This Finite Earth - Biennale of Sydney 2012

The Art Gallery of NSW hosts an inspiring segment of this year’s Biennale of Sydney, writes Susie Burge


Guido van der Werve, 'Nummer Acht: Everything is going to be alright' - courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photograph: Ben Geraerts

The 18th Biennale of Sydney, Australia’s largest festival of contemporary art, opened last week. It’s spread over 4 key city and harbour venues: Art Gallery of NSW, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay. And this year, Carriageworks in Redfern is a presenting partner with an installation by Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens.

The overarching theme is “All Our Relations”, the works curated in a collaborative process by two artistic directors Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster. There’s quite a lot of impenetrable (yawn) artspeak surrounding the theme and the exhibition as a whole. Put simply, it’s a fascinating selection of artists, little known outside their own country or rarefied tranche of the contemporary art world. There’s an emphasis (in this digitised age) on connecting through craftsmanship. For Sydneysiders, a veritable rabbit warren of curious, challenging talent is here to explore.

The Biennale exhibit at The Art Gallery of NSW is sub themed “Finite Blue Planet”. The title functions successfully as a guiding thread, loosely linking diverse, thought-provoking, heartfelt works of art. A wall-sized film to video work “Nummer acht: everything is going to be alright” by Guido Van Der Werve, a 10 minute long shot of a man walking (perilously) in front of the enormous prow of an icebreaker is utterly mesmerizing. It’s paired with beautiful, pin sharp, large format aerial photographs of Caribou migrations over coal seams, over snow and ice, by Indian artist Subhankor Banerjee. This “big picture” view of the planet, the last frontiers, survival in such wild places, the lurking threat of climate change, morphs into another kind of fragility with Nipan Oranniwesha’s City of Ghost. Here, in a large raised square, ten actual cities are combined to make a kind of uber city, sculpted by sifting baby powder through cut-out maps. The talc (almost mysteriously) holds its form due to the humidity in the air, but of course could be blown into dust by a strong breath or dismissed by the brush of a hand. It’s almost impossible to photograph – everything fades to white. Nearby the map stencils sit curled in a glass case so we can imagine, a little, how it’s done. Along the opposite wall Yun-Fei Ji’s Chinese scrolls unfurl. Untilizing 500 woodblocks (these took an entire year to make, by master carvers and printers), watercolour wash, fine papers and calligraphy, the scrolls tell the story of the building of a reservoir on the Yangtze River and the massive change that ensued – 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes. It’s one of my favourite rooms in the exhibition, all pale tones and fugitive, delicate materials, an essay on the ephemeral nature of things. I felt I could spend hours in here, absorbed in subtle details, held in careful balance.


Nipan Oranniwesna, 'City of Ghost' - courtesy the artist and Osage Gallery, Hong Kong

Meticulously crafted sculptures made from designer shopping bags by Japanese artist Yukin Teruya (miniature worlds - trees, and entire constellations of stars) colonise another room and reconnect in terms of virtuoso workmanship to the stand out piece in the exhibition, “The Static Element” by young Chinese artist Gao Rong. It’s a full-sized memento of her grandmother’s small house, with every tiny detail embroidered. It’s extraordinary – the worn herringbone bricks on the floor, embroidered. The battered old chest, the weathered timber cabinet – all painstakingly embroidered. Right down to cooking utensils, floral tea flasks and family photographs hung on the embroidered wall. It’s humbling; a loving homage. Every detail seems real but everything is made strangely soft. It caused me to remember my own (Australian) grandmother’s house, equally a cultural time capsule, changing little over her lifetime, now fixed in the altered universe of memory.

Moving from generational and cultural change to memento mori, the last room in the show (before heading downstairs to exhibits in the lower gallery) packs a punch. I couldn’t look at Katrien Vermeire and Sarah Vanagt’s wall montage of photographs for long. It’s very intense, even brutal, documenting the gritty process of collecting and piecing together bones (bits of human bone in piles on bland daily newsprint) from a mass grave in order to identify victims. The work on the opposite wall resonates but is easier to take. In “Requiem N.N. 2006-11” Colombian artist Juan Manuel Echavarría has put together 50 lenticular prints, each 50cm square, pictures of graves created by local villagers for unknown bodies - N.N. stands for no name, legacy of violent massacres. “Adopting, as it were, these anonymous dead, the villagers saved their souls, but ask favours in return.” The highly coloured lenticular prints give a time lapse effect as you move along the work, like a cheesy souvenir postcard (bikini on, bikini off) except here the photographs show the graves change over time – different flowers, offerings, handwritten inscriptions. I loved this work and felt a desire to revisit it.


From top and clockwise: Katrien Vermeire, 'The Wave' - courtesy the artists and Balthasar. Juan Manuel Echavarría, 'Requiem NN 180' - courtesy the artist and Josée Bienvenu Gallery, New York. Gao Rong, 'Level-1/2, Unit 8, Building 5, Hua Jiadi Bei' - courtesy the artist.

Because the Biennale is held in quite separate parts of the AGNSW it’s tempting to digress (but still stay on message) when walking between the two areas. I strayed across to Rosslynd Piggott’s silken La Somnambule, ended up watching some of William Kentridge’s brilliant animated film “Tide Table” before turning back and catching sight of one of John Wolseley’s folded and crumpled bushfire drawings which act as ad hoc “Biennale this way” signs. Downstairs, I was stopped in my tracks by Michael Riley’s silver gelatin portraits Moree Murries 1991 before entering the final chamber. Soul food.

One down, 3 to go. Next stop, the decommissioned shipyards, sandstone tunnels and cavernous warehouses of Cockatoo Island, one of the most exciting exhibition venues around. Watch this space.

Sydney Biennale 2012

- Susie Burge, all rights reserved. welcomes your comments and feedback please email us at