Art Guide Australia | Review: The 22nd Biennale of Sydney makes witnesses out of us all

Josep Grau-Garriga. Installation view (2020) photographed in the Grand Courts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photograph: Zan Wimberley.

This could be the catch-cry of the Biennale which, titled from the Wiradjuri word NIRIN and meaning “the edge,” delivers the artist as witness and the art as evidence. Lauded by almost everyone, the Biennale has been called “confrontational” and “consequential,” often followed by the fact that it’s the first time the event has been curated by an Indigenous director; artist Brook Andrew. While it is rigorous and investigatory, it also has moments of stunning gentleness. With every artwork in some way referencing a social or political reality of life – whether Indigenous dispossession and displacement, environmental catastrophe, fights for sovereignty, conflict and violence, unchecked capitalism, or acute anxieties – the Biennale is, for all its poeticism, grounded in the resolutely factual.

Combining over 100 artists from 36 countries, there is no sense of detachment from the world: this is a privilege these artists simply can’t afford. There are no superstars or shining conceptualists. It wasn’t curated for Instagram. Instead, Andrew exudes great sensitivity in bringing together disparate artists, many of whom are Indigenous to various lands, drawing understandings between different conflicts, traumas, desires and hopes. Empathy is how the Biennale works.

Almost five months since the Biennale’s opening, two international events have altered its display at pragmatic and philosophical levels: Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. In some ways, the Biennale has come to seem more prescient than timely. For example, at the beginning of March on Cockatoo Island Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin began digging a grave in the exact shape of a statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. In May, protestors spray painted “sovereignty never ceded” and “no pride in genocide” on a Cook statue in Hyde Park, elevating calls for the removal of the monuments for their colonial resonance.

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