20th Biennale of Sydney

Ming Wong, 'Windows On The World (Part 1)', 2014, mixed media installation with video. Courtesy of Para Site and Spring Workshop, Hong Kong. Photograph_ Glenn Eugen Ellingsen.JPG

Packed with contemporary art and installations, the 20th Biennale of Sydney still has two more weekends to go. Navigate the maze with our fave FizzPicks…

BY SOPHIE DAVIES

Every two years the Harbour City gets its art on, with the free Biennale of Sydney taking over town. Running until 5 June 2016, the 20th edition unveils work by 83 artists from 35 countries across seven major venues, dubbed ‘Embassies of Thought’, as well as a string of in-between fringe spaces. Around 70 per cent of artists are showing new commissions, many of them site-specific.

Under the artistic direction of Dr Stephanie Rosenthal, Chief Curator of London's Hayward Gallery, the 2016 theme is based on a quote by US sci-fi author William Gibson: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ Inspired by the idea that access to information technology is still uneven globally, leading to a new poverty gap, the Biennale aims to address the time we’re living in now, as well as imagining where we're going. 'I conceived the venues as Embassies of Thought,' said Rosenthal. 'Each entwined and connected.' So while the Embassy of the Real deals with ways we perceive reality in the digital age, the Embassy of Disappearance 'explores how languages and cultures are disappearing' and the Embassy of Transition engages with the cycles of life and death.

With a blizzard of art up for grabs, even culture-vultures may get overwhelmed. Luckily, our FizzPicks offer edited highlights…

ABOVE: Ming Wong, 'Windows On The World (Part 1)', 2014, mixed-media installation with video
BELOW: Charwei Tsai, 'Spiral Incense: Hundred Syllable Mantra', 2016, spiral incense made of herbal materials

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Mortuary Station: Embassy of Transition
Regent Street, Chippendale
Grab the chance to inspect the interior of Chippendale's Victorian Mortuary Station, an atmospheric heritage-listed former funeral station once used to transport coffins and mourners by rail to Rookwood Cemetery. Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai’s ritualistic ‘Spiral Incense’ installation sees smoking incense coils suspended over the prettily tiled platform, hand-inscribed with Buddhist mantras. Video art projected onto the waiting room floors ruminates on the impermanence of life. Outside, aviaries by London artist Marco Chiandetti host live birds pecking at classical sculpture body parts in an unnerving investigation of spirituality. Gothic or what?

BELOW: Jamie North, 'Succession', 2016, mixed materials; Lee Mingwei, 'Guernica in Sand', 2006 and 2015, mixed-media interactive installation

Carriageworks: Embassy of Disappearance
245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh
It’s hard for any art to compete with jaw-dropping former rail yards Carriageworks, but Sydney-based Jamie North’s sculpture-meets-nature installation ‘Succession’ rises like a biological wonder in this cavernous warehouse. Combining industrial waste products (cement, steel, steel slag, coal ash) with native Australian plants, organic matter and oyster shells, his karst-like cast-concrete forms incorporate miniature landscapes, riffing on distressed architecture. NY-based Taiwanese talent Lee Mingwei’s ‘Guernica in Sand’ – a transitory sand art piece taking its cue from Picasso’s iconic anti-war painting – may have been brushed away, but its blurry swirls of yellow, grey and white still hold a strange beauty.

BELOW: Lee Bul, 'Willing To Be Vulnerable', 2015-16, mixed materials; Korakrit Arunanondchai, 'Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3', 2015-16, HD video, denim, foam, wood; William Forsythe, 'Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, no.2', 2013, plumb bobs, string, compressed air cylinders, aluminium frames

Cockatoo Island: Embassy of the Real
Sydney Harbour
One of the strongest Biennale clusters, Cockatoo Island displays work surrounded by the eery ruins of Sydney’s convict, industrial and ship-building heritage. In the industrial sector, we liked Architecturally-influenced Korean artist Lee Bul’s huge, futuristic ‘Willing To Be Vulnerable’ installation, which mashed up metalised and transparent film, heavy-duty fabric, LED lighting, a fog machine, zeppelin-like inflatables and an ethereal air balloon in a bold red, white and black palette. Inspired by urban, eco and anti-authoritarian spiritual themes, Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai’s video of Bangkok life was powerfully immersive, but we couldn’t help appreciating the midnight blue-and-white dyed denim floor cushions for the lounging audience. Frankfurt-based American William Forsythe’s mesmerising kinetic work ‘Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time’ fills a distressed space with swinging strings, weighted down with plumb bobs, allowing viewers to interact with the movement. Shanghai's Xu Zhen deconstructs classical and Buddhist sculptures in a monumental work tackling the past, while Singapore's Ming Wong assembles a bank of video screens to show his own vibrant, kooky sci-fi films.

