Nirin, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, remained open in March while many other exhibitions closed. Now one of Australasia’s most important art events is going online.
“Nirin represents something like a spider’s web that connects people and ideas,” wrote Rosana Paulino in the catalogue for the Biennale of Sydney. “It is the border through which things stay attached. It is not about a hierarchy of ideas, but rather about being together. There is no centre or periphery, it’s like being in a digital cloud where everything is together.”
The words took on a new resonance in light of the closure of the Biennale’s six public venues on March 24 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nirin opened on March 10, despite other art events nationally and internationally having already been cancelled or postponed. It remained open for those 10 days in a constantly shifting form: public programmes cancelled and international guests quickly leaving. It now seems unlikely Nirin will regain its physical body. The exhibition is working with Google Arts and Culture to create a virtual programme of live content, walkthroughs, podcasts, interactive Q&As and curated tours.
Suddenly, a lot of art looks very different. Andrew Jafa’s ‘The White Album’ (2018) is a 40-minute sequence of video clips found online, broken up with portraits of the artists’ friends. If you spend enough time on the internet some of its found footage may be familiar – the 2017 meme of cyber goths dancing to Future’s ‘Mask Off’ sparked a murmur of recognition from the crowd when I saw it in Sydney. Jafa’s is a film about whiteness, and how whiteness inscribes and reinscribes itself through visual media.
Watching ‘The White Album’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where it sat inside the John Schaffer Galleries surrounded by 19th-century European art, the sense that it could continue forever – autoplay prompting the content to be consistently created and uploaded – was overwhelming. Now, the work seems to embody a constant and continuous mode of looking that truly has become life in isolation.
A number of other interventions were staged in the gallery’s grand courts, where the historic European and Australian collections usually hang in relative silence. ‘Milford Sound’ (1877-79) by Eugene von Guérard has a new neighbour in Waikato and Ngāpuhi painter Emily Karaka’s ‘Kingitanga ki Te Ao (They Will Throw Stones)’ (2020), one of a series of paintings by Karaka referencing the ongoing land dispute at Ihumātao. With their lashings of shocking neon blue, green, orange and yellow, Karaka’s paintings electrified the space. Next to von Guérard’s sublime romantic interpretation of Piopiotahi, this work reminded us that the imaging and imagining of the landscape has always been political.
Nirin is led by Brook Andrew, a multimedia artist of Wiradjuri and European heritage. He is the first Indigenous Australian artistic director in the biennale’s 47-year history. He is also its first artist as artistic director. Nirin is the Wiradjuri word for “edge”, a playful reference to the biennale’s situation, where the “cutting edge” of contemporary art practice is displayed in a local context, on the “edge” of centre. Many of the artists included work on the edges of the art world’s revolving constellations. None had been exhibited in any of the Biennale of Sydney’s previous iterations.
Across Nirin’s venues were placed groups of dollar-store nylon bags in familiar red and blue check. On one side was a landscape painting of the Northern Territory, on the other a statement: “Homeless on my homeland”, “My home is being destroyed”, “Family house full up”, “Grog is the big problem”, “No fracking!”. These were made by members of the Iltja Njtarra (Many Hands) Art Centre, directed by descendants and kin relatives of well-known 20th-century painter Albert Namatjira, painted in the Hermannsburg landscape style Namatjira developed. These itinerant images of country grounded the art that surrounded them. They pulled divergent narratives and concerns into place, foregrounding the biennale’s focus on community, land, and the retention and transmission of knowledge.
At the Campbell Town Arts Centre on Sydney’s south-western edge Ngāpuhi photographer John Miller and Ngāti Wai and Waikato Tainui architect and designer Elisapeta Heta collaborated on ‘Pouwātū’ (2020). The artists treated the idea of the archive as one of presence – pouwātū is a portmanteau or blend of the words pou (post) and wātū (present time) – asking how the gallery space might embody the kaupapa which Miller’s photographs of Māori political, protest and community movements from the last 50 years depict. Images were arranged in six thematic pillars that lined the gallery’s two parallel walls. At the far end of the space the categories gave way; movements and moments met in shelf-like vitrines. More of Miller’s extensive archive could be viewed on iPads in a reading space in the room’s centre.
