running repairs have been attempted – unsuccessfully. I sit down in the corner of the small viewing area, take in the work and watch the reaction of a number of visitors. One after another they enter and leave within a few seconds. The signs, for those who take the time to read them, have altered the nature of the work. The exactness and subtlety of this installation conveys a sense there is nothing to see.

Leaving the Convict Precinct and negotiating a precarious concrete stairway leading to the lower level of the Island, I am again confronted with the throbbing beat of Erek’s sound work. His constant aural reminder reorients one’s awareness of the environment.

Rosenthal’s calculated curation of the work on the Upper Island and her ability to pair an artist’s work to a specific site is a tribute to her skills. The quiet contemplation of the Upper Island is a stark contrast to the installations framed by the gigantism of the Turbine Hall. The nature of a space dictates the scale of the work. Scale has become a key consideration when selecting and creating artwork for major exhibitions and Art Fairs. Size often equates to impact, however size can also suggest overblown and less thoughtful works.

Two key installations showing in the Hall are by three Asian artists – Lee Bul, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Boychild. South Korean Lee Bul is regarded as one of the most important female artists to emerge in the 90’s. She is perhaps best known for the work Rosenthal’s Biennale marketing department have been utilizing in their publicity, the much-photographed Diluvium made in 2014. Her work for the Sydney Biennale Willing to be Vulnerable, 2016, is a new work. Bul creates her artwork with a team of assistants in her residential studio complex in the Hills in Northern Seoul. Her site-specific installation, monumental in scale, fills a large section of the Turbine Hall, a vast 1640 square metre space. The artwork is an elaborate interconnected assemblage made of plastic, reflective metal surfaces, glass, LED lights and paint. The space is broken up into three indistinct sections by enormous sail-like plastic sheets, harboring motifs of cranes, air balloons, carousels and unidentifiable figures. The installation draws the viewer in with traces of the everyday yet is simultaneously surreal. A suspended silver Zeppelin-like object, suggestive of the ill-fated Hindenburg Airship, dominates the central portion of Bul’s installation.

Huge plastic floor sheets covered with painted abstract images are draped over stands adding an architectural dimension to the work. Paint has started to peel away from the plastic sheeting. The work is said to be interactive yet there are ‘do not touch’ and ‘do not walk’ signs placed throughout the space. The tent-like structures draw in small children who are told to move on by volunteers. These instructions are at odds with the catalogues’ claim that Willing to be Vulnerable is an interactive work.

Bul examines the human condition and the concept of utopia, searching for what is out of reach – an investigation of the human capacity for destruction.

‘Our plans about utopia are undoubtedly going to fail. But as human beings, just because it’s destined to fail doesn’t mean we should stop dreaming about it. We need to keep trying, don’t we?’

Bul’s work is installed in the bay next to artists Korakrit Arunanondchai and Boychild. Arunanondchai’s installation incorporates his video work, Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3, 2015-16 and the remnants of the opening night performance by transgender artist, Boychild.

The big draw card on opening night was the one-off performance Untitled, Lip Sync#225, 2016 by Boychild. Hundreds of the Sydney art cognoscenti crammed around a lengthy runway to catch a glimpse. The artist’s eccentric moves and hypnotic gestures were recorded by a torrent of mobile phones. At the far end of the catwalk were a number of large containers of acrylic paint. The artists’ performance began with her smearing herself in primary coloured paint and rolling along the runway. Her gestural performance, painting the denim-covered platform with the contours of her body was viewed simultaneously on the enormous LED screen.

‘The character and body of the artist acts as a vessel for the work: flesh is treated as canvas, and an ever-evolving palette of makeup provides a tool for communication’.

The coloured paints on the artists’ body intermingle, blending together over the course of the performance. Terminating at the end of the catwalk, they read as a tonal brown. Through her contortions and unique movements, Boychild took on the character of Naga, a mythical serpent featured in the Korakrit Arunanondchai video that screened prior to the performance.

At the head of the catwalk was a huge ‘lounge room’ set up featuring oversized beanbag like denim-covered cushions. The cushions are arranged in front of the massive LED screen showing the video. Arunanondchai’s work is beautifully shot featuring quick cuts and fast paced editing to a background of strident dance music. English subtitles draw your eye to the bottom of the screen.

The video is shot using drones and hand held cameras. It is overloaded with an eclectic mix of images ranging from pop culture references to billboards, cityscapes, technology and animals. His pastiche of styles blurs the line between reality and fantasy. The barrage of information lacks a linear narrative structure prompting the audience to form their own interpretation of the work. In the video, Arunanondchai appears with a group of friends all dressed in his signature acid wash denim. They perform formation dance routines that suggest a Thai boy band and pop video clips. Both Arunanondchai and Boychild ‘wear paint’ as if they are themselves artworks in the process of being created.

Heading towards the ferry dock the heartbeat of the Island starts to fade. I think about how technology and the pace of life have influenced the way we perceive and respond to our environment. Having time to stop and contemplate is becoming a luxury. I think about Lee Bul’s reference to an unattainable utopia and about the simplicity of Rojas’ work; its ability to evoke awareness of dispossession and marginality. As the ferry heads back to the Quay and the figure of Cockatoo Island recedes, my thoughts drift to another Island to the North of Australia.


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 Chiharu Shiota, Conscious Sleep, 2016
Chiharu Shiota, Conscious Sleep, 2016
Miguel Angel Rojas, Piedra en el Zapato, 2016
Miguel Angel Rojas, Piedra en el Zapato, 2016