The 20th Biennale of Sydney

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Unreliable Narrator, 12 June – 9 August 2013, Waterside Contemporary

This article first appeared on Open Journal in January 2016. Image of the ‘Unreliable Narrator’ by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. 

Since launching in 1973 at the Sydney Opera House, The Biennale of Sydney has showcased some 1700 artists from over 100 countries. This year, Australia’s largest contemporary visual arts event returns for its 20th installment, running over 12 weeks from March 18th to June 5th.

Led by new artistic director Dr. Stephanie Rosenthal, who is currently chief curator at London’s prestigious Hayward Gallery, this year’s theme is ‘The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed’, taken from a quote by US science fiction writer William Gibson.

Mid-last year, Rosenthal appointed a team of 13 esteemed writers, curators and theorists to help her develop and shape this year’s Biennale. Among them were Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Museum; Hicham Khalidi, associate curator of Fondation Galeries Lafayette in Paris; and Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, co-founders and curators of multi-disciplinary curatorial platform Art Reoriented from Munich and New York.

“If each era posits its own view of reality, what
is ours?” asks Rosenthal. “One of the key ideas this Biennale explores is how the common distinction between the virtual and the physical has become ever more elusive.“

Over 71 artists and collectives from Australia – including Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Daniel Boyd and Richard Bell – and around the world will be taking part in the arts event, which is held every two years. Michele Abeles, boychild, Camille Henrot, Are Marco Chiandetti, Charwei Tsai, Heman Chong, Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Nina Beier, Dayanita Singh are among the international artists exhibiting and performing work.

michele-abeles-nyc-miami-06-2014-archival-pigment-print-106-68-x-81-28-cm-copyright-the-artist-courtest-of-sadie-coles-hq-london-590x780.jpg
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Michele Abeles, ‘NYC Miami #06’, 2014, archival pigment print, 106.68 x 81.28 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London

“We’ve taken an artist-centric approach, exploring the represented artists’ practice in depth by showing several works by many participants,” Rosenthal says of this year’s Biennale. “I’ve also encouraged artists to make works that are site-specific, and around 70 per cent of artists participating in the 20th Biennale of Sydney are presenting new commissions.”

Dubbed ‘embassies of thought’, the works will be shown across seven venues in the city and the inner west. Each ‘embassy’ explores a key theme and are free and open to the public to experience. Additional performances and site-specific installations will be held at various ‘In-between Spaces’ across the city, including performance work by Australian artist collective Brown Council and a piece at Camperdown Memorial Rest Park by Swedish artist Bo Christian Larsson.

Rosenthal says each ‘embassy’ is inspired by the individual history of each venue and their unique locations. Rosenthal adds: “A focus on ‘in-between spaces’ is key: in terms of our interaction with the digital world, displacement from and occupation of spaces and land, and the interconnections and overlaps between politics and financial power structures.”

Venues include former train station Mortuary Station (the Embassy of Transition) in Chippendale; a mobile bookshop (the Embassy of Stanislaw Lem); the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia (the Embassy of Translation) in The Rocks; former shipyard Cockatoo Island (the Embassy of the Real); Artspace (the Embassy of Non-Participation) in Woolloomooloo; Carriageworks (the Embassy of Disappearance) in Eveleigh; and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (the Embassy of Spirits).

The 20th Biennale of Sydney is on from March 18th to June 5th, 2016.