The art works included in the 21st Biennale of Sydney get Ginny Fisher thinking about the state of our world.
While most associate Sydney with flamboyance — think Mardi Gras, the bronzed and scantily clad on Bondi Beach, colourful Kings Cross nightlife or glitzy shopping on Oxford St — there is a sophisticated arts culture that heaves into life in autumn.
Fine art has its moment at the 21st Biennale of Sydney, on show until June 11 at multiple locations across the city; the opera season trills with a new incarnation of La Boheme and one of the world largest light festivals, Vivid Sydney, turns on for 23 incandescent days from May 25.
With more than 300 Biennale works on view, it pays to whittle down your list by referring to the guidebook, and to decide where in the city you feel like exploring.
I start my journey at the magnificent sandstone monolith that is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a short walk from the city centre. Open since 1874, this landmark gallery is one of the largest and busiest in the country so mornings are a good time to visit.
Not part of the Biennale, but a must-see, The lady and the unicorn is an exhibition of gigantic tapestries featuring a blond belle fraternising with a cheeky-looking unicorn in an Edenesque scene. The mind-boggling minute needlework dates back to French medieval times.
Made about 1500, the tapestries are on loan from the Musee de Cluny in Paris and it will be the last time they will be seen in this hemisphere, says Hannah McKissock-Davis, communications officer for the gallery.
"There is so much we don't know about these tapestries," she says, "like who made them, who commissioned them, and who is the lady?"
What we do know is these works, like a royal family, were flown to Sydney on separate aircraft — "in case one of them went down", an art guide whispers to an enchanted, grey-haired woman.
Some say the tapestries represent the five senses — touch, taste, sound, sight and smell, and the sixth, the sense referring to the soul. But when you see them, the scholarly meaning is overshadowed by the skill in their creation — hundreds of thousands of minute tapestry stitches in wool and silk, made by deft medieval hands.
As for the unicorn, they were believed to be real in the Middle Ages.
"It was said they could only be tamed by a virgin" says McKissock-Davis. The horns depicted in the tapestries are narwhal teeth. These horn-like teeth were traded and highly prized among royalty, who ground them down to make expensive potions and lotions with supposed magical properties.
Also on show at the gallery is a selection of Biennale works. The fine arts festival held every other year, has taken place in Sydney since 1973. The 2018 theme, dreamed up by the curator Mami Kataoka from Tokyo, is Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement. If, like me, you have no idea what this means, superposition is a quantum theorem for the combination of two or more physical states, to form a new physical state.
Kataoka was encouraging artists to consider how all things in this world interact with one another. A pretty broad stroke, but one that encouraged works considering colliding values. The modern day refugee crisis is touched on, as is opposition to status quo.
I am intrigued by a supersized video of a monkey with its back to the audience, sneaking round for a peak at odd intervals. Five-year-old giggling twins lighten the mood in this somewhat serious gallery space. "Look at that silly monkey, says one blond, curly-headed lookalike to the other," then bursts into laughter.
I have no idea what the life-size video of the monkey has to do with superposition, until I read the guide notes. The video installation refers to human interaction with animals and how we might dismantle the hierarchical structures between living things. Regardless of the academic meaning, watching viewers react is part of the fun and that's what makes art so magical.
Next stop Carriageworks, a vast industrial building in Eveleigh, once the location of an old rail yard and 20 minutes cab-drive from the city, The airy space lends itself beautifully to large-scale installations, and at weekends hosts an impressive farmers' market with the finest organic produce from New South Wales.
Carriageworks' Biennale works include Chen Shaoxiong's The Views, his final animation installation before his death. The work consists of four scenes projected on to large screens, similar to lit-up rice-paper screens. The images are loose ink renderings of what he saw through the window from his hospital bed — a lonely rail yard, birds in a bare tree, an industrial cityscape. After standing in front of them for a few minutes, parts of the drawings become animated, a dog mooches across the park, sniffing idly; a bird flutters, people push bikes along railway tracks. You wait to see more, and then you find the mark making and the beauty of these everyday scenes, you might otherwise miss.
Back on the waterfront, the Museum of Contemporary Art has a fine display of Biennale works and, if you're only in the city for a short time, this is the spot to see a large number of quality works in a small, easily navigable space. I fell for Swiss-born Marc Bauer's expansive table of monochromatic faience pottery, crafted by women in Brittany, France, from a factory that is now closed. Bauer has decorated each of the 60 vessels with black and white vignettes depicting everyday domestic life. This installation was the result of interviewing women who worked in the ceramics factory from the 1960s through the 1990s, and the accompanying works on paper tell a more detailed story of their struggle for emancipation and better working conditions.
Just a two-minute walk from the MCA is the ferry terminal, where I catch my 25-minute ride to Cockatoo Island. This is the site with the largest number of works and you require at least half a day to appreciate each one. The island is listed as one of the best surviving examples of colonial expansion through convict labour.
The most impressive work I see is here in a huge warehouse space; it's a fantastical and imposing installation of a 60m -long boat, crowded with refugees, by artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei. The boat and figures are inflatable and made from black rubber fabricated in a Chinese factory that also manufactures the flimsy vessels used by refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Along each side of this sculpture are quotes on the state of the human condition. One of the most relevant, for me, is by the philosopher Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian theologian: "Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you."
A good way to wrap up three days of artistic contemplation in this vibrant city, built by immigrants.
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The Biennale of Sydney runs until June 11.