The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The 18th Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island - mist, mystery and even some magic

Installation View 'Source', Ed Pien with Tanya Tagiq, Cockatoo Island, 18th Biennale of Sydney
I spent a cold winter's day wandering all over Cockatoo Island seeking out the works that I thought would be the most interesting / engaging / beautiful / exciting. Initially I was a little underwhelmed by Fujiko Nakaya's 'Fog' installation, first encountering it from the top of the hill and looking down into the crevice from which the clouds of mist emerge. However, at the end of the day, as I dragged myself wearily towards the wharf, I was engulfed in clouds of mist and fog, and the effect was quite magical. As expected, Li Hongbo's extraordinary folded paper installation, with brightly coloured AK47 machine guns, bullets and weaponry was a highlight. His gigantic 'paper man' was one of the most engaging works shown at the White Rabbit Gallery last year and the Biennale work didn't disappoint.

Li Hongbo, Ocean of Flowers2012 (detail), paper, dimensions variable

Child exploring 'Source' by Ed Pien withTanya Tagaq at Cockatoo Island, 18th Biennale of Sydney
Some of the most wonderful things, though, I discovered serendipitously, having had no idea what they would be like beyond the (rather poor in some instances) catalogue photographs. The Ed Pien installation was one of those. The small child in the photograph above was walking through the maze, her eyes shining in the dim light. As our paths crossed she looked at me and said, "This is magic!" And it was. I also loved the works by Cal Lane (as well as the lace patterns made of sand on the ground, a shipping container cut into flowery domestic lacy patterns) and the giant polystyrene machinery parts by Peter Robinson.

Cal Lane, Sand Lace, installation view, Cockatoo Island
Peter Robinson, Snow Ball Blind Time, polystyrene, installation view
Jin Nu's 'Exuviate 2: Where Have All the Children Gone", last seen in 'Beyond the Frame' at the White Rabbit Gallery, was even more touching and poignant installed in a bedroom of one of the heritage houses at the top of the island. Creepy and compelling, the tiny starched organza dresses appear to be floating in the air, mute testament to lost childhoods. Or an elegy for those that were never born as a result of the one child policy?

Jin Nu, 'Exuviate 2: Where Have All the Children Gone?' installation view at Cockatoo Island

Of course in 49 works on the island - often quite widely dispersed and sometimes hard to locate - there are misses as well as hits. And, frankly, I felt the shows at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art were better, more consistently engaging and at times quite wondrous. Yet overall this Biennale has made me feel optimistic  about contemporary art. It was not a Eurocentric Biennale in any way, and the most exciting works were, unsurprisingly, from Asia - particularly works by Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese artists. 

I have written 2 reviews of this Biennale for Dailyserving where I have talked about all my favourite works, including the fabulous embroidered installation by Gao Rong at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I hope to visit her at her studio in Songzhuang Artist Village in December. When she spoke about her practice at the White Rabbit Gallery I asked her how her fabric and embroidery works were viewed whilst she was studying in the Sculpture Department at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts (which may, I suspect, be rather heavy on the testosterone). She very charmingly deflected the question, but I would love to know more!
Monika Grzymala and Euraba Artists and Papermakers at the 18th Biennale of Sydney