Postcard from the edge
Text and images by Joaquin Lerma
After being forced to move online in March due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the 22nd Sydney Biennale, the world’s second longest running international biennial art exhibition (next only to the Venice Biennale) reopened a few weeks ago, extending its run until September. It is, to my knowledge, the only major art festival that is taking place in physical space today, with mask-less locals now enjoying free access to its various venues around the city, thanks to the Australian government’s success in flattening the curve.
Its theme, “Nirin,” meaning “edge” in the language of the indigenous Wiradjuri people of western New South Wales, is about giving a voice to the marginalized, asking us to question preconceptions through pieces that revolve around issues of race, inequality, marginalization, oppression, and the demand for social justice.
And yet, the irony of it all is not lost upon me. I am conscious of the fact that while I shelter from the pandemic far away from home, much like the Florentines in a book my dad told me about, the Decameron, who escaped from the Black Plague in the 14th century, I am able to enjoy a level of freedom not available to most, seeing art that speaks of the very opposite.
My dream has turned into—Elicura Chihuailaf Nahuelpán, Initiation from ‘Of Blue Dreams and Counterdreams’ (Displayed on the facade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 22nd Biennale of Sydney)
The energy that lives and opens
The doors of my soul
Its air became these words
The blue held by its song
It is within this context that I am writing this reflection on the Sydney Biennale, recognizing this reality of separation while at the same time seeing how art provides a way to bring people together.
Of the four venues, my favorite by far is the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), which powerfully challenges art historical narratives, in particular Eurocentrism, drawing parallels and contradictions between past and present. I found the juxtaposition of the selected artist’s pieces in relation to the museum collection most powerful, in particular the video by the American Arthur Jafa, The White Album, winner of the top Golden Lion award at the 58th Venice Biennale, which challenges our conflicting notions on “whiteness.” This is exhibited in a room that contains 19th century European paintings and bronze statues depicting resistance and conflict. I also liked how the twisted metal shapes of Haitian artist Andre Eugene echo the distorted subjects of Francis Bacon’s paintings. Easily the most imposing intervention in the museum is the installation by the Catalan Josep Grau-Garriga in the Grand Courts titled Altarpiece of the Hanged People composed of various textiles such as jute, sisal, and hemp, and metal scaffolding that reaches the ceiling—the overall composition resembling a church retablo.
The exhibition at Artspace in Woolloomooloo about inter-generational trauma and the effects of colonial oppressors on native populations was my least favorite. It felt disjointed, with the only connection between the pieces being imprinted trauma. The one highlight here for me was the installation Gigantic Saturday by Fátima Rodrigo Gonzales from Peru at the entrance, which was set up like the stage of a 1970s TV musical program, the cheery appearance of its bright neon lights taking on a sinister meaning as you learn that the celebrity host of one of these shows was repeatedly accused of sexual harassment.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) evoked emotions the most, with two really heartbreaking and eye-catching video installations in particular sucking you in. The first by Turkish artist Erkan Özgen, Wonderland, shows a Syrian child who is deaf and mute explaining how he escaped from ISIS, depicting through gestures the atrocities they committed. The second is Bow Echo by Aziz Hazara from Afghanistan, showing several children on the hills of Kabul province blowing plastic bugles with the wind fiercely buffering them in an attempt to demonstrate the violence in their environs.
A reminder of Australi’s colonial past, Cockatoo Island’s domineering shipyards and penal structures serve as a dramatic backdrop for the biennale pieces with the highlight being the awe-inspiring large scale installation No Friend but the Mountains by Ghanaian Ibrahim Mahama, composed of a patchwork of charcoal sacks and metal scraps that seem to spill out from the walls to the floor. The work draws inspiration from the raw materiality and time-worn architecture of the island.
Across the highlight piece are the six paintings of Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo. The pieces are filled with a plethora of provocative symbols and imagery that instantly suggest numerous interpretations, but the artist distances himself from any of them as he wishes for his images to stand the test of time, all the while constantly transforming in meaning as the “reality” of society changes.
Unfortunately, the larger majority of pieces to me had their messages suppressed by the cold and dark atmosphere of the island, and I often caught myself appreciating the island itself instead of the works. But another way to look at it could be the acknowledgement by the biennale’s artistic director Brook Andrew that the looming, domineering presence of the venue represents the establishment strongly resisting the call for change.
In the midst of these troubled times, art remains steadfast, relevant, and universal. I believe it will continue to start necessary conversations and raise awareness in this so-called “new normal,” where people are truly able to appreciate the art up close while others maintain a respectful yet engaged distance. Perhaps things will remain this way in the near future, but for now, we can begin to take inspiration from the Sydney Biennale by expressing our solidarity and by continuing to help pull the marginalized in society from the nirin.