Berlin-based Chinese dissident artist and activist Ai Weiwei and chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum Mami Kataoka are good friends. They have known each other for more than 10 years. “He says I’m like his sister,” laughs Kataoka, dressed all in black and seated in a meeting room in Sydney’s historic Rocks area. She is preparing the city’s 21st Biennale, programming 70 artists across seven venues, with Weiwei perhaps first among equals. “I have a deep belief in what he does.”
To mark 45 years since the joint 1973 celebrations when the Sydney Biennale was inaugurated and the Opera House officially opened, the Japanese-born curator will interview Weiwei in the Concert Hall there on March 15, directly after which Weiwei’s film about refugees, Human Flow, will be shown, for which Weiwei has been travelling to refugee camps from Greece to Iraq, from Gaza to Myanmar, documenting the displacement of millions.
“The film is not directly criticising any government,” says Kataoka, “but it’s showing us what is happening, and making us all aware. If you see the film, you cannot think it is about someone else, because it’s so holistic. You will start from Sydney in 2018; think about where you are, and how you can mirror yourself with the rest of the world. It’s a conversation with who and where you are.”
Call this conversation a quest for equilibrium, of audiences engaging with the planet. Weiwei’s art lands neatly into both the philosophical and physical science themes underpinning Kataoka’s 2018 Biennale: firstly, the ancient Chinese mnemonic device of Wu Xing, which arrays five elements of the universe – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – while eschewing hierarchical order; and secondly, superposition, which in quantum theory refers to electrons’ ability to simultaneously occupy multiple states.
“Different elements are interdependent and support each other,” Kataoka explains. “What Bohr says about superposition is super interesting: in the micro-world, that atoms and electrons have a state of either wave or particle, but you cannot really define them, because they change form all the time. That kind of ambiguity, I thought, symbolises the world today, that there is no singular correctness.
“We all struggle with these different perspectives. We need smaller but in-depth engagement, because people now see things on a superficial level – one image and you decide yes or no, like or dislike. You have to [instead] make in-depth engagement.”
Weiwei’s Biennale-commissioned work Crystal Ball 2017 at Artspace will yield an opaque look into the planet’s future, and his Life of the Journey raft art for one of the bigger spaces at Cockatoo Island will be on a larger than life scale.
But while the broad Biennale emphasis is on artists who, in Kataoka’s reckoning, “offer a panoramic view of how opposing understandings and interpretations can come together in a state of equilibrium”, is there the danger that Ai Weiwei becomes better known as an activist than as an artist?
“For him, politics and contemporary art is all on the same level,” says Kataoka. “He doesn’t define and doesn’t divide those categories. He does what needs to be done. But he is an artist, so he expresses himself through the medium of art.”
“The Biennale has invited over 1800 artists, including major artists like [Germans] Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter. It’s an amazing list. Most of the time, a singular curatorial mind has overseen a whole exhibition.
“Particularly around 1976 and 1979, the second and third Biennales, there were a lot of arguments in the local community: What is a biennale? Do we need this? What is the percentage of Australian artists? What does it do for Australian art? What is the balance between men and women artists?
“It was a time of a huge feminist movement in the world, and 1979 was the first time they invited Aboriginal artists; from Arnhem Land. I was interested to see the selection of the works, in tandem with the social and political conditions of the time.”
The 21st Biennale will connect to its history, particularly at the Art Gallery of NSW. Swiss artist Miriam Cahn’s paintings will include works shown at the 1986 Biennale. Ghent-born Flemish artist Lili Dujourie, last seen at the Biennale in 1982, will return.
Three sketchbooks from Australian artist Sydney Ball, who died last year, will go on show. Ball participated in the first Biennale, in 1973.
Kataoka is aware some artists boycotted the 19th Biennale over sponsor Transfield’s connection to offshore detention through its then (later divested) subsidiary Transfield Services. Does she support artists’ right to withdraw their art in protest? “Everyone has a right to do what they want to do,” she says. “There’s nothing so simple.
“I’m also opposed to keeping refugees in the camp. It should be solved. But boycotting certain events, probably it wouldn’t solve the problem. With Ai Weiwei: maybe [his art] becomes a bigger voice of the people, trying to change a situation. Art is more abstract, and on a conceptual level, how people change their way of thinking.
“Also, the involvement of [Transfield’s] Belgiorno-Nettis family: if you only look at that incident, people might have the impression, ‘Oh what a bad company supporting the Biennale.’ That’s so simplistic. If you look at the 40-year history, that family was building up the whole Biennale.”
Kataoka has travelled to meet some of the Biennale’s Australian Indigenous artists – Pintupi video artist George Tjungurrayi (Carriageworks) in Alice Springs and Ngarrindjeri artist Yvonne Koolmatrie (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia) in Adelaide, for instance – but has also relied on local curators in programming Aboriginal artists.
“Twenty-one months’ preparation doesn’t give you the time to go through the entire world, so it was only natural for me to invite artists from the Asia-Pacific region.
“But it was also a question for Australia and the Biennale: where do you want to be, and how do you want to situate yourself in the world?”