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Art in between spaces
Organised to a number of themes and distributed in seven distinct “embassies”, the artworks of the 20th Biennale reinforce the strengths of the format in between spaces.
A Biennale is a unique network of relationships between different works over multiple sites. It connects the artists to one another, the works to the sites, the curators to the funding opportunities and public relations.
It is these relational forces that have most likely driven the popularity of biennales worldwide, as they reinforce networks moving art and people around. Yet the urban staging of a biennale ties the work to something other than a global art circuits, providing artists with an opportunity to situate their work and respond to the politics, history, culture and contours of the location. It is this identification with a specific locality has prompted some of the most interesting provocations of the 20th Sydney Biennale.
Commissioned for the biennale, Bo Christian Larsson’s Fade Away, Fade Away, Fade Away is a performance and installation specific to Camperdown Cemetery in Newtown, which has been unused for burials since 1848. Three seamstresses sit in a shipping container, making white covers for the gravestones and headstones. The artist was inspired by history of the site, and claims to equalise the differences between the people buried by covering up the headstones with their stories in a romantic setting of a disused graveyard. But is the only way we can seek equality by removing our differences and merging into a monochrome? Sydney newspaper The Daily Telegraph claimed that some residents had objected to the headstone covers, a demonstration of how much conflict the responsiveness of these situated works can give rise to.
The unpredictability of this increased flexibility perhaps makes the works involved more suited to political activism, but also gimmicky city branding. In a way this maybe why some gestures of the 20th Biennale have become so explicitly activist, distinguished from the brash entertainment of other urban events hosted in Sydney.
Curator Stephanie Rosenthal has organised the event according to a number of themes, with most works located in one of seven distinct “embassies”. However, experimentation, political expression and precise commentary on the spatial politics of the city, are best exemplified by the “in-between spaces” of the 20th Biennale, an additional category of curated work which resists thematic categorisation, closely tied as they are to the sites which host them. The works “in-between”’, reinforce the strengths of the biennale format – more exposed and unprotected, reaching out into the city to engage with its beauty, inequality and drama. It is by taking these risks with in between spaces that the Biennale format reaches maximum potential.
Situated front centre of the MCA Forecourt, Richard Bell’s work titled Embassy is interestingly categorised as a work “in-between” the official biennale “embassies”. He applies the symbolism of the tent to explore activist ideas of indigenous possession, ownership and rights, referencing the 1972 tent embassy protest on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra to campaign for land rights for Indigenous people. “The fact that it was to be a tent embassy that was almost instantly replaceable was also genius,” Bell says, “I decided to develop an artistic response that would pay homage and respect to all those involved in that momentous event”.
For several days Embassy hosted a series of events primarily focused on educating and engaging young people. The impermanence, accessibility and blatant resistance of a tent put up in a city of monuments and corporate headquarters, made it a platform for marginal voices. Embassy faced away from landmark Sydney Opera House and the dazzling blue waters of Sydney Harbour, directing the focus instead to talks, videos and discussion inside the tent.
A high proportion of the “in between spaces” are located here in Redfern. In the 1960s many Indigenous people lived here, employed as workers at the nearby Eveleigh Railway Yards or nearby factories. After a spate of evictions, in 1972 a federal government grant allowed the Aboriginal Housing Corporation to commence buying houses for management by indigenous people. Only a few kilometres from the business centre of the largest and most expensive city in Australia, it is hotly contested, a base for Indigenous people travelling to Sydney – an embassy, perhaps – but also irresistibly lucrative for developers and government who are developing the area.
The art works are found in corridors, street corners and vacant spaces, mostly in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, easy to stumble across randomly. A work by Oscar Murillo, meandering – blank wall (unfinished) on Abercrombie Street, inserts scaffolding in the space between two buildings. People walking to Sydney University or Redfern train station may turn the corner to find a wall of 12,000 mirrored dots, What Remains is an installation in Redfern by Daniel Boyd. Boyd’s mirrored circles reflect the transience of passers-by, a metaphor for the intense period of change and development in the area, constantly bringing resulting in a new and contradictory image of the area.
Around the corner from David Boyd’s work is Keg de Souza We Built This City an architectural installation which also hosts an educational and event forum, the Redfern School of Displacement. For this project De Souza created a large-scale inhabitable installation out of salvaged tents that were cut apart and sewn together to make a unified large-scale shelter. De Souza says, “The work responds to the growing tent settlements around inner city Sydney due to rising homelessness (such as outside the central train station) and in reference to the Redfern neighbourhood with the recent Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy that was set up to protest the proposed commercial development being prioritised over Indigenous housing.” In this way the work signifies many of the themes of the biennale and its core idea that is based on a quote by William Gibson, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. Tent settlements across the city, signify the way displaced people now fill Sydney’s cracks and in between spaces.
Like Bell, de Souza emphasises the engagement and educational potential of her project, arguing for the potential of community engagement to resist dispossession. A related tour called Redfern-WaterlooTour of Beauty hosted by urban activist collective SquatSpace around the area, looking at sites of historic importance, including a memorial, murals, and sites of redevelopment.
Another of the in-between spaces is occupied by Archie Moore’s Home Away From Home (Bennelong/Vera’s Hut). Located high on a hill in the Botanical Gardens overlooking the Sydney Opera House, it is a reconstruction of the hut that was given to the Aboriginal man Bennelong in 1790 by Governor Arthur Phillip. Kidnapped by Phillip, Bennelong was later bestowed with gifts form the governor in order to ease the transition of the new colony. Yet the interior recalls Moore’s own personal experience, referencing the hut of Moore’s grandmother in Glenmorgan, Queensland. The work thus highlights the possibility of new connections forming through the receipt and donation of a gift, not the house, as immediately perceived, but rather the beautiful Gadigal country of Sydney.
Keg de Souza’s last event at the Redfern School of Displacement for the 20th Biennale of Sydney was on the 28th May at 1pm, titled Dispossession and displacement through enforced and prioritised language.