CHRISTINE STREUL, installation view of gradually_real (2014) at the 19th Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island, 2014. Photo by Ben Symons. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Mark Müller, Zurich.

You Imagine What You Desire

19th Biennale of Sydney

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Desire can be an impish, whimsical affair. The 19th Biennale of Sydney, curated by Juliana Engberg, artistic director of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, was themed “You Imagine What You Desire,” and that desire was expressed in the form of the curious, the fantastical and the indulgent. Like Charles Ryder’s “low door in the wall” in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), the Biennale was the experiential equivalent of an “enclosed and enchanted garden”—occluded by urban venues and industrial settings.

This seemed to be the case for the most arresting works in the Biennale. There was Christine Streuli’s gradually_real (2014), for which she created a replica room within the structure it was modeled after. On cardboard walls set several feet away from their original counterparts, the details of the latter were carefully duplicated: doors, windows, exit signs and weathered bricks. Viewers were encouraged to traverse the narrow passage between the quirky installation and the room it inhabited—the slender margin between authenticity and artifice. Another standout piece was Eva Koch’s I AM THE RIVER (2012), a vertical, 12-meter-high video of a waterfall placed in a disused turbine hall on Cockatoo Island, the Biennale’s main venue. The work filled the empty space with light, movement and sound, emitting an overwhelming adrenaline rush of energy in the cavernous stillness. 

Nearby, a medieval Danish village was brought to life as a complex of whimsical, hobbit-sized buildings. The Village (2014), by artists Randi & Katrine, evokes a half-forgotten fairytale realm of Eldritch houses and talking objects. The turbine-hall setting lent The Village a cogency that it otherwise might not possess: set amid a landscape of abandoned machinery and rusting equipment, the installation seems to suggest the precariousness of childhood imagination, which nowadays is seduced and atrophied by the blandishments of digital entertainment. Elsewhere, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Mercy Garden Retour Skin (2014), Pipilotti Rist’s immersive video environment, ensnared the senses and beguiled the body. In a darkened room, viewers were invited to leave the everyday world behind, sink down into plump floor cushions and take in aquatic sequences that played out across the museum walls to the lush, dulcet strains of a Chris Isaak tune.

Overshadowing this year’s Biennale was the controversy surrounding the involvement of Transfield and the Belgiorno-Nettis family. Protesting against the Biennale’s ties to Transfield, which runs Australia’s offshore detention centers for asylum seekers, ten artists withdrew from the festival a month before its March opening. Eight later returned after Luca Belgiorno-Nettis stepped down as the company’s chairman. This brouhaha rather unfortunately foregrounded the myopia of Engberg’s vision for the Biennale. Around the same time, a riot occurred at the Manus Island detention center, resulting in one fatality and scores of injuries. In light of this situation, a biennial boasting fun rides, giant waterfalls and medieval villages seemed irrelevant at best and heedless at worst. 

Such larger-than-life works eclipsed smaller, politically engaged contributions that deserved higher regard, including Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson’s piece, Bosbolobosboco #6 (Departure–Transit–Arrival) (2014), which comprised recorded interviews with refugees embedded in a strange contraption that viewers were encouraged to sit on while listening to the audio. Resembling a mutant polyp or an alien plant-form, the sheer incongruence of the contraption became a political statement in and of itself, declaring dissent through visual dissonance. (Castro and Ólafsson were among the artists who dropped out but later returned.) Other poignant works included This Is Before We Disappear from View (2014), Sonia Leber and David Chesworth’s aural collage of over 100 voices exploring histories of detainment and incarceration, and Michael Cook’s “Majority Rule” (2014), a black-and-white photographic series in which reiterated images of an Aboriginal man hint at contemporary issues plaguing Australia’s indigenous communities.

Perhaps it was one of Nathan Coley’s site-specific text-based installations that embodied the topos of desire most straightforwardly. The work, which sat at the edge of Cockatoo Island’s Eastern Apron, staring out at the sun-dappled surface of the Parramatta River, consisted of a lonely sign that read: “You Create What You Will.” Quite so, indeed.