‘Unacceptable to lose’: Sydney Biennale in time of climate crisis

Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton will make a "hyperactive retelling" of the story of bushranger Ned Kelly as one of 98 artists, creatives and collectives from more than 25 countries confirmed for the 2020 Biennale of Sydney.

The artistic program for the Biennale’s 22nd edition foregrounds unresolved anxieties around the climate crisis and the quest for sovereignty and self-determination among Indigenous peoples worldwide.

Artists Jota Mombaça, Kim Williams, Andrew Rewald and Lucas Ihlein, Little Bay, some of the 98 artists, creatives and collectives confirmed for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney.Credit:Louise Kennerley

The first installation is already underway with trained chef-turned-visual artist Andrew Rewald building a community garden inside the grounds of the National Art School, which features an arbour constructed from the original prison gates of Darlinghurst Goal.

The public has been invited this weekend to help plant out the Rewald's Alchemy Garden with Indigenous and non-Indigenous edibles. The garden will serve as an art installation, botanical retreat and venue for public workshops and events on flora, cookery and ecological awareness when the Biennale opens on March 14.

As the first Indigenous Australian artist appointed as artistic director of The Biennale, Brook Andrew has taken a word from his mother's tongue, the Wiradjuri word NIRIN – meaning edge, for the title of the three-month show.

The show's full list of artists has been launched at Little Bay, with views to the cliffs where Christo and Jean Claude installed their monumental work Wrapped Coast.

Little Bay is also an important place of unbroken connection to country for its traditional Indigenous people, according to the Biennale's chief executive officer Barbara Moore, and like the upcoming Biennale tells a story of cultural survival.

More than 854,000 visitors came to see the Biennale's last edition, the largest audience in its 45-year history, Moore said. Compared to other global art events, this made it bigger than the Venice Biennale, the Asia Pacific Triennial and almost double the attendance numbers of the Sydney Festival.

Artists Arthur Jafa, Gina Athena Ulysse, Barbara McGrady, S.J Norman, Nicholas Galanin and Lhola Amira are also developing work for the three-month-long exhibition.Credit:Louise Kennerley

Each Biennale has contributed $35 million to the local economy, she said. But that was not why the Biennale existed. "The purpose of the Biennale is to support artists who are observing what is happening in the world today," she said. "We create a safe place for people to think about and talk about issues that matter."

Brazilian performance artist Jota Mombaca is working on a video-audio performance piece that juxtaposes the struggle for transgender identity with that of earth's survival and the burning of the Amazon Rainforest.

Describing themself as an "active pessimist", giving up on climate action is not an option. "Even if things get worst we have to do something. It's not acceptable to lose," says Mombaca.

Cartoonist Andrew Marlton, known as First Dog on the Moon, is developing work for the exhibition, along with Queensland Indigenous artist Tony Albert, whose art explores contemporary legacies of colonialism, while the Nyinkka men’s art collective, The Tennant Creek Brio, are known for their graphic line work and references to mythological figures.

Artists Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams, who collaborate to explore complex environmental problems such as the project Sugar vs the Reef? , will be creating an installation at Cockatoo Island referencing the climate emergency while driving the Biennale's aim to run as plastic-free as possible.

That's a message they are also taking to other artists.

"Traditionally artists have said, 'Whatever material we need to use to make our artwork, it's worth it because we are going for a higher goal which is aesthetic perfection'. And now we are at the dawn of this awareness where the end does not always justify the means," Ihlein says.

The exhibition will include works across six sites at the Art Gallery of NSW, Artspace, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Art School.

For the first time, the Biennale will partner with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Blacktown Arts Centre, Parramatta Female Factory and Bankstown Poetry Slam.

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