Sydney Morning Herald Column

23rd Sydney Biennale: A Brief Guide

Published March 15, 2022
John Gerrard, 'Leaf Work (Derrigimlah)' (2020)

Preparations for the 23rd Biennale of Sydney were well underway before somebody noticed this year’s theme – rīvus – was an anagram of “virus”. For director, José Roca, who has worked to assemble a vast international show in a locked-down world, it would have been impossible to ignore the pandemic.

José Roca

Roca is from Columbia but for the past two years he’s been bunkered down in Sydney, working with local curators, sourcing artworks remotely. Where previous Biennale directors have spent their preparation time travelling from country to country, visiting exhibitions and artists’ studios, Roca has endured the loneliness of the long-distance creative director. On the plus side he can claim this Biennale has a smaller carbon footprint than most of its predecessors – which is no joke, considering the exhibition’s environmental theme.

Rivus is a Latin word meaning “brook” or “stream”, and Roca’s Biennale is all about water, more specifically – “rivers, wetlands, and other salt and freshwater ecosystems”. It’s a final irony that the show is being launched at a time when Sydney is waterlogged from a fortnight of record downpours.

Alex Cerveny, ‘Glossary of Proper Names’ (2015)

Roca has been inspired by the 2016 decision that allocated legal rights to the Atrato River in Columbia, and by a case one year later that saw the Whanganui River in New Zealand granted legal personhood. Since then, rivers around the world have been represented in courts as a way of preventing reckless exploitation of scarce water resources that should belong to everyone. Subsequently seven rivers are listed as “participants” in this Biennale: the Atrato, the Baaka, the Birrajung/Yarra, the Boral, the Burramatta, the Napo, and the Vilcabamba. The North Sea is represented by an “Embassy”.

Rivus is also the Latin root of the word “rival”, reflecting competition between different parties for the use of a watercourse, often a boundary between states and territories. This allows the Biennale to engage with topics such as global politics, war, colonialism, corporate exploitation, indigenous land claims, and… just about anything, really. The emphasis on indigenous knowledge continues the themes of the previous Biennale and reflects a growing preoccupation among the world’s art institutions.

Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, ‘Puu motoshi’ (2020)

There are six venues this year: Pier 2/3, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), the National Art School Gallery (NAS), and Arts and Cultural Exchange (ACE), Parramatta. The exciting new addition is the Cutaway at Barangaroo, a cavernous space some believe would have been a perfect annex for the AGNSW, and a much cheaper option than the long-awaited Sydney Modern extension.

Cockatoo Island is off the list, and so is Artspace, which is undergoing renovations and has helped organise the display at the NAS.

Each venue has a different watery theme, which provides a loose structure for the exhibition. It’s possible to see everything in a day, but not advisable. One might walk from the Cutaway to Pier 2/3, and then to the MCA. If you’re feeling ambitious the AGNSW is 20 minutes’ walk from the MCA, and the NAS another 20 from the AGNSW. ACE in Parramatta is very much a postscript as it is hosting only four works.

In this brief preview I’ll start at Barangaroo and follow the itinerary above, listing the highlights as I go.



Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, ‘The Great Animal Orchestra’


The Cutaway, Barangaroo

It’s the space itself that makes the most vivid impression: a gigantic chamber apparently carved from solid rock, partially open to the sky. Rain is falling on the right-hand side, meaning that only the hardiest works can occupy that edge. The dominant work is Flows – a huge mass of bamboo that swirls across the ceiling. This is the brainchild of Cave Urban, a Sydney collective of artists, architects, and designers.

Many pieces in the Cutaway are process-based, such as Diana Scherer’s organic ‘weavings’ made by the natural roots systems of grass, and Gal Weinstein’s floor-based landscape made from coffee grounds.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, ‘The Substitute’ (2020)

A more obvious crowd-pleaser is Alexandra Daisy Ginsburg’s The Substitute, a video of a rhinoceros created by A.I. that shows the program ‘learning’ the configuration of cells, moulding a blur of moving blocks into a living animal. It’s a visual equivalent of the long, slow work being done by scientists who are striving to restore extinct creatures through manipulating DNA.

Above the Cutaway, in the Stargazer Park at Barangaroo, there are two Biennale highlights: The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, and Irish artist, John Gerrard’s Leaf Work (Derrigimlagh). The former is housed in a special pavilion and viewers will need to pre-book. It consists of animal sounds recorded all over the world, presented in a display that turns the frequencies into a layered wraparound of coloured lines on a dark backdrop. It’s an eerily hypnotic piece.

Gerrard has created a large, mirror-glass cube that sits in the park like a visitor from another planet. On one side we see a moving image of a figure covered in leaves, wandering around a flat, grassy landscape. It’s not a video but another A.I. work, in which the leafy monster – a relative of the Green Man of British mythology – roams apparently at random.

Duke Riley, ‘Monument to Five Thousand Years of Temptation and Deception’

Pier 2/3

Pier 2/3 is devoted to “’briny’ environments, where saltwater meets freshwater.” This opens to door to political works, such as an installation of protest material by the Torres Strait 8, who have taken the Australian government to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations over its inaction on climate change; and the delicate works of Thai artist, Imhathai Suwatthanasilp, who makes sculptural pieces from materials such as human hair and termite wings.

