The 22nd Biennale of Sydney makes witnesses out of us all


At the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, behind a blood red and heavy plastic curtain, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles has manipulated building pipes so droplets of water fall to elongated hotplates below, hissing with the softest sound, and soon dissipating, leaving a rounded mark. It’s alluding to gendered violence committed in both Mexico and Australia, where Margolles visited the sites of murdered women and trans women, sponging particles from the scene. Her artist’s statement reads, “We are all witnesses.”

Teresa Margolles, Approximation to the Scenes of the Facts, 2020, mixed-media installation. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, National Art School. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich. Photograph: Zan Wimberley.

This could be the catch-cry of the Biennale which, titled from the Wiradjuri word NIRIN and meaning “the edge,” delivers the artist as witness and the art as evidence. Lauded by almost everyone, the Biennale has been called “confrontational” and “consequential,” often followed by the fact that it’s the first time the event has been curated by an Indigenous director; artist Brook Andrew. While it is rigorous and investigatory, it also has moments of stunning gentleness. With every artwork in some way referencing a social or political reality of life – whether Indigenous dispossession and displacement, environmental catastrophe, fights for sovereignty, conflict and violence, unchecked capitalism, or acute anxieties – the Biennale is, for all its poeticism, grounded in the resolutely factual.

Brook Andrew by Leah Jing.

Combining over 100 artists from 36 countries, there is no sense of detachment from the world: this is a privilege these artists simply can’t afford. There are no superstars or shining conceptualists. It wasn’t curated for Instagram. Instead, Andrew exudes great sensitivity in bringing together disparate artists, many of whom are Indigenous to various lands, drawing understandings between different conflicts, traumas, desires and hopes. Empathy is how the Biennale works.

Almost five months since the Biennale’s opening, two international events have altered its display at pragmatic and philosophical levels: Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. In some ways, the Biennale has come to seem more prescient than timely. For example, at the beginning of March on Cockatoo Island Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin began digging a grave in the exact shape of a statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. In May, protestors spray painted “sovereignty never ceded” and “no pride in genocide” on a Cook statue in Hyde Park, elevating calls for the removal of the monuments for their colonial resonance.

Nicholas Galanin, Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial, 2020. Installation view for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020), Cockatoo Island. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from the United States Government. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Jessica Maurer.

Not to mention that the Biennale does what great art always does – subtly transforms consciousness with the possibility of difference – and in the face of recent upheavals due to coronavirus, there has been much evaluating of how life can be open to utter and drastic transformation. While the Biennale closed for six weeks during April and May due to a national lockdown, and the pandemic has left the National Art School unable to reopen to the public with pieces now moved to Carriageworks, the central tenet of the Biennale lives on: the art is still making witnesses out of viewers.

This is obvious in the more documentary slant, best shown at Campbelltown Arts Centre. There are John Miller and Elisapeta Heta’s photographs of New Zealand protest movements, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian’s video work that eschews sensationalised news coverage of the global refugee crisis and brings heightened sensitivity to global displacement, and Barbara McGrady’s multi-screen installation, where the First Nations photojournalist chronicles 30 years of covering Aboriginal celebration and trauma – from NFL star Greg Inglis to the crushing mourning of TJ Hickey, the 16 year old who died from being impaled on a fence while being chased by New South Wales police.

Barbara McGrady (with John Janson-Moore), Ngiyaningy Maran Yaliwaunga Ngaara-li (Our Ancestors Are Always Watching), 2020. Installation view for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020), Campbelltown Arts Centre. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from the Australia Council for the Arts. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Zan Wimberley.

Or take the video work by Lawrence Abu Hamdan. At Cockatoo Island – which has one of the best installations in the Biennale – the Beirut-based artist has shown an interview capturing the testimony of an historian, Bassel Abi Chahine, who believes he is a reincarnation of a soldier who died in the Lebanese Civil War in 1984. With a penchant for the recorded word, Hamdan’s works have previously been used as evidence at the UK Asylum Tribunal.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Once Removed, 2019 (video still). Commissioned by Sharjah Biennial 14. Courtesy the artist.

Yet being a witness, presenting evidence, is inventive as much as documentary and legal. Look at South African Zanele Muholi’s large black and white portraits on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), which glow like magazine fashion shoots. Muholi notes how her texturally and formally innovative portraits of trans women are “forcing the viewer to question their desire to gaze at images of my black figure.” Also at MCA comes a quiet yet unnerving video work from Afghan artist Aziz Hazara, who has arranged a five-screen pentagonal viewing showing young boys playing on a hill above Kabul Province, away from what happens below: suicide bomb attacks throughout the city. It’s a testimony to the emotional consequences, of the right to play and childhood and life, as much as the attacks themselves.

