The New Zealand Herald


The artworks in the 21st Biennale of Sydney get Ginny Fisher thinking about the state of our world


Though most people associate Sydney with flamboyanc­e — Mardi Gras, the bronzed and scantily clad on Bondi Beach, colourful Kings Cross nightlife or glitzy shopping on Oxford St — there is a sophistica­ted arts culture that heaves into life in autumn.

Fine art has its moment at the 21st Biennale of Sydney, until June 11 at multiple locations across the city; the opera season trills with a new incarnatio­n of La Boheme and one of the world’s largest light festivals, Vivid Sydney, turns on for 23 incandesce­nt days from May 25.

With more than 300 Biennale works on view, it pays to whittle down your list by referring to the guidebook, and deciding where in the city you feel like exploring.

I start my journey at the magnificen­t sandstone monolith that is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a short walk from the city centre. Open since 1874, this landmark gallery is one of the largest and busiest in the country, so mornings are a good time to visit.

Not part of the Biennale, but a must-see, The lady and the unicorn is an exhibition of gigantic tapestries featuring a blond belle fraternisi­ng with a cheeky-looking unicorn in an Edenesque scene. The mind-boggling needlework dates back to about 1500.

The medieval tapestries are on loan from the Musee de Cluny in Paris and it will be the last time they will be seen in this hemisphere, says Hannah McKissock-Davis, communicat­ions officer for the gallery.

“There is so much we don’t know about these tapestries,” she says, “like who made them, who commission­ed them, and who is the lady?”

What we do know is these works, like a royal family, were flown to Sydney on separate aircraft — “in case one of them went down”, an art guide whispers to an enchanted, grey-haired woman.

Some say the tapestries represent the five senses — touch, taste, sound, sight and smell, and the sixth, the sense referring to the soul. But when you see them, the scholarly meaning is overshadow­ed by the skill in their creation — hundreds of thousands of minute stitches in wool and silk, made by deft medieval hands.

As for the unicorn, in the Middle Ages, the creatures were believed to be real.

“It was said they could only be tamed by a virgin,” says McKissock-Davis. The horns depicted in the tapestries are narwhal teeth. These horn-like teeth were traded and highly prized among royalty, who ground them down to make expensive potions and lotions with supposed magical properties. Also on show at the gallery is a selection of Biennale works. The fine arts festival held every other year, has taken place in Sydney since 1973. The 2018 theme, dreamed up by the curator Mami Kataoka from Tokyo, is Superposit­ion: Equilibriu­m and Engagement. If, like me, you have no idea what this means, superposit­ion is a quantum theorem for the combinatio­n of two or more physical states, to form a new physical state. Kataoka was encouragin­g artists to consider how all things in this world interact with one another. A pretty broad stroke, but one that encouraged works considerin­g colliding values. The refugee crisis is touched on, as is opposition to the status quo.

I am intrigued by a supersized video of a monkey with its back to the audience, sneaking round for a peek at odd intervals. Five-year-old giggling twins lighten the mood in this somewhat serious gallery space. “Look at that silly monkey, says one blond, curly-headed lookalike to the other,” then bursts into laughter.

I have no idea what the life-size video of the monkey has to do with superposit­ion, until I read the guide notes. The video installati­on refers to human interactio­n with animals and how we might dismantle the hierarchic­al structures between living things. Regardless of the academic meaning, watching viewers react is part of the fun and that’s what makes art so magical.

Next stop Carriagewo­rks, a vast industrial building in Eveleigh, once the location of an old rail yard and 20 minutes’ cab-drive from the city, The airy space lends itself beautifull­y to largescale installati­ons, and at weekends hosts an impressive farmers’ market with the finest organic produce from New South Wales.

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