Saturday, June 30, 2012


Sydney Biennale aims to stitch us all together
The international exhibition presents art as a cathartic experience

By Cristina Ruiz. Web only
Published online: 29 June 2012

Sewing, basket-weaving, music-making, story-telling and other communal activities are at the heart of the 18th Biennale of Sydney, which opened 27 June and runs until 16 September. The exhibition, spread over five venues in the city, is entitled “All Our Relations” and presents a vision of art as a cathartic experience capable of healing wounds and building bridges.

“Humanity is in need of a renewed attention to how we relate to each other and to the world we inhabit,” write curators Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster in one of the texts accompanying the exhibition. “We tend to forget how small acts in our daily life can influence the larger whole and thus destroy or recreate a greater harmony between the spheres.”

One of these “small acts” is currently being performed by the Taiwan-born, New York-based artist Lee Mingwei who has taken up residence at the newly-enlarged Museum of Contemporary Art for The Mending Project. He sits at a table with 800 spools of brightly-coloured thread attached to the walls behind him. Members of the public are invited to present a ripped item of clothing to the artist and sit and chat to him while he fixes it. “I taught myself how to sew,” Mingwei says. “I just like to do things with my hands.” The artist, who chooses colours which contrast to the garments he is working on, says he is performing “very visible mending to celebrate the fact that these pieces of clothing have been greatly loved”.

Over on Cockatoo Island, a sprawling industrial site with nearly 150 buildings which has been both a prison and a ship-building yard in the course of its history, Nadia Myre from Canada is encouraging members of the public to pick up spools of thread themselves and apply it to small linen tablets so they can “sew their wounds” as part of The Scar Project creating images or text which relate to past traumas. Elsewhere on the site, Erin Manning, also from Canada, is inviting visitors to participate in Stitching Time—A Collective Fashioning a massive communal sew-in and tea-drinking event. This is a biennale of quiet domestic acts, celebrated because of their capacity to bring us together.

The hand of the maker is present everywhere in an exhibition that explores the female domain. Around half of the 100 artists from 40 countries included here are men but many of them are skilled in arts which are traditionally performed by women, such as the South African Nicholas Hlobo who has created an enormous whale-like creature rising up from Sydney Harbour to rest on a boat launch cradle, its long, wispy tail winding down to the water below. The animal, created from rubber and hosepipe, is festooned with ribbons that have been carefully embroidered through its rubbery body.

Like Hlobo’s marine monster, many of the works on show—nearly half of them made specifically for the exhibition—have been created from inexpensive materials such as paper, rope, ribbons and sand. Many are ephemeral and will not last beyond the biennale.

The artists here often “pay more attention to process than the end result of the object,” says the co-curator Catherine de Zegher in an interview with The Art Newspaper. Partly this emphasis is intended as an antidote to prevailing trends in the market. “The art market was taking over… and artists were being taught in school that they should know how to conduct business and [turn themselves into entrepreneurs]… often biennales are a big part of that process,” she adds. Not this one. Most of the funding for this exhibition has come from governments, cultural organisations and local philanthropists with only a handful of commercial galleries contributing towards the cost of showing their artists’ work.

“To a certain extent, we shied away from galleries and art fairs [when preparing the show],” says the co-curator Gerald McMaster. “We mostly talked to curators around the world.” The result is an exhibition of works that often resist commodification such as the New Zealand artist Tiffany Singh’s Knock on the Sky, Listen to the Sound, 2011, installed on Pier 2/3, the last undeveloped pier on Sydney Harbour. This consists of hundreds of wind chimes hanging from coloured ribbons which visitors are encouraged to play with. From 7 August, members of the public will be encouraged to dismantle the object by taking a wind chime home, decorating it, and then returning it to the show.

The works are participatory and often playful but many also contain strong political messages, says McMaster. “Beneath the surface, there are notions of war, immigration, racism, and violence,” he says, “but it’s not the most obvious thing.” This is a gentle, optimistic biennale which proposes that the way forward out of current political crises is through “collaboration, conversation and compassion,” in the words of the curators.

Nowhere is this more evident than in an installation by the Syrian artist Khadija Baker who lives in Canada. Her installation entitled Coffin-Nest, 2007-2012, was inspired by the mass graves discovered in Iraq. She says that the bodies discovered there were often so badly decomposed that clothing was used to identify the victims. She has collected garments from volunteers to create a swirling pattern with a circular basket at its centre made using “techniques I learnt from my grandmother,” says the artist. “In my art… I talk about women who have lost their sons, husbands or brothers, because of unstable political situations.” But the artist, whose family is still in Syria, says she has not lost hope. One sign of this is that the clothes in Coffin-Nest are arranged in the colour of a rainbow. After tragedy, comes the healing. “If we don’t have hope, why would we go on?” asks Baker.

A free biennale ferry service to Cockatoo Island from Circular Quay will operate throughout the run of the exhibition. For more info, see the Biennale of Sydney’s website.

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