Stephanie Rosenthal on the 20th Biennale Sydney

With the 20th Biennale of Sydney opening next week, Artistic Director Stephanie Rosenthal sat down with Sara Sweet to outline the thoughts and musings of what makes this year's Sydney Biennale tick.

With a 40-year history, the 20th Biennale of Sydney was the first of its kind to be established in the Asia-Pacific region. It remains one of the longest running periodic exhibitions in the world, having presented the work of nearly 1700 artists from over 100 countries. The Biennale is an international platform that brings with it works for all to appreciate throughout the city.

The 20th Biennale of Sydney is the Asia- Pacific’s largest contemporary visual arts event. The 2016 event will encompass the creations of 71 artists dispersed across seven venues. Defined as ‘Embassies of Thought’ the venues include: Cockatoo Island ‘Embassy of the Real’; Art Gallery of New South Wales ‘Embassy of Spirits’; Carriageworks ‘Embassy of Disappearance’; The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia ‘Embassy of Translation’; Artspace ‘The Embassy of Non-Participation’; a bookshop ‘Embassy of Stanislaw Lem’; and Mortuary Station ‘Embassy of Transition’. A number of ‘in-between projects’ will also take place throughout the city.

A new Artistic Director is appointed for each Sydney Biennale and this year, Stephanie Rosenthal fills the role. The 2016 Biennale is titled, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed’. The title took inspiration from a quote made by science fiction author, William Gibson, best known for his landmark novel Neuromancer.

Rosenthal discusses the meaning behind the chosen title, “The Biennale is a lot about the now, the present, and it’s not so much about looking into what artists imagine for the future but much more about how artists help us to think about today. For me, that’s very relevant in relation to contemporary art at the moment. Our today is so complex, there’s so many aspects that we haven’t really, totally digested.”

It is a privilege for those who have an education, who have a job and have access to computers, phones and the internet when it is a small percentage of the world who are able to do so. Rosenthal believes that it is this separation between people that we need to be constantly aware of. Through her research, she came to discover that there isn’t that one urgency, there are many current investigations. She says, “I felt that I can maybe pull and investigate all of these different themes and say that these are constellations of thoughts which are relevant at the moment.”

Around 70 per cent of the artists have created new commission pieces for the Biennale. Many of the artists expressed that they would prefer to exhibit a new piece and Rosenthal encouraged this decision. The artists are granted the opportunity and allowed the freedom to push boundaries, take the next step and develop their skills, rather than being restricted within a particular framework. An important component for the Sydney Biennale is that the artists consider the space, surroundings and architecture as this makes for a strong exhibition. The artist must establish a conversation with the space.

Viewers can expect to see spellbinding, large-scale pieces as well as the more subtle and arduously employed smaller works. Artist Lee Bul is featured in this year’s Sydney Biennale. Her immersive and finely finessed sculptures are representative of her architectural influence. Bul’s practice delves into areas such as the legacy of modernism, the potential of technology, gender and sexuality, the body and the mechanistic. The human obsession with perfection is also studied. When engrossed by the presence of her installations, it can feel as though the makings of a dream have been stumbled upon and interrupted, pausing to enable the freedom of observation. For the Biennale, Bul will deliver a newly commissioned site-specific installation which involves smoke, large balloons and LED lights which prompt a futuristic vision of a nearly living city.

Bharti Kher’s practice investigates the readymade, minimalism, repetition, identity, transformation, mythology and narratives. Viewers will face five of her life-sized female sculptures, each sitting motionlessly in their designated positions. The poses of the visibly exposed figures elicit a meditative mood as they appear to calmly rest their hands on their knees with closed eyes.

Lee Mingwei has previously made installations of participation where viewers were encouraged to join the artist in acts such as eating, sleeping, walking and conversation. For the Sydney Biennale, Mingwei will present an iteration of ‘Guernica in Sand’ (2016). He will precisely recreate, through the use of sand, Pablo Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’ (1937) – a painting that was made in response to the massacre of Basque civilians during the Spanish Civil War. The sand is then wiped away with bamboo brooms, alluding to the idea of impermanence.

Having people wander through the city of Sydney to unexpectedly find themselves within the vicinity of an artwork is one of the Biennale’s most effective attributes. Works of all kinds are capable of changing perspectives. As Rosenthal explains, “I do think there are things that, of course, don’t change your life in everyday ways but they might just change the way of how you look at things and how you’re interested in them. I believe that contemporary art has a role of teaching us to think critically and to look at things differently.”

The works that form this year’s Sydney Biennale make a statement, they are evocative on multiple levels and at the same time, they are critical about what is currently occurring. Viewers may be inspired, they may feel that they could perhaps do something, anything, as a result of what they have just seen. Another way of looking at the works is to simply sit and be still, to observe, ponder and think quietly, the feeling when you get very calm, when you just sit and look at work, you could just be there forever.

It is within these and embassies of thoughts and spaces of enchantment that viewers will possibly see new ideas and concepts, ones that may be new considerations for some. The events are not only to be enjoyed by art patrons but are also for those who are unfamiliar with or curious about art. The exhibitions come down to what viewers will perceive and what they will take away. A fulfilling experience awaits those who decide to disconnect briefly from the everyday to cleanse their creative and imaginative perspectives.

The Future Is Already Here – It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed
20th Biennale of Sydney
18 March – 5 June


Courtesy the artists and the 20th Biennale of Sydney

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