Zanele Muholi, MaID IV, New York, 2018, installation view, 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2020, wallpaper, image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist, photograph: Ken Leanfore.

Historical objects are also kinds of witnesses, and throughout all sites of the Biennale is the ongoing POWERFUL OBJECTS series, which, put together by Andrew, places historical objects and ephemera alongside and against Biennale works. Like a trail of clues, it is the viewer’s responsibility to conjure or intuit their significance. Some of these hundreds of objects include: an AIDS memorial quilt; a museum stock book from 1922-1974; a collection of buttons and ammunition from circa 1850-1890, made in England or Australia, and “used by the native police” throughout Queensland; Margaret Preston’s photo albums and postcards from abroad; a 1975 photograph by Mervyn Bishop of Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hands of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari.

The placement of these objects mimics Andrew’s own artistic practice, which a few people I spoke with took as a sign of a curator overstepping. A reviewer for the Guardian saw them as “another gesture that pretty much claims the entire biennale as a work of his [Andrew’s] own.” Personally, I loved these objects. Pragmatically they connect the Biennale sites, but they have a gentle yet forthright way of connecting ideas and times, of the kind of cosmic ways objects work, drawing links where links aren’t normally drawn. And on the charge of egoism: there’s no such thing as objective curating anyway. Isn’t this the joy of disguising an artist as a curator? As Andrew said to me in an interview for Art Guide “…I’m an artist. I’m not a curator. My role, in inverted commas, is artistic director.”

Josep Grau-Garriga. Installation view (2020) photographed in the Grand Courts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photograph: Zan Wimberley.

Yet Andrew’s hand is most obviously felt at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), where among the European classical masters, he has installed the works of Biennale artists, tearing up the old stories and coming in with the ignored and maligned. He has, albeit temporarily, opened up the house, showing just how cheated both artists and viewers are when museums and galleries continuously privilege a certain kind of art over hundreds of years. In this space, the most startling piece is by Spanish artist Josep Grau-Garriga, who passed away in 2011. His Alterpiece of the Hanged People, 1972-1976, is a mammoth scaffolding that nearly touches the gallery ceilings, on which hang exquisite tapestries resembling human carcasses. A witnessing of suffering and death, the artist statement holds it as “a monumental tribute to all unknown martyrs throughout time.” As always in this Biennale, there is nothing aloof or detached. It’s vying for honesty rather than being smart.

I saw this work back in March, two weeks before national lockdown. Back then, the air was celebratory. The opening parties were joyous. Everything felt intelligent, exciting, emotional and potent. On my final day, I revisited African American artist Arthur Jafa’s The White Album, 2019, at AGNSW. A favourite at the Venice Biennale last year where it debuted, the video brings together found internet and media footage viewing race and whiteness from multiple vantages: footage of Dylann Roof entering the church in which he massacred nine people in 2015; a young, white girl highlighting the injustice that she has to self-censor when she’s “not a racist;” a scene from A Clockwork Orange; military sniper operations; a gun enthusiast showing us his collection in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s frankly startling. Toward the end it captures Jafa’s white arts colleagues and friends – what affection can be summoned for these people after what has just been witnessed?

Arthur Jafa, The White Album (video still), 2018, video (color, sound). Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.

It was flooring. Holding the experience of hundreds of artworks over four days, it’s clear how tremendous – how actually tremendous – this Biennale is. Trauma is painful, but sometimes it’s the possibility of hope and healing that ends up feeling just as emotional.

Many weeks after this moment at AGNSW, the Black Lives Matter protests would alight America and resonate in Australia, prompted by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. During this period the critic Wesley Morris wrote in The New York Times, “The most urgent filmmaking anybody’s doing in this country right now is by black people with camera phones… Art is not the intent. These videos are the stone truth.”

In a testament to the power of witnessing, and of growing the witness pool, the phrase “truth-telling” was something that had been said in interviews I had with Andrew and Biennale artists Tennant Creek Brio. It was also mentioned during artist talks at the Biennale. “The stone truth,” I thought, sitting in my Melbourne kitchen. Well, art is the intent at the Biennale of Sydney, but so is the stone truth.

22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN

Cockatoo Island, until 6 September

Artspace, until 27 September

Art Gallery of New South Wales, until 27 September

Museum of Contemporary Art, until 6 September

Campbelltown Arts Centre, until 11 October

Carriageworks, 7 August-26 September

The Biennale can also be viewed online via Google Arts and Culture.

Please note that all Biennale venues are open. With public safety in mind, physical distancing, limits to the number of people in the galleries and hygiene measures will be in place.

Review Words by Tiarney Miekus