Yoan Capote, a choppy sea of fish-hooks (detail)

For me, the two undoubted must-sees were the work of American artist, Duke Reilly, whose environmental activism has found expression in large graphic works, scrimshaw engravings on waste plastic, and a vitrine full of small fishing lures made from repurposed rubbish drawn from a polluted waterway in Brooklyn.

The second piece is a vast seascape by Cuban artist, Yoan Capote, featuring black, choppy waves made from fishhooks. Set against a golden sky, it’s a vision full of grandeur and menace.



Qavavau Manumie, ‘Untitled’ (2012)

Museum of Contemporary Art

At the MCA we are invited “to reflect on deep time, primal waters, and ancient histories.” This is an odd choice, given the museum’s “contemporary” agenda. One of the exhibits is a fish fossil from Canowindra, dating from the Devonian period (roughly 400,000,000 years ago), in which marine life began to advance onto the land. It’s easily the oldest item ever included in a Sydney Biennale or the MCA.

Kiki Smith, ‘Congregation’ (2014)

In another out-of-character move, the MCA is showing many small, quirky pieces, such as the paintings of Brazilian, Alex Cerveny; and the bizarre but wonderful drawings of Inuit artist, Qavavau Manumie, which combine folklore with homegrown surrealism.

There are also large, museum-scale drawings by Argentina’s Matias Duville, and an impressive room of tapestries by American artist, Kiki Smith, who may be the best-known participant in a Biennale focussed on individual works, not reputations.

Duville gives us scenes of primal devastation, drawn in a rough, tactile manner.  Smith’s tapestries combine motifs from the natural world – animals, birds, insects and plants – with cosmic views of the landscape and the human body. I’ve seen a lot of art by Kikki Smith over the years, and these pieces are probably as good as anything she’s ever made.






Naziha Mestaoui, ‘One Beat One Tree’ (2012)

Art Gallery of NSW:

A major attraction at the AGNSW is the large-scale installation, One Beat One Tree, by Belgian artist Naziha Mestaoui, who died from a rare illness in 2020 at the age of only 44. This interactive work allows one to create an individual tree and add it to a virtual landscape. Every virtual tree will be echoed by the planting of a real tree, which should make this a popular enticement for climate-conscious kids. It’s also a homage to one one of the presiding spirits of this Biennale, German artist, Joseph Beuys (1921-86), whose 7,000 Oaks at the 1982 Kassel Documenta, was a landmark for environmental art.

Rex Greeno and son Dean Greeno, ‘Paper bark canoe’ (2020)

In general, the works at the AGNSW “deal with ideas around rewilding and caring for Country”, which translates into mainly indigenous displays. There are canoes by Tasmanian artists, Rex Greeno and his son, Dean Greeno; another by John Kelly of Kempsey, with a contribution by ceramicist, Rena Shein. These pieces are simple, handmade artefacts that could actually be used to cross a river.

Badger Bates from Wilcannia, wellknown as a printmaker, has been repackaged as a maker of wall-sized installations and sculptures. I was, however, more taken with the drawings of Venezualan artist, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, whose minimal, linear works connect with a wealth of local lore and legend.


Carolina Caycedo, ‘From the Bottom of the River’ (2020-21) (MCA Chicago installation)

National Art School Gallery (in partnership with Artspace)

“Ideas around still and stagnant waters, as well as submerged and re-emerging histories” are explored at the the NAS Gallery. This translates into is a lot of stuff happening underwater, such as Joey Holder’s atmospheric video of a subterranean cave, in which fishy and reptilian shapes flit dimly back and forth before our eyes; or Erin Coates’s drawings of dolphin bones; or Latent Community’s film of a sunken village in Greece, drowned to create a dam.

National Committee of the Friends of Myall Creek and local First Nations Community, ‘Myall Creek Gathering Cloak’ (2018)

The top floor is dominated by a huge photowork by Columbian-born artist, Carolina Caycedo, with an accompanying installation. Her theme is dams and the unncessary destruction wrought by these projects, once seen as triumphs of human ingenuity. Nowadays we think immediately of ecoclogical disaster and corporate greed.

Among other notable pieces at the NAS are the powerful large-scale prints of Torres Strait artist, Teho Ropeyarn; and a possum skin cloak, made in commemoration of the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838, by descendants of the victims and the perpetrators.




Leeroy New wraps ACE

Arts and Cultural Exchange, Parramatta

If you’re not already in the western suburbs, you may hesitate to take an excursion to Parramatta to see only four works. One is a video in which a local woman speaks on behalf of the Burramatta River. There’s also an animated film on the life cycle of eels by Dharug artist, Leanne Tobin, that complements a set of collaborative glass sculptures by the same artist in the Cutaway.

The major piece at ACE, by Filippino artist, Leeroy New, may be viewed from the street, as it curls around the front of the building. New, known for designing an outfit for Lady Gaga, has constructed a sprawling, organic sculpture from carved-up plastic water bottles.

Increasing volumes of the world’s discarded plastic are being turned into art, but eventually we may have to turn to the bioplastics being created from algae, by Melbourne artist, Jessie French, who is exhibiting her handiwork at the Cutaway and the NAS Gallery. More than any Biennale we’ve seen, rīvus has placed itself at the boundaries of art and science, proposing that ideas might be just as beautiful as the view over Sydney Harbour.


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

 13 March – 13 June, 2022



Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March, 2022