May 12, 2022

Biennale of Sydney artists navigate troubled waters to produce works of beauty and environmental activism

The bad weather held for the opening weekend of the Biennale of Sydney, but it was close – and the irony of the situation did not escape the Colombian artistic director José Roca: this Biennale is dedicated nature and aquatic ecologies.

On Tuesday’s rainy media call, Roca noted, “We’re hearing the voice of nature right now.”

Entitled “rīvus” from the Latin “stream” but also “rivalry”, this Biennale offers works of astounding beauty while navigating through troubled waters.

The work tackles pollution, climate change and the effect of colonization on the care of ecosystems by First Peoples.

Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo’s watercolor The Generous Water Giant has five parts, representing the continents of the Earth.(Provided: Biennale of Sydney/Documentary Photography )

Eight of the Biennial participants are rivers (including the Vilcabamba and Napo Rivers in Ecuador; and the Baaka/Darling River in Australia), in recognition of the worldwide movement for the recognition of the rights of nature.

At Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay, The North Sea Embassya group that defends the legal personality of this body of water (which lies off the east coast of England), has set up a temporary outpost as part of the Biennale.

Art and activism go hand in hand throughout the festival.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Uncle Badger Batesa Barkindji elder, artist and water advocate, presented a series of striking linocut prints and wall sculptures on a wall background.

He said his main reason for participating in the Biennale was to speak about his country and raise awareness of ecological issues arising from the government’s management of the Murray-Darling Basin river system.

A gallery wall covered in a black and white linocut pattern, with black and white prints on it, and a stained glass rainbow.
A series of works by elder Barkindji and artist Uncle Badger Bates occupy a wall in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (Provided: Biennale of Sydney/Documentary Photography )

At Pier 2/3, an installation of totem poles sits alongside campaign posters from a group called Torres Strait 8: eight traditional owners of Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait Islands) who have filed a historic class action lawsuit against the Australian government for its inaction on climate change.

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Uncle Badger Bates on the Murray-Darling Water Crisis (2019)
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“A delta of possibilities”

Roca knew he wanted to pursue a water theme when he was nominated in 2020, but also hired a team of curators to collaboratively shape the Biennale with him – and says he had to remain open to their ideas. and prospects.

“I didn’t want to impose that [my original theme] on my co-curators,” he explains.

“If you organize yourself, you will bring a certain taste, a certain set of interests; that is inevitable. When you organize collectively, then all these other sensibilities come [into the mix].”

Working with this team, the initial concept of Roca, or “source”, grew into “a delta of possibilities” over two years of conversation and collaboration.

Three women and two men line up facing the camera, smiling, outdoors with a twilight sky in the background.
Curators of the Biennale of Sydney: Hannah Donnelly, Anna Davis, José Roca (artistic director), Talia Linz and Paschal Daantos Berry.(Provided: Biennale of Sydney/Joshua Morris)

“It’s not a biennale about rivers, or water for that matter; it’s a biennale about water bodies and the ecologies they support, and it branches out into ideas of human rights. nature and the voice of nature… inter-species collaboration, the voice of the non-human, and many more [ideas]”Roca said on Tuesday’s media call.

A program of more than 330 works and 80 participants is spread over six main locations, each with a different theme.

This Biennale is on a smaller scale than recent ones, by design: Roca was adamant from the outset that he wanted to model a more sustainable kind of arts festival.

This resulted in minimal travel for him and his co-curators (Roca moved from Colombia to Sydney after being appointed and has not traveled overseas since), reduced freight, and different approaches to constructing the works of art and exhibition infrastructure.

In The Cutaway at Barangaroo, the Biennale’s installation team created scaffolding on which to mount the artwork – but clad only the side holding the artwork: “The rest is left visible, so that we didn’t spend any material hiding anything from people’s view,” Roca explains.

For the cladding, they reused plywood palisades from AGNSW’s Sydney Modern Project.

A wave-like bamboo structure and colorful fabrics each hang from the ceiling of a cavernous space
Installation view, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus, 2022, The Cutaway at Barangaroo.(Provided: Biennale of Sydney/Documentary Photography )

The Biennale also issued a public call for innovations in sustainable design and embraced several of the submissions, including a durable, non-toxic alternative to MDF (medium-density fiberboard).

“The truth is that unless these things are more systemic and embedded in the workings of institutions, it will only work on a symbolic level,” Roca says.

Symbolic action and tangible action are however not always incompatible: at the AGNSW, the interactive work A beat, a tree (by the late Belgian artist Naziha Mestaoui) invites the public to plant a virtual tree and maintain it using their bodily movements. For each virtual seedling, a real one will be planted.

A man and woman stand in front of a screen showing a scene of green-hued virtual trees growing in a forest
One Beat, One Tree uses video mapping and motion tracking to allow visitors to plant and grow a virtual tree with their movements.(Provided: Biennale of Sydney/Documentary Photography )

the voices of nature

The voice of nature is present throughout the Biennale.

In The Cutaway, field recordings of Australian waterfowl emanate from a hanging installation of branches shaped like a pool of the River Murray, created by the Mexican artist Tania Candiani.

Darkened room with digital artwork on two walls, made up of bright green lines.
Bernie Krause believes that human music derives from what he calls “biophony”.(Provided: Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art/Luc Boegly)

A few levels up, in a temporary gallery space created on Stargazer Lawn, visitors can listen to the sounds of more than 1,500 creatures from around the world – including the Blue-headed Parrot and the Greater Potoo of the Amazon; the California sea lion and the humpback whale — in The Great Animal Orchestra.

The work is the result of a decades-long project led by an American musician and sound designer. Bernie Krausewho worked with the British collective United Visual Artists transform his library of recordings into an audiovisual installation.

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Down the road, at Pier 2/3, visitors can listen to underwater recordings capturing the biodiversity of the North Sea, made by the North Sea Embassy.

Nature also takes on a more poetic voice: for each of the rivers “participating” in the Biennale, a video has been made in which a cultural guardian imagines what the river would say.

A number of works are living, growing entities: a series of ‘photographic’ portraits on vertical grass beds, by British duo Ackroyd and Harvey; and fabric works made from the base, by the German artist Diana Scherer.

A photographic portrait of a provocative looking woman printed on grass hung in a grand entrance hall
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey use photosynthesis to create portraits on grass. Pictured: climate activist Lille Madden.(Provided: Biennale of Sydney/Documentary Photography )

Several works of art also function as visual records of threatened biodiversity: at AGNSW, a series of drawings by Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, an indigenous Yanomami artist from the Venezuelan Amazon region, depicts plant life; at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), illustrations by the artist Nonuya-Muinane Mogaje Guihu (aka Abel Rodríguez) capture the many species of pineapples and yuccas, among other native flora.

Roca’s connection to nature began in childhood; growing up in Bogotá (“It doesn’t get any more non-rural than that,” he snaps), his father was in charge of a nature park in the Caribbean: “I was like a wild kid, I was walking alone in this park,” he recalls.

Later in life, this connection to nature manifested in hiking and camping. His perspective has also been shaped by indigenous rituals involving Yagé (or Ayahuasca), which are grounded in the interdependence of the natural world.

This perhaps explains the feeling that his Biennial presents not only a tangible and philosophical connection with nature, but also sometimes a spiritual connection.

The Biennale of Sydney runs until June 13, 2022.