Sydney Biennale -brilliant or bore?

The Sydney Biennale is on again, but what is it and should I bother? You’ve maybe seen the features in the newspapers but still not sure exactly what it is? Well I went and checked out the core part of it, the art walk, to help make your decision easier. So cutting to the chase, what is my conclusion? It’s BRILLIANT! And here’s some of the reasons why.

10 reasons to go do the Sydney Biennale art walk -even if you are completely uninterested in art.


Sydney Biennale

  1. The Free Hop-on Hop-off Ferry trip. It’s free, it uses three lovely old restored deck timber vessels, it’s on beautiful Sydney harbour, and it runs in continuous circles around three stops. Even if you hate art, its worth it for this alone. Leave from Circular Quay at a special spot just in front of the MCA, see the opera house on your right and then pass under the harbour bridge and cruise past lovely harbourside suburbs to Cockatoo Island and disembark at it’s delightful wharf building. When ready, reboard and continue to the second stop at the historic old pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay, a burgeoning area of renovated historic finger wharves and an ever improving food and cafe scene. From here take the ferry for the final leg back under the harbour bridge and return to the starting point, or alternatively it’s a ten minute walk with great views around the point, under the bridge and into The Rocks
  2. The Sydney Weather. A chilly winter day with clear blue skies – this is the perfect time to explore Cockatoo Island, just rug up and go. The biennale runs til 1st August so you still have one more month to get there.
  3. Cockatoo Island. If you haven’t visited this gem in the middle of Sydney harbor yet, this is just another reason to do so. This is no pretty beach island, this is grittily industrial and seeped in its history as a former imperial prison, an industrial school, a reformatory and a gaol. It was also the site of one of Australia’s biggest shipyards during the twentieth century. So we have a mix of dozens of art installations scattered around and in tunnels under the hill, old warehouses and remnants of old machinery. And all for free.
    Sydney Biennale
  4. The cafe on Cockatoo Island. As well as great coffee you can get fare as good as any sydney cafe – including gourmet pies through to intriguing and healthy salads and treats for the sweet tooth – I am very impressed with how good a range of food they have in such an out of the way place.
  5. The MCA Biennale exhibition. If on the other hand you are here for the art, then don’t miss the MCA as well, where the majority of the space is turned over to about 48 different artists. You will have your own favourites. I was fascinated by the work of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, who paired photos of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong with their backs to the camera, with a photo of their place of work – and had the workers insert a toy grenade into the photo of the house where they worked as well. Intimate and impersonal at the same time. I found the life and death masks of Fiona Pardington haunting, and the photos of stunning small Greenland villages by Tiina Itkonen made me put Qaanaaq and Kullorsuaq on my travel to-do list. And thats just a tiny taste of the volume and variety of work here.
  6. The AES+F russian collective’s large scale digital video installation on Cockatoo Island. I walk into one of the exhibit spaces in an old warehouse, blacked out, and sit back with others on a large circular sofa in the middle of the room. Its mesmerising. In a circle around us is a circle of nine giant screens, three sets of three. Each of the three sets are showing a different film, but all part of the same story. And each of the three screens in any one set are showing three different views of the same story thread. In the words of the program, “with panoramic, immersive, sumptuous colour and a loud symphonic soundtrack, this depicts an orgy of consumerism reflecting on the contemporary state of the world”. Your teenager will be besotted by it, and you will be too, the hyper-real colour and shine is addictive.
  7. If you like bright shiny lights and fireworks, and who doesn’t, then you’ll enjoy the Cai Guo-Qiang work, also on Cockatoo Island. Bodies of identical old cars are hung throughout a hangar sized building in a sequence depicting the sequence of an explosion, named as detonation, blast, launch, tumbling, gravitational return, and rest. Each car is pierced with rods through which light pulses and fades with the imagined explosion sequence. Its eye catching and on a spectacular scale.
  8. I am not normally a big fan of digital and video art but there are a few such installations on Cockatoo Island that hook me in. Another one was the work of Isaac Julien. This time I ascended a staircase into another blacked out floor, find myself a seat on one of the many stools scattered around the floor, and then watch a beautiful film that entwines historic and modern china. The twist is that the film is played across another ten or so screens scattered around the space, but with a different perspective of the scene showing on each screen, and each view flicking around from one screen to another. So you could follow the main theme on one screen while there might be a closeup of a character’s shoe on a second screen, a view of the background behind the character on a third, and so on. Yes, hooked again.
  9. Also on Cockatoo Island, in another small blacked out room, is an unusual film of an old man performing tai chi, but the film-maker has morphed this into a stretched version where all the consecutive movements have flowed together as occur at the same time. It hard to describe but beautiful to watch
    Sydney Biennale
  10. The Royal Botanic gardens. Its always a beautiful walk on a sunny day from the opera house, around the harbour and through the gardens. This time I have a further reason for wandering, as I try and find the two installations in the park. I find these are not as well sign posted as the other areas, but maybe that’s the plan, as it succeeded in making me wander through many paths and gardens trying to find the right spots. It is well worth the effort, particularly Janet Laurence’s ethereal piece.

Nursing a broken toe means a fair bit of limping so I haven’t yet completed the entire walk. But i have plans to go back to the bits I missed, at the Opera House, the NSW Art Gallery, and the Artspace set up in Woolloomooloo on the other side of the botanical gardens. The Artspace, in addition to its gallery, has a big programme of live performances from around the world every night, as well as movies, talks and anything else that takes their fancy. So if you prefer your art to include a late night bar and lounge, this may be the part for you.

And don’t forget pretty much everything is free, except your food and drink – now thats a pretty good deal. I can’t think of any reason not to go and enjoy it.

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