Thursday, 12 July 2012

18th Biennale of Sydney: Cockatoo Island

Over the weekend I had great plans to spend lots of time at galleries while I was in Sydney for the opening of Local Colour. Unfortunately some of my plans were foiled when I spent 3 hours in the Melbourne airport instead of on a plane! I missed seeing Nicole Polentas and Christopher Earl Milbourne's artist talk at Gaffa Gallery, and Shadowplay, the exhibition of jewellery and drawings based on shadow puppetry on now at Metalab.

But I did get to spend a day exploring the 18th Sydney Biennale: All Our Relations, and what a treat. The Biennale is on now until 16 September at several locations: the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of NSW, Pier 2/3, Cockatoo Island and Carriageworks. I first took the free Biennale ferry out to fascinating Cockatoo Island, which would be well worth the visit even if it weren't Biennale time. Just a scenic 20 minute ferry ride from Circular Quay, Cockatoo Island is a former industrial site on a cliff-faced island, once worked by convicts, now littered with majestic, rusted remains of mysterious industrial giants - the abandoned machinery and equipment. 


During the Biennale, the historic buildings (divided into the Convict Precinct, Historic Residence Precinct, Industrial Precinct, etc) are filled with a variety of installations, many of which are site-specific or engage with the existing industrial ruins. Walking around the island and exploring the buildings was like discovering treasures in a maze, at least in the morning. By lunchtime several ferry trips had filled the island with crowds, and some of the historic charm of the place was dispelled. I recommend getting there early!

One of the most poignant was Ocean of Flowers by Li Hongbo, a rainbow installation of what appear to be specially made expanding paper lantern decorations. There was almost a funhouse atmosphere delighting children as families weaved their way through the space.

At the far end of the room are large shipping crates where participants can open and close these expandable forms, revealing how they work... and what they are. Suddenly the whole atmosphere becomes sinister when you realise each expanded paper form, when lying flat, is a gun.

Philip Beesley's Hylozoic Series is an interactive sci-fi-esque installation of translucent white structures resembling ferns, spiderwebs, and egg sacs, hanging in mid-air and lit from within. As the viewer weaves their way through different sections of the sculpture, various motion sensors are activated, causing the fern-like fronds to open and close, light up, or vibrate. Other motion sensors trigger different parts of the work to come to life: tiny egg-sac-like balloon forms emit a waft of frankincense, spidery thorns begin to move, and clusters of large sagging balloon forms above inflate as viewers walk below.

When I visited viewers were made to wait in line and groups of 20 were admitted for a limited time. The group was told what triggers the installation included, so we would know what to look for, but the delight and surprise of the audience was in no way diminished by knowing what to expect. What fun!

In Snow Ball Blind Time by Peter Robinson, a tangled mass of snow white chains is draped over the abandoned equipment of Cockatoo Island's Industrial Precinct. The chains, some of them mammoth in size, are constructed of polystyrene blocks, and sit supported by large uncarved blocks of the same material as well as the industrial machinery. 


 I'm sure I didn't find all of the works on Cockatoo Island, but some of the others I really enjoyed were the La O series of photographs of abandoned classrooms in Colombia by Juan Manuel Echavarria, and Class in the Class by Junying Yang, where animated videos of children's imaginative doodles on a desktop are projected onto a classroom installation.

from La O series by Juan Manuel Echavarria

I also went to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of NSW components of the Biennale, but I think those will have to wait for another day!

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