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21st Sydney Biennale: Mami Kataoka Steers The Exhibit In A New Direction

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21st Sydney Biennale: Mami Kataoka Steers The Exhibit In A New Direction
"Law of the Journey" (2017) by Ai Weiwei. Image courtesy the artist. Photograph: Ai Weiwei Studio

Marking a turning point for contemporary Asia-Pacific artists and curators, the 21st Biennale of SydneySUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement, is curated by an artistic director of non-Western heritage – Mami Kataoka. Since 2009, she held the position of Chief Curator at the Mori Art Museum (MAM) in Tokyo and has worked with many prominent Asian artists – many of whom she has included in this year’s Biennale.

In her curatorial statement, Kataoka explains that she hopes the 21st Biennale will serve “as a microcosm of the history of Earth, the human race, and a condensed version of the history of Sydney”. In essence, a glimpse into the context of a globalised art world that is shared by individuals of differing standards of personal value, religious faiths, and political systems. Kataoka wants the audience to consider these varying forces that are “in a state of repeated collision, collapse and rebirth”, but also in equilibrium and engagement with one another.

In fulfilling these sentiments, Kataoka also makes a successful case for the strength and inclusion of Asian art in this year’s Biennale. In the past, the Biennale’s curatorial decisions have often overlooked its Asian neighbours, despite their geographical proximity. However, under the direction of Kataoka, 27 out of 70 artists are contemporary Asian artist/ artist collectives that have been included in this year’s program. Stretching over 6 out of the 7 locations, here are some highlights from the 21st Biennale of Sydney.

1. N.S. Harsha

"Study for Reclaiming the inner space" (2017) by N.S. Harsha. Image courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Venice

N.S. Harsha (b. 1969, India), an artist who is known for his highly detailed paintings, sculptures, and site-specific installations, often draws inspiration from a diverse range of cultural traditions. The artist's subject matter often deals with various global conversations surrounding cultural transformations and socio-economic disparity.

Exhibiting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Harsha's Reclaiming the inner space (2018) is a wall-mounted installation consisting of an acrylic mirror with hand-carved wooden elephants and unfolded cardboard packaging secured on top. The graphics of the packaging are only visible to the audience when looking at the reflective surface of the mirror. Depicting everyday consumerist brands, Harsha examines the effects of rapid modernisation and mass production on society as a whole and our own changing relationship to nature.

2. Akira Takayama

"Our Songs – Sydney Kabuki Project" (2018) by Akira Takayama. Image courtesy the artist and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

Often challenging the conventions of traditional theatre, Akira Takayama (b. 1969, Japan), fosters new collaborative relationships between the artist, artwork and audience. Presenting Our Songs - Sydney Kabuki Project (2018) at 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Takayama documented performances that took place on Sunday, 28th of January 2018 at Sydney Town Hall's Centennial Hall. Inviting locals to share stories of a familial and cultural nature through song, the theatre director was inspired by Kabuki Theatre, a 400-year-old form of Japanese stage play. The work thus becomes a piece of archival footage for Sydney's oral histories, which brought together a collective of distinct individual voices.

3. Ai Weiwei

"Law of the Journey" (2017) by Ai Weiwei. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery Prague

This year, Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, China) presents a series of interconnected works across various locations at the Biennale with a focus on the experiences of refugees in the throws of war-torn countries. 

In particular, Law of the Journey (2017) is a 60-metre-long boat installation featuring hundreds of anonymous refugee figures. This monumental piece at the Cockatoo Island brings sharp attention to the humanitarian crisis with its use of black rubber materials fabricated from a Chinese factory that also manufactures vessels that carry thousands of refugees across the Mediterranean Sea.

Accompanying this piece, is a wallpaper featuring the behind-the-scenes photographs taken by Ai on his iPhone during the filming of his documentary film, Human Flow (2017). In addition to this documentary, which is to be premiered in Sydney, there are four video works: At Sea (2016), On the Boat (2016), Floating (2016), and Ai Weiwei Drifting (2017). More information about these video works and the documentary can be found here.

Finally, at Artspace, Ai creates another sculptural installation - Crystal Ball (2017), which is a large glass sphere cradled by a nest of life jackets, thus continuing the display of chaotic uncertainty that many refugees face.

4. Haegue Yang

"Lethal Love" (2008) by Haegue Yang. Image courtesy of the artist photographer, Andy Keate.

South Korean artist, Haegue Yang (b. 1971) presents a multi-part installation, which combines three bodies of work titled, Video Trilogy (Unfolding Places, Restrained Courage, and Squandering Negative Spaces) (2004-06), with another venetian blind installation titled, Lethal Love (2008). The work is a critical reading of the historical lives of German politician and activist, Petra Kelly, and her companion, Gert Bastian, who, in 1992, killed Kelly in her sleep and shortly after killed himself. The immersive installation oscillates between abstraction and narration, and also penetrates between the private and public. 

5. Geng Xue

"The Poetry of Michelangelo" (2015) by Geng Xue. Image courtesy of the artist and Sydney Biennale.

"White, translucent, and delicate" (BoS21 Artist Statement), encapsulates Geng Xue's (b. 1983, China) video work, Poetry of Michelangelo (2015). Exhibiting at Artspace, the artwork explores the complex relationships that exist between the creator and their creation. Depicting the process of moulding a male figure from clay to awakening the body through resuscitation, Geng toys with the idea of artistic creation as an act of divinity motivated by love. Possessing god-like qualities, artists also have the ability to destroy their creation, which is evident in Geng's use of clay cutting wire to dismember the male figure. Quite a beautiful and meditative work.

6. Nguyen Trinh Thi

"Letters from Panduranga" (2015) by Nguyen Trinh Thi. Image courtesy the artist and photographer, Jamie Maxtone-Graham.

At CarriageworksNguyen Trinh Thi (b. 1973, Vietnam), presents a filmic essay, Letters from Panduranga (2015), in an attempt to shed light on the Vietnamese government's refusal to acknowledge the Cham people, an ethnic minority group descended from the medieval Hindu kingdom of Champa. Presenting glimpses into the daily activities of these people, the film is set against a backdrop of spectacular landscapes in the Ninh Thuan province, whilst also describing the underlying concerns of those inhabiting the land. 

7. Sa Sa Art Projects

"Human Nature" (2010–11) by Khvay Samnang. Image courtesy the artist.

Founded in 2010 by a Cambodian art collective known as the Stiev Selapak collective, Sa Sa Art Projects is a non-for-profit artist-run space with four main participating artists: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, Vuth Lyno and Pen Sereypagna. 

Exhibiting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the collective presents a variety of works created individually by each artist. In particular, Samnang's Human Nature (2010-11) series (pictured above), features masked residents of the White Building, a space that was for a growing community of creative types before it was demolished in 2017. The photographs act as a memory for these people in their simple apartments, which over time became personalised to symbolise an 'international style' of modernist architecture (refer to Roger Nelson's catalogue essay, Khvay Samnang's Human Nature for more information - available here).


The 21st Sydney Biennale is on view till 11 June 2018.


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