Sheila Hicks expects grand themes to be woven at the Sydney Biennale, writes Michaela Boland
Sheila Hicks is a yarn spinner, a textile artist who for more than five decades has straddled the disciplines of architecture, design and art. She has a masters in fine art from Yale University and a 42-page curriculum vitae boasting group and solo shows staged in cities across the world.
Thrice married and a grandmother several times over, the vivacious 80-year-old artist with a short silver mane comes across a woman who lives and loves well. Having spent the formative years of her practice from the 1960s onwards in Mexico and Paris, Hicks now divides her time between the French capital and New York, where her husband lives.
Even amid the varied canon of contemporary art, Hicks is unique: she has made a name delivering top-end architectural commissions too numerous to note and interspersed her practice with installations of wild, seemingly chaotic creativity. Just don’t tell her she’s been lucky. When we connect via a phone call between Sydney and Paris ahead of the exhibition of Hicks’s The Embassy of Chromatic Delegates, 2015-16, at this month’s 20th Biennale of Sydney, she says her life among the yarn is a dedicated pursuit. “I just feel smart because you know it is a choice [to do this sort of work],” she says of the work, a monumental knitted installation that will occupy the entry and interior at the Art Gallery of NSW. “It doesn’t drop from heaven.” Hicks grew up in Detroit during World War II and began working with fibre when her grandmother taught her to pick up a thread before the age of 10. She later trained at the Bauhaus, where painting and sculpture dominated, but she never lost her passion for textiles.
At London’s Hayward Gallery in Southbank, Hicks last year installed a series of oversized, colour-drenched pillow-like masses on which visitors were invited to lounge. The Hayward, dedicated to contemporary art, is run by Stephanie Rosenthal, who is also artistic director of this year’s Biennale of Sydney.
Hicks’s work for the biennale, created from the same material as that which made up her Hayward exhibits, will be the centrepiece of AGNSW’s involvement in the event.
“It’s a pigmented, very special fibre that people use for outdoor furniture and sailboats, so it’s especially good for [Australia’s climate],” Hicks says.
“[The work is comprised of] plain colours but the pigment comes from Turkey and is then imbued with acrylic and spun and woven into fabric we are using as cords and textiles.” Hicks will also dress one of the grand old sandstone columns at the entrance to the AGNSW.
“I call it the welcoming column, but I also call it the inquiring column because everyone who sets foot in the gallery is wondering what they’re going to see,” she says. (The official title is Questioning Column, 2016.)
“The column will tell you ‘Ready, get-set, go’ because you’re walking into Stephanie Rosenthal’s show.”
Hicks believes international art biennales can be platforms to nut out the big ideas, although she was unimpressed with last year’s Venice Biennale, where curator Okwui Enwezor assembled what she considers to have been an aggressive show, “confrontational and off- putting for many people”. She hopes the Sydney Biennale will move on from Enwezor’s excolonial themes and be a plank for discussion about global dispossession.
“People do need to get their anger out, but when their anger subsides they need dialogue,” Hicks says.
The title for Rosenthal’s biennale is The Future is Already Here — It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed.
“She has a provocative title for the biennale. It’s all about everyone not getting a square deal in the world, imbalance in terms of the distribution of power and wealth,” Hicks says.
Previous Sydney Biennale themes have tended to get lost in the sprawl of an exhibition that plays out across a host of city venues, featuring artists from across the world. The topicality of Rosenthal’s theme may lend this year’s biennale a little more cohesion, however.
Hicks’s contribution was conceived during a summer of immense social turmoil as Europe found itself in the grip of the Middle Eastern migrant crisis; and it was created in the shadow of November’s Paris attacks.
“There’s no two ways,” Hicks says of the relationship between an artist’s practice and the environment in which they exist.
“Artists cannot isolate themselves in their studios. You’re part of this society that’s in this tumultuous, confrontational quest for harmony. This is what we’re living with, in a joyful cohabitation — there’s a trauma every day.”
Hicks says Sydney’s location on the Pacific Rim is a peaceful distance from the drama of dispossession dominating the Middle East and Europe, which makes the biennale an appropriate forum for discussing these issues.
She views international art biennales as a thematic continuum, noting that the regional and broader international political context will colour how Australians view the associated works of art.
The theme of dispossession is nothing new for Australia or the Sydney Biennale. Controversy washed up on the shore of director Juliana Engberg’s 2014 event when artists and activists objected to sponsorship from Transfield — a security company whose affiliate business had been contracted by the federal government to provide asylum-seeker accommodation at con-
A work by Sheila Hicks on display in Basel, Switzerland, left; the artist, below