Review: 19th Sydney Biennale 'You imagine what you desire'

The build up to this year’s edition was somewhat overshadowed by controversy: nine artists withdrew in protest of founding sponsor Transfield Holding’s involvement with offshore refugee detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island. Their decision was followed by an open letter to the Biennale’s board calling for an end of this funding arrangement. Transfield’s Luca Belgiorno-Nettis subsequently felt obliged to resign after fourteen years as chairman of the Biennale.  

Politics aside, the 19th edition opened on March 21 with artistic director Juliana Engberg’s “exploration of the world through metaphor and poesis.” A self-professed “spatial curator,” Engberg’s selection of 90 artists from 31 countries sought to explore the individual character of each of the Biennale’s several venues.  

Highlights at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (a “promethean earth-fire” space) include Angelica Mesiti’s video of a woman singing in an ancient Sicilian cave, In the Ear of the Tyrant (2012–13), and Rosa Barba’s Time as Perspective (2012), a 35mm film loop of oil derricks shot in the Texas desert. A quirky addition was Chinese performance artist Yingmei Duan who inhabits a little forest built into the wall of the gallery for the duration of the show. Wael Shawky’s video Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012), in which a group of young boys dressed as adult men recite a parable about the dying words of the Great Jabir, was another stand-out work.

 Angelica Mesiti 

Angelica Mesiti 

 Rosa Barba 

Rosa Barba 

The newly renovated Museum of Contemporary Art, situated on the harbour, is intended to be a “water-air” space. Here Pipilotti Rist’s dreamy six-channel video installation Mercy Garden Retour Skin (2014) and Roni Horn’s meditative glass-castings, Ten Liquid Incidents (2010–2012), are obvious choices for Engberg’s spatial concept.

 Roni Horn 

Roni Horn 

 John Stezaker 

John Stezaker 

Former jail and shipyard Cockatoo Island was first used as a venue in 2008 and has typically demanded the most attention. This year it is more subdued. Here Engberg has set out to explore the “happy anarchy” of the island as a fantasy environment. Callum Morton’s The Other Side (2014) takes visitors on a miniature train ride through a Google search, while Randi and Katrine have created a scaled-down fairytale Danish village that questions the utopian construct of a community ideal. Yael Bartana’s Inferno (2013) is a new film that addresses the relationship between Neo-Pentecostalism and Judaic traditions in Brazil.

 Yael Bartana 

Yael Bartana 

The cavernous space at Carriageworks is almost completely dedicated to the moving image with compelling works by Broersen & Lukács, Matthias Poledna and Daniel Mckewen.  

In light of the political concerns surrounding the event, the Biennale perhaps lacked a sense of urgency. But what can be commended is its romantic belief in art’s imaginative and aesthetic power.  

This review was published in Flash Art International, May June 2014 edition.