When he began to plan the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, this year’s director, José Roca, thought of Australia as a hot, dry country in which water was a precious resource. By the time the show got underway, a month ago, Sydney was well into its wettest March on record. Since then, the clouds and rain have never gone away. Next time there’s a drought we should consider holding a Biennale as a matter of urgency.
This year’s theme, rīvus is a Latin word meaning “brook” or “stream”, and water – or the idea of water – trickles through most of the pieces in the exhibition. The result is an unusually thoughtful Biennale, in which almost every work, be it slight or vast, contributes to the sense of a natural world that has been radically reshaped by our own efforts, often for the worse. Many of these pieces represent acts of restitution, looking at the damage that has been done to the planet and how it can be repaired.
Roca is from Columbia, where ecological activists have been murdered for their activities, but for the past two years his main problem has probably been cabin fever. Like the rest of us he’s been anchored in Sydney. Unlike other people he’s been trying to co-ordinate a massive international exhibition by remote control. Whereas previous Biennale directors have enjoyed the freedom to roam the world visiting artists and galleries, Roca has had to cope with closed borders and draconian travel restrictions. The degree of difficulty makes his achievements even more noteworthy.
Writing about an event as complex as the Biennale there is always a lot of basic information that needs to be laid down. As I’ve already penned a guide to the show, I’ll skip the basics and simply refer readers to the previous article, where I discussed the theme and listed some of the pieces I saw as highlights.
With all exhibitions a second viewing is often a very different experience to the first, and this Biennale succeeds best when there is an element of surprise. Many of the works that stood out the first time around felt a bit humdrum on a return visit. At the Cutaway, even the spectacular bamboo ceiling installation by Cave Urban, had lost some of its freshness. Most of the pieces at this venue are process-based. They intitially seem remarkable, but once we understand what’s going on, the enchantment fades.
Gal Weinstein’s “organic carpets”, for instance, present a virtual landscape made from dried coffee grounds. They immediately capture the imagination but look brown and worn upon reaquaintance. The same might be said about Jessie French’s sheets of bio-plastic. The process is fascinating but it’s hard to imagine many people wanting to share their lives with dark, rubbery slabs of born-again algae. So too, with Diana Scherer, who allows nature to do much of the creative work, with textiles made by the root systems of grass growing in a tray. The intricate, organic patterns are striking, but there’s a limit to the thrills one may glean from a piece of pale brown fabric.
Even the immersive experience of The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, in the park above the Cutaway, has its limitations, although it takes time to work through the different layers of animal sounds co-ordinated with the lights and data that appear on the screens. Please note, it’s necessary to book in advance, as only limited numbers can be admitted for each session.
It could be argued that it makes perfect sense for a temporary exhibition with a water theme to focus on process rather than product. Heraclitus’s most famous line is: “You can’t step into the same river twice,” and a Biennale that takes its title from a stream is more concerned with the changing forms of art than the ‘timeless’ ambitions of much of the work we find in museums.
There’s a powerful sense in this Biennale that the artists are not the central focus. This is implicit in the way Roca prefers to call them “participants”. Instead of the Romantic idea of the creative genius who bends nature to his will or mines it for symbols that reflect his own moods, this show strives to let nature speak for itself. One of the curator’s sources of inspiration has been the worldwide campaign to grant rivers legal rights, and even “personhood”. Accepting that rivers cannot be freely exploited is a first step to assuming responsibility for our environmental vandalism. Six rivers are included as “participants” in this Biennale: the Atrato, the Baaka, the Birrajung/Yarra, the Boral, the Burramatta, the Napo, and the Vilcabamba. They are represented at each venue by a video of an indigenous speaker whose life has been closely bound up with that of the river. It’s not so different to someone giving a deposition in court.
This is but one component of a show laden with innovations. Not least is the catalogue, Rīvus: A Glossary of Water, which may be read as a freestanding publication. The book is printed on different kinds of paper sourced as offcuts from other jobs. It contains a range of texts and images that relate to the exhibition in both direct and tangential ways.
The curatorial originality extends to the pairing of works and venues. The Museum of Contemporary Art has never shown anything less contemporary than the Canowindra Fish Fossil, which dates back 365 million years, to the Devonian era, when life started to migrate from the sea to the land. The big fossil shares the show with works such as the drawings of Inuit artist, Qavavau Manumie, who celebrates a surreal symbiosis of human beings and nature; and the tree studies of Abel Rodriguez (Mogaje Guihu), a man from the Columbian Amazon.
Not long ago, such items would never have been considered appropriate for an international showcase, but Brook Andrew’s ‘indigenous’ Biennale broke down the barriers in 2020, and this exhibition makes no distinction between the work of First Nations artists and their more professional peers. The juxtapositions are revealing. When we look at images by celebrated figures such as Kiki Smith or Matias Duville, their take on the natural world seems even more raw, more saturated with mythology, than the small, orderly pictures of their indigenous co-exhibitors.
With the exception of Parramatta, which has only a handful of exhibits, one can see the entire Biennale in the course of day, walking from the Cutaway to Pier 2/3, to the MCA, the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Art School. It’s worth making the effort to see everything, although if one had to choose between the AGNSW and the NAS, the latter is much stronger.
The difference between this Biennale and so many of its predecessors, is that it is not simply a fashion show featuring rising and established stars of contemporary art, but a persuasive attempt to reimagine our damaged relationship with nature. It was only to be expected that Roca would include a high percentage of South American artists, but as Australians see relatively little art from that part of the world this has proven to be one of the most engaging aspects of the show. There’s a particular quality to this Biennale: a sensibility that transcends the appreciation of individual works. It’s undeniable that Roca and his team have attempted to do something meaningful, and in the realm of contemporary art where values are largely determined by money and publicity, that’s rare indeed.
23rd Biennale of Sydney: rīvus
Barangaroo; Pier 2/3; Museum of Contemporary Art; Art Gallery of NSW; National Art School Gallery; Arts and Cultural Exchange, Parramatta
12 March – 13 June, 2022
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April, 2022