It is interesting to discover that the leitmotif of this year´s Biennale of Sydney has been the same that caused a strong controversy two years ago. On that occasion, the connections of the Biennale’s founding sponsor with the management of offshore detention centres provoked a boycott by several artists, thus focusing attention on the event more than ever before. This year, the word “embassy” occupies billboards, leaflets, and social media, and reminds us that, unfortunately, the question of immigration and borders still lives in news headlines around the world. Nevertheless, there have been no headlines for Oscar Murillo, one of the artists invited to the Biennale, whose decision to flush his British passport in the plane’s toilet during his flight to Sydney lead to his detention and later deportation. This circumstance has prevented him from finishing his intervention in the city and had little impact other than in a few art-related media –at least at the moment of writing this post.
However debatable Murillo’s action and intentions might be, the truth is that Stephanie Rosenthal, artistic director of the 20th Biennale, has taken the idea of embassy as a shelter, a place where any person is free to express his/her ideas and visions of the world, far removed from the notion of restriction or border. More precisely, she has named the 5 venues that conform the Biennale´s exhibition “Embassies of Thought.” Consequently, every embassy stands for a different way of experiencing the world, and as a group they form the idea of a present that has surpassed our expectations that the future would be as it was depicted in science-fiction literature –hence the title of the exhibition The Future is Already Here –It’s Just not Evenly Distributed. Thus, Cockatoo Island is the Embassy of the Real; Carriageworks, the Embassy of Disappearance; the Art Gallery of NSW, the Embassy of Spirits; the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Embassy of Translation; Artspace, the Embassy of Non-Participation; the Mortuary Station, the Embassy of Transition; a mobile bookstall, the Embassy of Stanislaw Lem. In addition, different places around the city, called in-between spaces, also host interventions –Camperdown Cemetery, the Royal Botanic Gardens, and Newtown Library, among others.
That this Biennale has a focus on performance art is not only apparent by watching the curatorial selection; the opening keynote address by choreographer Boris Charmatz, who explained his idea of a museum of dance, is a statement by itself. Performances and choreographies as well as virtual reality are the highlight this year. In a wider sense, time, which is at the core of any performance, is present in most of the artworks and invites the public to participate in one way or another. In this regard, venues seem to be less crowded, maybe because of the type of works and their distribution, which invites to stroll about spending more time in each place. This approach is undoubtedly the best way to discover every layer of meaning and history behind some of the works like Archie Moore’s hut in the Botanic Gardens, Bharti Kher’s women, or Chiharu Shiota’s dreamscape. Sometimes artists ask the visitor to become the performer, as is the case of William Forsythe and Lee Mingwei; at other times they propose some kind of reflective stop in their installations –Taro Shinoda, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu and Charwei Tsai are excellent examples.
Despite the transitory aspect of some of this Biennale’s works, this year’s catalogue is made to last. If you want to have a list of artists, photographs, and biographies to remember, just buy the exhibition’s guide. The catalogue, on the other hand, is a compilation of very different texts that fill the broad spectrum of the exhibition title and contextualise the contents of every embassy. It is not limited to specific writings by art critics and artists, but includes newspaper articles, political speeches, historic texts, and excerpts from other books, to name just a few examples. Some of them are part of Rosenthal’s research for this Biennale, and some are part of the bedside readings that support her work as a curator. This is a noteworthy sourcebook that one reads time and again, choosing different texts at different moments, no matter how far from art some may seem at a first glance. Actually, there are very few things in life that have no interest from an artist’s point of view, and this Biennale’s catalogue, as a complement to the exhibition, opens our eyes to the connections of contemporary art with the rest of the world in its broadest sense.
By Paula Llull