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There are times when the scale of international biennales and triennials creates a tight thematic recipe to which Indigenous artwork may be added in a way that can appear tokenistic. With the ongoing renegotiation of the critical status and appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander work, this has changed in recent years, and there’s growing recognition that these Australian artists offer a potent artistic arsenal, uniquely placed to hold their own in an international context.

This year’s 20th Biennale of Sydney is a notable exception to any claim of tokenism. Within its usual international remit, the Australian presence is numerically significant. Of the 83 artists, 14 are local and almost half of these are Indigenous. Artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal’s approach is not merely statistical: her grasp of Indigenous practices, thought, history and politics is positioned as central to this Biennale.

Within Rosenthal’s thematic ‘Embassies of Thought’ are what she calls “in-between spaces” and it is in these places that three of the significant Indigenous Australian works are located. Rosenthal sees these sites as spaces to open up our thinking, with some similarities to a concept that the Yolnu from north eastern Arnhem Land describe as rengjitj, which offers a legitimate way to be in another’s country.

Richard Bell, Embassy, 2013. Installation view (2013) at the 5th Moscow Biennale, Moscow. Courtesy Moscow Biennale Art Foundation, Moscow. Photograph- Yackov Petchenin.
Richard Bell, Embassy, 2013. Installation view (2013) at the 5th Moscow Biennale, Moscow. Courtesy Moscow Biennale Art Foundation, Moscow. Photograph- Yackov Petchenin.

Richard Bell’s Tent Embassy, 2013-2016, stood prominently outside the Museum of Contemporary Art for the three days of the opening performances. The ‘tent embassy’ has been an ongoing feature of activism for land rights, recognition, health and housing since the 1972 protest on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra. Bell’s tent on the MCA forecourt turned its back to the water and looked inward to talks, videos and discussion. Its billboard slogans were delivered without subtlety, its casual ambience and raffish presentation stridently at odds with the slickness of the MCA and nearby restaurants; its activist antecedents more in tune with the soapboxes accommodated by Circular Quay.

Bell bemoaned his “Premature Evacuation,” on Facebook on 19 March. “I would have preferred that it stay up for the duration, showing video of the talks that were conducted during the three days the Embassy was activated. There have been other artists who have had their works on show for the duration including Jeff Koons, Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy,” he wrote. “And considering that my project, more than any other in the show, most closely resembles the curatorial intent of the Biennale, it really should have been there for the duration.” However there was no question of censorship. This project was always intended to operate only during the first days of the Biennale.

Another of the “in-between spaces” is occupied by Archie Moore’s Home Away From Home (Bennelong/Vera’s Hut). Located high on a hill in the Botanical Gardens overlooking the Opera House, this is a reconstruction of the hut gifted to the Aboriginal man Bennelong in 1790 by Governor Arthur Phillip. The hut was the first home built for an Indigenous person in the colony, and Moore notes the shift that took place in Phillip’s relationship with Bennelong (initially kidnapped by Phillip, they became friends which ultimately served the interests of both).

However Moore’s structure includes an interior that draws on his own childhood memories, a merger of the personal and historical within its architecture.

While the exterior recreates Bennelong’s hut, inside Moore remembers his grandmother’s hut in Glenmorgan, Queensland. This treatment notes the goodwill and camaraderie that finally defined an important historical relationship. It also argues for the power of personal stories that may transcend difficult colonial histories.

Daniel Boyd, What Remains, 2016, site-specific installation, mirrored disks, synthetic polymer paint, dimensions variable. Installation view of the 20th Biennale of Sydney (2016) at Redfern Wall. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
Daniel Boyd, What Remains, 2016, site-specific installation, mirrored disks, synthetic polymer paint, dimensions variable. Installation view of the 20th Biennale of Sydney (2016) at Redfern Wall. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

Daniel Boyd’s street corner installation in Redfern is “in-between,” opposite Tony Mundine’s boxing gym. Titled What Remains, 2016, Boyd’s mirrored circles over a dark painted wall offer a surface that is decoratively ‘finished’ in a way that most of Redfern’s street presence is not. These mirrors reflect passers-by back at themselves, in an area in transition. His other works, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, are mediated through his dotted technique to evoke the brooding historical presence of the warrior and Bidjigal man from Botany Bay, Pemulwuy.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Ken Thaiday Snr has extended and transformed his dance machine masks into a huge stainless steel hammerhead shark with an inexorable kinetic movement. Made in collaboration with artist Jason Christopher, this work channels the shark, the sea and the spirit of Torres Strait Islander traditions. Equally powerful, albeit in a quiet and darkened space, are Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s abstracted wooden poles. As with Thaiday’s machine, these poles translate traditional forms into highly individual creative vignettes.

The Australian Indigenous contribution operates like connective tissue in this Biennale. Concerns central to the work of Australian Indigenous artists: politics, land ownership, environmental sustainability, shared realities and alternative futures, and the unevenness of the allocation of resources, are at its heart. But they also have become current global imperatives. This shifting view of reality offers opportunities for connections and changing paradigms in art and cultural practices old and new. While Rosenthal’s thematic was enticing, the power of her ideas was, to me, most convincingly conducted through intersections with the ideas of Australian Indigenous artists, particularly the innovations visible in new work by Thaiday and Yunupingu.

20th Biennale of Sydney
Until 5 June 2016

Louise Martin-Chew