A number of documentary practices like this were selected for Nirin – Barbara McGrady, a Gamilaroi/Gomeroi Murri Yinah photojournalist, was one example . It’s a decision that may reflect Andrew’s own interest in the archival, and point toward what he describes as the “world-building” capacity of art making.
Cockatoo Island, sitting in the middle of Sydney’s harbour, has held various roles in the colonial project of the city over the last two centuries: first as a penal establishment, later as a reformatory school and orphanage for young women, and finally as a major shipbuilding yard. With these changes came shifts to the landscape. Prisoners excavated sandstone to build the penal station and carved storage silos out of solid rock. Later, land was levelled and developed in the construction of the dockyards. It is a symbol of the violence, brutal manual labour, and crushing power that defined Australia’s frontier; histories that remain hauntingly present in its geography and architecture. If the Biennale of Sydney had an edge, this was it – the island has been an official venue since 2008, having only been made open to the public in 2007.
Cockatoo Island’s exhibition spaces of enormous warehouses and dark former barrack are demanding. Many artworks fought to hold their own presence here. Those that succeeded, like Tony Albert’s ‘Healing Land, Remembering Country’ (2020), engaged with the site, often at a large scale. Albert’s work, placed outdoors in a quiet square, was a greenhouse built to nurture native grasses and plants from around New South Wales. Visitors were invited to contribute a memory to strips of paper. These will later be planted, contributing to what the artist described as “not only the rejuvenation of land through planting, but the healing of land through historical truth”.
Artworks such as this demand maintenance and care, often working with natural resources and artistic practices that have been passed down through generations, reflecting on human and ecological histories. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is built on the site of first contact between Aboriginal Australians and Europeans, Christchurch-based Tongan artist Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka’s two ngatu ‘uli (black bark cloth) commemorated the relationship between the “two Queens of Hearts”, Queen Salote of Tonga and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. Placed on the floor, Maka’s expansive ngatu ‘uli told a story of connection across oceans that was at once personal, national and global in its scope. Also at the museum, Nonggirrnga Marawili’s bark paintings were records of the lightning strikes that hit Australia’s ‘Top End’ with incredible regularity. Painted in fierce colour, derived from earth pigments and recycled print toner, they conveyed Baratjula narratives of the landscape.
Over at the National Art School, formerly the Darlinghurst Gaol, Teresa Margolles’ ‘Approximation to the scene of the facts’ was an evocative and visceral tribute to recent victims of femicide in Sydney. Falling droplets of water, which had been scrubbed over the sites of murder, landed periodically on a row of 20 heated steel plates – one for each of the women killed. The impact of the drops had three immediate effects: a hissing sound, metallic smell, and a stain. With each droplet the steel face changed slightly, a wave of steam spreading across it as the reverberations of violence carry across families, communities and cultures. Margolles described cleaning the areas where the women died as a way of “lifting memory”: an act of maintenance that is both literal and conceptual.
The close attentiveness Nirin paid to our relationship with place feels instructive at a time like now when our physical movements are restricted, not only at national borders but within our own neighbourhoods; when the centre has well and truly fallen to pieces. More than ever we are reminded that these geographies of edges and centres are imagined. That the movement between them that we have taken for granted – movement that has allowed the biennale “circuit” to expand in the way it has – is not guaranteed.
Across Nirin’s physical venues groundedness and mobility, settlement and detachment sat in productive tension without losing sight of the specificities of the landscape where the biennale had been staged. How these qualities might be carried with it as it moves online remains to be seen.
we saw the multitudes
there were endless hosts
of creatures for our consumption
the birds took flight like
a shoulder of the land
rising into the air
schools of fish turned in the current
and the whole sun in all its glory
shone in the glint of their scales
we had endless land
clear sweet air to fill
a million million breaths
never would it run out
is it that we can see the edge of this
how today we cannot
– Taqralik Partridge, Inuit artist and poet at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney
Hanahiva Rose travelled to Sydney with the assistance of the Creative New Zealand First Nations Curators Exchange Programme