BELOW: Chiharu Shiota, 'Conscious Sleep', 2009/2016, beds, thread; Bharti Kher, 'Six Women', 2013-15, plaster of paris, wood, metal; Cevdet Erek, 'Room of Rhythms – Long Distance Relationship', 2016, mixed media and architectural additions

Taking over a heritage convict barracks, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota's spooky 'Conscious Sleep' installation is a wow, tangling old, upended dormitory beds in a spider's web of black threads. For subtle work 'Piedra en el Zapato', Colombia's Miguel Angel Rojas has crafted a fake, geometric-tiled floor from lime, charcoal powder and mixed materials in an old convict building. New Delhi-based Londoner Bharti Kher peoples an old room with touching nude plaster sculptures in 'Six Women'. By contrast, Turkish artist Cevdet Erek's 'Room of Rhythms – Long Distance Relationship' fills a ruined structure with sound art beats, emanating from black boxes.

BELOW: Sheila Hicks, 'The Embassy of Chromatic Delegates', 2015-16, sculptural elements, various fabrics, bamboo; Taro Shinoda, 'Abstraction of Confusion', 2016, clay, pigment, ochre, tatami mats; Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, 'Bathala', 2012, natural earth pigments on hollow log

Art Gallery of New South Wales: Embassy of Spirits
Art Gallery Road, Sydney
If colour and texture turn you on, then hit the Art Gallery of NSW for American artist Sheila Hicks’ sculptural ensemble ‘The Embassy of Chromatic Delegates’. Vibrant linen, cotton, nylon, polyester, bamboo and wood combine to form a dazzling acid-bright work (imagine this painterly palette used for high-impact rugs, wallpaper or cushions). Hicks’ acrylic-fibre ‘The Questioning Column’ hangs on the gallery’s facade, draped around a classical column like a rainbow waterfall. A world away, Tokyo’s Taro Shinoda channels minimal, neutral-hued interiors, with his ‘Abstraction of Confusion’, a simple tatami-mat platform that embraces simplicity and meditation. Shinoda’s hand-built installations and contemplative sculptural works are informed by karesansui, traditional Japanese garden design. Yirrkala-born indigenous artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s forest of logs almost has an oriental quality; stripped-back nature meets graphic mark-making.

BELOW: Nine Beier, 'Allegory of Charity', 2015, ceramic cups, coffee beans, resin, wood, metal; Céline Condorelli, 'Structure for Communicating with Wind', from the series 'Additionals', 2012-13/2016, metallicised space blanket, curtain tape

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia: Embassy of Translation
140 George Street, The Rocks
Danish artist Nina Beier caught our eye at the MCA with her striking installation ‘Allegory of Charity’, a series of suspended ceramic cups pouring coffee beans onto ‘Tileables’, a patchwork floor of outsize ceramic tiles. Think T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: 'I have measured out my life in coffee spoons'. French talent Céline Condorelli’s fluttering gold curtain, ‘Structure for Communicating with Wind’, draws on architecture and notions of support, with a metallicised space blanket wafting in space.

Artspace: Embassy of Non-Participation
43-51 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo
A former artists’ squat turned experimental gallery, Artspace is showing London artist duo Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, including neon work ‘You are the Prime Minister’, backdropped by plush red curtains.

ABOVE: Karen Mirza/Brad Butler, 'You are the Prime Minister', 2014, neon
BELOW: Daniel Boyd, 'What Remains', 2016, site-specific installation, mirrored dots, synthetic polymer paint; Keg de Souza, 'We Built This City' installation, 2016, tents, tarps, hessian sacks, mixed media; Bo Christian Larsson, 'Fade Away, Fade Away, Fade Away,' 2016, mixed-media and performative installation

In-between Spaces
Scattered around town, fringe installations and acts also beckon, especially in the inner-west. One of our favourites is at Redfern Wall on the corner of Vine and Eveleigh streets near aboriginal heartland The Block. ‘What Remains’, by Sydney Kudjila/Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd, is a site-specific constellation of 12,000 mirrored dots covering a chunky corner of wall, backed by black paint. It shimmers and sparkles, reflecting passersby, and looks inky black or midnight blue depending on the light. For 'We Built This City', Perth-born Keg de Souza constructs a patchwork tent dwelling on Redfern's Vine Street. Wrapping up, literally, on a deathly note, Swede Bo Christian Larsson’s ‘Fade Away, Fade Away, Fade Away’ sees gravestones in Newtown’s Camperdown Cemetery covered in white fabric, creating ghostly sculptures from found-objects. Whipped up in his on-site workshop, they look not unlike pale Scandi chair covers. Who said art and decor can't be bedfellows?

The 20th Biennale of Sydney runs at citywide venues until Sunday 5 June 2016
biennaleofsydney.com.au