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What To See At The Sydney Biennale


For the next few months, the 21st Biennale of Sydney will take over the city.

At the helm is curator Mami Katoaka, whose main gig is as chief curator at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. The major exhibition spans multiple locations across the Sydney, featuring the work of 70 artists and collectives from 35 countries responding to the theme ‘SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement’.

Since its inception in 1973, the Sydney Biennale has been known for its boundary-pushing exhibitions featuring major global artists. Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei is the headlining artist for this 21st iteration, with two major installations, a documentary screening and a keynote address centred around rights for refugees – or as he stresses – human rights.

We scoured the program (so you don’t have to!) to assemble this must-see list.

16th March, 2018

Ai Weiwei, ‘Law of the Journey’. Photo – courtesy of the Sydney Biennale.

Sally Tabart
Friday 16th March 2018

1. Ai Wei Wei ‘Law of the Journey’

The prolific Chinese contemporary artist and Biennale headliner brings a politically-fuelled installation of epic scale to Carriageworks. Law of the Journey features a 60-metre inflatable boat lined with over 300 larger-than-life human figures huddled in life jackets and packed in body-to-body. The installation is made from the same rubber used to manufacture the vessels that carry refugees across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, towering above onlookers and filling the cavernous space.

Ai Weiwei has gained celebrity status through his activist artwork, and is outspoken about the Australian government’s shameful treatment of refugees in offshore detention centres. Law of the Journey forces visitors to visually comprehend and confront the plight of refugees.

Ai Weiwei Law of the Journey

Cockatoo Island

Mit Jai Inn, ‘Planes (Hover, Erupt, Explode)’. Photo – courtesy of the Sydney Biennale.

2. Mit Jai Inn ‘Planes (Hover, Erupt, Explode)’

Sometimes looking into an artist’s workspace is as impressive as the actual artwork they create. For Mit Jai Inn, that’s kind of the point. Considered a pioneer of Thai contemporary art, Mit’s Planes (Hover, Erupt, Explode) looks like the abandoned studio of an eccentric (and giant) artist, where the visible process of creation is as important as the final product.

Defying traditional methods of display, the works hang haphazardly, layered with dense, painterly texture. Draping, looping, suspending and unfurling canvases from great heights, Planes (Hover, Erupt, Explode) traverses multiple levels of the space at Cockataoo Island, where the artist has spent months developing this site-specific work.

Mit Jai Inn Planes (Hover, Erupt, Explode)

Cockatoo Island

Maria Taniguchi, Untitled. Photo – courtesy of the Sydney Biennale.

3. Maria Taniguchi ‘Untitled’

Leaning up against a wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Maria Taniguchi’s work seems innocuous enough. Look a little closer and you’ll notice that what looked like textural details from a distance, are actually rows and rows (and rows and rows) of tiny bricks. The labour-intensive, process-driven task of bricklaying acts as a symbol for Maria’s own work as an artist.

The young Filipino artist who lives and works in Manila is known for her brick paintings, which she started making 10 years ago. Meticulous and disciplined, Maria draws out a grid and painstakingly paints one brick at a time until the canvas is filled. This ritual has become part of Maria’s daily routine.

Fluid, sculptural works hang adjacent. The languid ‘O’ and ‘I’ formations made out of Java Rod are invisibly suspended as though hovering in the thin air, acting as a relief from the rigidity of the ominous brick painting.

Maria Taniguchi Untitled

Museum of Contemporary Art
140 George Street, The Rocks

Marlene Gilson, What If?. Photo – courtesy of the Sydney Biennale.

4. Marlene Gilson

Over at the Art Gallery of NSW, Wathaurung Elder Marlene Gilson presents an alternative to what the history books tell us. Taking up painting later in life while recovering from an illness, in her work Marlene reflects on stories of Wathaurung history she was told by her grandmother. In her detailed, narrative paintings, Marlene reclaims the past by re-contextualising typically ‘Australian’ events like Captain Cook’s landing and Botany Bay and Eureka Stockdale, from an Indigenous perspective

Marlene Gilson various works

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, Sydney 

Semiconductor, Earthworks and Where Shapes Come From. Photo – courtesy of the Sydney Biennale.

5. Semiconductor ‘Where Shapes Come From’ and ‘Earthworks’

Who would have thought numbers, graphs and spreadsheets can form the basis of art? Even if spreadsheets aren’t for you, you’ll be amazed by Semiconductor’s large-scale video works, formed completely by data!

Exploring the intersections of art, science, and technology, UK-based duo Semiconductor have brought two major video installations to the Biennale, Earthworks at Carriageworks and Where Shapes Come From at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

An everlasting loop of mesmerising pulsations and undulations, Semiconductor use seismic data (aka. the information measured from vibrations of the earth) gathered from landscapes and terrains around the world as a way to control animation and sound of their work.


Earthworks at Carriageworks
245 Wilson Street, Everleigh

Where Shapes Come From t Cockatoo Island


See the full program for 21st Biennale of Sydney at

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The Design Files acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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