Nov 08 2013

Northern Lights at Sydney’s Biennale

by Michael Young

YINGMEI DUANHappy Yingmei, 2011, performance and sound installation. Photo by Lilith Performance Studio. Courtesy the artist.

EGLE BUDVYTYTEChoreography for the Running Male, 2012, performance, 30 mins. Photo by Ieva Budzeikaite. Courtesy the artist 

DOUGLAS GORDON, still from Phantom (2011), stage, screen, black Steinway piano, burned Steinway piano, monitor, video installation, HD video, 53 mins. Courtesy Studio Lost but Found and Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris. 

The 19th Biennale of Sydney’s artistic director, Juliana Engberg. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

There is nothing frivolous about Juliana Engberg—artistic director of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (BoS) You Imagine What You Desire”—you get what you see. She is likeable, vivacious, entertaining and quick to laugh but is susceptible, she confesses, to “a bit of intellectualism.”  Her ancestry is Danish and perhaps this heritage has dictated the biennale’s focus, which this year is strongly influenced by a Nordic and European sensibility. Among the more than 90 artists selected, there are 36 from Scandinavia and countries such as Lithuania and Poland and several from Northern Europe, France, Germany and Holland, for example.

In preparation for the Biennale, Engberg met with some 1000 artists over the past year, and the result is an impressive 31 countries will be represented. But, while the BoS—established in 1973—was the first biennale in the Asia Pacific to focus specifically on the region, this year’s exhibition displays a surprising lack in Asia Pacific offerings. Only four artists are from China, while Japan has just one. And there are no artists from India, Indonesia or Singapore, a fact for which Engberg remains resolutely unapologetic.

When questioned in regards to the lack of Asian artists, Engberg confessed to having only visiting China for the first time this year. In addition, she “didn’t want to duplicate other festivals such as Queensland Gallery of Art’s Asia Pacific Triennial or the content that can already be seen in Sydney galleries such as White Rabbit,” she told ArtAsiaPacific in an interview following her press conference last week. 

Instead she claims to be inclined toward a “Northern sensibility,” finding countries in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe “fascinating not only from an anthropological point of view but to have such an exciting vivid aesthetic.”

This year each venue of the BoS will have a specific theme. Carriageworks, for example, becomes “a cinematic stage for artists who use film and television as a readymade language.”

Cockatoo Island, an architectural heritage site in Sydney Harbour that has served at various times in its history as a prison and a shipyard, “is a destination, a fantasy island,” where Danish duo Randi and Katrine will build The Village, an anthropomorphized wonderland with buildings that have human features.

The island’s cavernous and challenging Turbine Hall, which in 2010 was home to Cai Guo-Qiang’s spectacular Inopportune: Stage One (2004), will be devoted to the work of Danish new media artist Eva Kochs who will show a towering, life-sized projection of an Icelandic waterfall accompanied by a roaring soundtrack.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales will be inhabited by Chinese-born Germany-based performance artist Yingmei Duan for 12 weeks. Yingmei has constructed a forest inside the gallery as part of Happy Yingmei (2011) where visitors are invited to meet and interact with the artist, who will dispense prophecies and poetic observations.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, visitors will be confronted with Douglas Gordon’s Phantom (2011), a large-scale mixed-media installation that uses the voice of musician Rufus Wainwright as a backdrop to a moving projection of his heavily kohl–encrusted eye.

But not every artist is confined within gallery walls; some will spill out onto the city streets. Lithuanian artist Egle Budvytyte will restage her work, Choreography for the Running Male (2012), in which a group of men run through the central business district.

Engberg, who currently presides over the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art as its director and was presented with the Australia Council Visual Arts Award earlier this year, hopes that people coming to the Biennale “encounter new things, to build memories, to find something tangible that they can’t find in their ordinary lives” and on a more profound level,  that works put people “back in touch with their inner self.” 

The 19th Biennale of Sydney: “Imagine What You Desire” will take place from March 21–June 9, 2014.

Michael Young is contributing editor to ArtAsiaPacific.