Apr 27, 2018

The Staycation Life #5: The 21st Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island.

Today's instalment of the staycation files sees us set sail for Cockatoo Island.

The Biennale of Sydney is Australia's largest contemporary visual arts event with artists from all over the world exhibiting their work at one of seven venues around Sydney for the exhibition's duration.   Some works are actually created specifically for the biennale with artists often on site creating their work in the weeks before the festival opens to the public.

Cockatoo Island plays host to 20 artists and their interpretations of the theme Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement.

We picked one of those amazing bonus summer's days of April to visit.

Cockatoo Island was previously a convict penal establishment between 1839 - 1869.

It then became one of Australia's largest shipyards, operating between 1857 - 1991.  It has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My photographs today don't really show this but the island was originally a heavily timbered sandstone knoll.  You can still see the sandstone rising between buildings as well as relics from the ship making past of the island.

With regards to the Superposition exhibition, I'm going to confess that I wandered around aimlessly between exhibits, only pausing to take photographs of works that looked interesting to me.  I then edited them at home before reading up on them through the Biennale website.  It's been interesting reflecting on the works and how they fit in with the concept of change, opposition, equilibrium and engagement that are the broad themes of the Biennale.

Mexican artist Abraham Cruzivillegas created Reconstruction I & II which he has suspended from the roof of one of the ship factories.  The works are constructed entirely from materials left on the island from previous events.

Ai Wei Wei, perhaps China's most famous living artist (though he lives and creates in Berlin) has several works featured across multiple sites of the Biennale this year.  'Law of the Journey' is a confronting work that features a 60m long rubber boat filled with the anonymous figures of refugees willing to risk everything to sail uncertain seas in uncertain dinghies to a potentially better life far from home and all that they previously held dear.

The rubber dinghy and figures are perhaps ironically made in a factory in China which also fabricates dinghies refugees and people smugglers use on the perilous trip along the Mediterranean Sea.  To quote Ai, ‘There’s no refugee crisis, only a human crisis… In dealing with refugees we’ve lost our very basic values. In this time of uncertainty, we need more tolerance, compassion and trust for each other, since we are all one, otherwise humanity will face an even bigger crisis.’

The second part of this massive installation is a wall of images Ai took on his iPhone while producing the documentary Human Flow.

Whatever perspective I viewed 'Law of the Journey' from whether it was from a distance, up close or from above, I was struck by the utter despair and facelessness of what it means to be a refugee in 2018.

Mit Jai Inn is an artist from Thailand who created the series of Planes installations on Cockatoo Island.  Their full names are Planes (Hover), Planes (Erupt) and Planes (Erode).

The works manipulate space and time in a manner that is unique to the space in which they have been created.

Timesheet by Martin Walde is a dynamic work featuring pieces of paper bearing the dates from when the Biennale opened until 2071.  Every six minutes, a new date is ejected from a printer in the ceiling. Occasional prints feature additional drawings and print by the artist.

Koji Ryui's work, Jamais Vu creates geometric abstraction by exploring the spatial potential of ordinary objects.

I'm still not quite sure what it all meant but it was both restful and questioning to my mind to gaze over the arrangements of vases and bowls across the floor of the warehouse.  I wonder what it would be like to create art like this, without brushes or tools but using instead your hands and the space and objects  in front of you to express an idea.

Diabethanol is the work of Julian Abraham 'Togar'.  It's a statement about the diabetic epidemic that is sweeping the world and how keenly the disability it leaves in its wake is felt in emerging economies such as many of those in South East Asia.  What if there could be some kind of benefit to society from the misfortune of this disease?

The objects of the installation include a toilet which is the source of diabetic urine that would then be converted to a fuel source, Diabethanol.

The Biennale of Sydney runs until June which gives me plenty of time to explore the other sites featured.

Have you been to the Biennale yet?  Which location has been your favourite so far?


  1. I went to one of the biennales at Cockatoo Island when we were in Sydney a few years back, it was different artworks at the time but it was fascinating and so much fun exploring it all! Would be a great place to take kids as there's plenty of space to run around.

    The refugee art by Ai Wei Wei is impressive in the photos - I'd love to see that up close!

  2. Diabethanol as fuel. I think he is on to something.


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