20th Biennale of Sydney: The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed

A sci-fi-inflected enquiry into the twenty-first-century conception of reality

By Adeline Chia

Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable, 2015–16, heavy-duty fabric, metallised film, transparent film, polyurethane ink, fog machine, LED lighting, electronic wiring, dimensions variable. Photo: Ben Symons. Courtesy the artist and the 20th Biennale of Sydney Cécile B. Evans, Hyperlinks or It Didn't Happen, 2014, HD video, 22 min 30 sec.  Courtesy the artist and Barbara Seiler, Zürich


18 March – 5 June 2016, various venues, Sydney  

I am following the swaying haunches of a digital tiger. It’s moving to a place where, the voiceover says, “all of the body’s failures, its successes, don’t mean anything”. Sounds good. I walk. It’s a really poorly rendered tiger – blocky, neon-orange, wrongly weighted, thus a bit floaty – but it’s hypnotic and touching in the way that awful 3D animations are: you can’t believe someone has put in so much effort to make something only for it to look so bad. “Please don’t say this is virtual,” says the voiceover. “You are not virtually here.”

Where am I? In real life, in Dog Leg Tunnel, cut through a hill in one of Sydney Harbour’s largest islands, groping along clammy railings. I am wearing a virtual reality headset – something like a smartphone strapped inches away from my eyes – immersed in the stereoscopic video Preamble (2016) by the Belgian-American artist Cécile B. Evans. Her work dabbles in a funky digital occult, summoning new ghosts, computer-generated or otherwise. At the end of the tunnel, there’s a screen with a hi-res video copy of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman called Phil. Phil’s blinking a lot and jerking his head around. Each pore, freckle and strand of pale stubble is reproduced in uncanny hi-def. “I will always love him,” says a voice-software, though Phil’s lips don’t move. “I will always be here, lurking on this drive till they drag me to another, more climatised drive.”

Filled with ruined, jumpy intelligence, hyperreal yet disembodied, Phil could be the unofficial mascot of this year’s Biennale of Sydney, which, under the stewardship of curator Stephanie Rosenthal, is a sci-fi-inflected enquiry into the twenty-first-century conception of reality. The double-barrelled title, The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, a quote from sci-fi senior statesman William Gibson, lays out the cards. The first concern is about how technology may have already created a future that has superseded all our past projections. This impulse demonstrates itself in the biennale as a pleasantly buggy horology, where the old is made new and the new rendered somehow timeless, or at least imbued with a sense of déjà vu. A good poster boy for this would be Thailand’s techno-animist Korakrit Arunanondchai, who in his video, Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3 (2015–16), is seen in spiritual communion with an emissary from another realm: a drone.

The second thrust of the biennale, less thoroughly realised and spread out in bits and bobs, is about the unequal distribution of resources. So there’s talk about dispossession and displacement, a nervy issue in Australia, where most public addresses begin with acknowledgements of the traditional owners and the custodians of the land. Associated with the homeless and the disenfranchised, refugee tents make multiple appearances. There’s a gigantic offsite one by Keg de Souza titled We Built This City (2016), a makeshift shelter made up of stitched-together tents, used to host a series of public discussions about social justice called ‘The Redfern School of Displacement’ (Redfern is a working-class suburb in Sydney in the inevitable throes of gentrification). In front of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), artist-activist Richard Bell repitches the historic Aboriginal Tent Embassy that has been on the lawn of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra since the 1970s (Embassy, 2013–). Besides the huge sign saying ‘White invaders, you are living on stolen land’, there is a video showing various Sydney landmarks being blown to pieces.

As biennales go, this one is sanely proportioned. It is spread out across two main venues – former rail yard Carriageworks (now Australia’s largest multiarts centre), and Cockatoo Island, home to Phil – as well as several other satellite locations. These spaces are organised by subthemes into different ‘Embassies of Thought’, of which Cockatoo Island’s ‘Embassy of the Real’ is the strongest. There, the real, virtual and everything-in-between slides together with magnificent uncertainty. Entering the exhibition, you first have to pick your way through Korean artist Lee Bul’s installation Willing To Be Vulnerable (2015–16), which projects a future that is simultaneously heroic and defeated. Striped canvases depicting headless figures on unicycles hang from the ceiling and collapse in heaps around the site, like the scene of an apocalyptic circus. In these end times, a silver airship and blinking hot-air balloon, however, are still defiantly afloat. Another work requiring navigation is a new iteration of choreographer William Forsythe’s Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, No. 2 (2013), a field of swinging pendulums suspended from the ceiling. Dancing through the installation and avoiding being hit, the viewer engages in a spontaneous choreography. The more sedate can rest at Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue (2013), the Venice Silver Lion-winning video that unfolds in cascading windows on a computer screen while a voiceover raps out origin stories of the world. After this visual essay, she takes things offline with a smattering of voluptuous, biomorphic bronze sculptures.

Not all the embassies have this level of dynamism and confidence. The ‘Embassy of Transition’, set in Mortuary Station, the terminus of a railway line that used to ferry the dead and their bereaved to a nearby cemetery, is stoically illustrative. There, Taiwan’s Charwei Tsai has hung smoking incense spirals inscribed with words from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, from which waft the sweet-sickish smell of Buddhist temples and cultural appropriation (Spiral Incense, 2014). There’s more oxygen in the ‘Embassy of Non-Participation’, where Karen Mirza and Brad Butler put up a not-obviously-resistant resistance: they claim that withdrawal and nonparticipation can actually be an active political force. Is this semantic hair-splitting or a viable position? A bit of both, for me; in any case, it’s worth spending some time here. In Hold Your Ground (2012), inspired by an Egyptian pamphlet on ‘How to Protest Intelligently’, they use musical notation, choreography, text and images to issue instructions for effective rioting. (Pro tip for messing with armoured trucks: ‘You can also stick a wet towel in the vehicle’s exhaust to stop it’.)

Carriageworks, the last major venue, is the ‘Embassy of Disappearance’, where archaeological ruins, vanishing cultures and various ill-fitting offcuts are shoved together. There’s a lot to take in, and the curatorial muscle has also weakened considerably, oscillating between the patiently literal and patently random. You want disappearance? You get it to the letter in documentary films on dying indigenous cultures in Taiwan; an installation of old Japanese potsherds; a slideshow on the dilapidated, overgrown home of late elusive Colombian artist Norman Mejía… And so on.

There are some intriguing delegates in this embassy, but they keep to themselves. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Home Movie (2016), showing a cluster of burning rotating fans, is a churning inferno that spits the occasional flame like a dragon – but it’s in its own dark cave, divorced from the others. In the middle of the exhibition, South Korean artist Minouk Lim’s epic installation Strange Fruit (2016) stretches out, featuring a suspended shipping container shot through with bullet holes and paddling through the air with two gigantic oars. The journey is witnessed with patient malevolence by a circle of hybrid bystanders constructed from animal skins, antlers, cameras and lighting equipment. The entire business is so big and fearless that it seems churlish to fault its unbelonging – it creates its own diplomatic immunity.

This article was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of ArtReview.