Lonely Planet Writer

Ai Weiwei returns to Sydney Biennale with a remarkable work on the refugee plight

The biggest event on Sydney’s arts calendar, featuring 70 artists from 35 countries, the 21st Biennale of Sydney, is now showing at seven venues across the city until 11 June.

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, 2017. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous support from the Sherman Foundation.

One of the most exciting venues is Cockatoo Island, a World Heritage–listed former convict prison and shipbuilding site bang in the middle of Sydney Harbour. Unlike many safe and sanitised gallery spaces, in the rough industrial buildings here it feels as though you really could stumble into something dangerous. And that may very well be the idea.

Mit Jai Inn, Planes (Hover, Erupt, Erode), 2018, mixed media installation with paintings. Installation view (2018) at Cockatoo Island for the 21st Biennale of Sydney. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney. Courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC, Phnom Penh.  

Like biennale headliner Ai Weiwei’s work. His black-rubber, 60m-long, inflatable life raft called Law of the Journey dominates the exhibition hall and the conversation about this biennale with its commentary on the refugee crisis. It comes in the wake of controversy surrounding an artists’ boycott of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney in protest of then-chief-sponsor Transfield which was providing services in Australia’s contentious offshore asylum-seeker detention centres.

Curated by Mami Katoaka, chief curator at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum (MAM), the 2018 biennale makes a pivot towards the region with 40% of the artists coming from Asia. The theme, ‘Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement’ borrows the idea of superposition from quantum physics, referencing the ability of things to be in two distinct states at once. Many of the pieces draw on this theme of double meanings, creating illusions and uncovering submerged realities.

At Cockatoo Island, Thai artist Mit Jai Inn’s massive Planes paintings drape like curtains across the floor. Over at the Art Gallery of NSW Aboriginal artist Malene Gilson’s What If shows Aboriginal ships claiming sovereignty over a new land, while in Samson Young’s Muted Situation #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th, an orchestra’s instruments are silenced, leaving only the sounds of the musicians breathing, turning pages and rustling clothes.

Sosa Joseph, ‘Anywhere But Nowhere’, 2018, oil on canvas. five paintings: 122 x 91.4 cm; 122 x 91.4 cm; 60.4 x 100 cm; 60.4 x 100 cm; 76.2 x 61 cm. Installation view (2018) at the Museum of Contemporary Art for the 21st Biennale of Sydney. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai

Works are on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Carriageworks, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney Opera House and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Visits to Cockatoo Island are by ferry from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, Barangaroo or wharves along the Parramatta River.