Ai Weiwei Law of the Journey, 2017 reinforced PVC with aluminium frame, 312 figures 60 x 6 x 3 m Installation view (2018) at Cockatoo Island for the 21st Biennale of Sydney Courtesy the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Sherman Foundation Photograph: Zan Wimberley


Ai Weiwei,  Law of the Journey, 2017
reinforced PVC with aluminium frame, 312 figures
60 x 6 x 3 m
Installation view (2018) at Cockatoo Island for the 21st Biennale of Sydney
Courtesy the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin
Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Sherman Foundation
Photograph: Zan Wimberley, Courtesy: Biennale of Sydney

For all its headlines and cutting edge art, the Sydney Biennale is not a new thing. It is a well-established (some might say entrenched) fixture on the Sydney art scene. In fact, the Biennale of Sydney is the third oldest biennale in the world after Venice (established in 1895) and Sao Paulo (in 1951).

Listen to Lisa and Nic on 2SER here 

It all began back in 1973, when the first Biennale of Sydney was held as part of the opening celebrations of the Sydney Opera House, reflecting the sense of optimism and pride in the city’s modernism that was apparent at the time. From its beginnings in this climate, the Biennale of Sydney has continued to push the boundaries of what is acceptable, what art is and where it should be seen, embracin unique venues across the city.

While the Art Gallery of NSW was its first hub, the Biennale has always been a multi-venue site. Some of the other venues over the years have included the Sydney Opera House, Paddington Town Hall, the Australian Centre for Photography, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The idea of the Biennale though is to take art outside of the museum walls. And so the Biennale’s curators have placed art in unusual places, outdoors, in industrial settings.

Sites have included Hyde Park, the finger wharves at Walsh Bay, and, since 2008, Cockatoo Island has been a major venue for the Biennale. Visitors to the Biennale have the chance to experience contemporary art, curated around an overarching theme, outside of the restrictive, theorised walls of the gallery or museum. This is art in place and art in our world.

Cockatoo Island as a venue in particular gives a viewer an opportunity to reflect on Sydney as a place and contemporary issues through some of the best contemporary art in a space layered with Sydney’s Aboriginal history, convict history, shipbuilding and industrial history.

Some have dismissed the Biennale as ‘spectacle’, but in many ways the Biennale has been surpassed in spectacle by Sculpture by the Sea and Vivid. The Biennale has always maintained its integrity though with a serious contemporary curator and some hard-hitting themes. Whether you think it’s spectacle or arty-farty, the Biennale artworks often consider contemporary issues through the medium of art, and it certainly still presents elements of art as protest as well as beauty.

This year’s Biennale has some impressive works at Cockatoo Island. Why not catch the free Biennale ferry out there and have a day of history AND contemporary art. You can catch up on all the history of Cockatoo Island on the Dictionary of Sydney too!

This year’s Sydney Biennale SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement runs from 16 March – 11 June 2018. Curated by Artistic Director Mami Kataoka, it presents the work of 70 artists and artist collectives from 35 countries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Carriageworks, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney Opera House and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Head to the Sydney Biennale website for further details: https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/ 

And to the Cockatoo Island website for details about what’s on there too: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/whats/21st-biennale-sydney

For more history of the Biennale, this weekend there’s a series of talks at the Art Gallery of NSW from former Artistic Directors of the Sydney Biennale too. Head here for details and bookings: https://events.biennaleofsydney.art/biennalearchivestoriesweekend/eotr

Further Reading

Read Lizzie Marshall’s entry on the Biennale on the Dictionary here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_biennale_of_sydney
and Patrick Fletcher’s entry on Cockatoo Island here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/natural_feature/cockatoo_island

Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.

Listen to the podcast with Lisa & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

With no ongoing operational funding, the Dictionary of Sydney needs your help to survive. Make a donation to the Dictionary of Sydney and claim a tax deduction!

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