All in the name of art: the Sydney Biennale 2010

by zara

A world of exciting contemporary art has just arrived in Sydney, Australia - and is there until August. Visit the thought-provoking works to see the best - or maybe the worst - of today’s art


A strange meeting

Today I encountered Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a heavy breathing Fidel Castro and a Two Faced C**t - but I hasten to assure you that they are all part of the contemporary art at the 17th Sydney Biennale, the latter by no lesser artists than our own (British) Chapman brothers.

The Biennale opened on 12th May and runs until 1st august; there are some 440 works by artists from 26 countries and when you see the art on display the achievement in setting up such an exhibition is staggering.  Pieces are scattered in seven major locations round the city so even if you have no interest whatsoever in contemporary art it would be difficult to avoid them totally.

An innocent stroll in the Botanic Gardens will reveal a giant red inflatable lotus flower, floating somewhat incongruously in the middle of a pond. Every minute it deflates, only to rise again in its splendour. Further round, the opera house has a 10 m high luminous green ‘germ’ made from plastic baskets; inside it resembles a labyrinth and has a strangely ethereal quality.

Cockatoo Island

These two works are by Choi Jeong-Hwa, a New York based artist and designer. He is also responsible for the most striking piece of work on Cockatoo Island, involving nine cars rotating through space in an arc of detonation with pulsing light rods, ‘signifying a coexisting violence and beauty..’

The cars are in the vast Turbine Hall which dates back to the early 20th century when the place was a naval dockyard and shipbuilding facility. Originally a convict island, they built the first docks in 1850. In the 2nd world war it had great importance, refitting submarines as well as navy destroyers. The dockyard closed in 1992, but there are still many old buildings and workshops in various states of decay.

Today these make the most perfect Biennale locations: a warren of buildings where one can wander at will, from the vast concrete wasteland of the bottom level to the smaller living blocks as one winds up the island’s hill. Many are dusty and forlorn, with rusting machinery and cobwebs, broken sinks and empty cupboards. Some have no electricity and it can all feel quite spooky as the shadows lengthen and the light fades.

Turn a corner to be confronted by sound and the flickering lights of a video or, in a bizarre piece called ’Summit’ by Chinese artist Shen Shaomin, full sized waxworks of the mummified ‘corpses’ of the 4 great Communist dictators and one breathing Fidel Castro on a hospital bed in full fatigues.

Shen Shaomin also has some tortured bonzai trees at the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in the Rocks, another Biennale location. Outside the building is a striking bright silver metal piece by Roxy Paine (USA) reminiscent of a large tree with its roots exposed.

The Art Gallery of NSW also has some pieces in it‘s central hall, but the entertainment does not end there: there are films, lectures, and tours throughout the festival, all of which are detailed in the free Biennale guide or at

Where to eat

The Botanic Gardens restaurant (Palm Grove Centre, Mrs Macquarie’s Road; +61 2 9241 2419; is a peaceful choice for lingering in gardens on a breezy terrace. Starters are around $20; main dishes $26-$32 dollar. There is a café below it.

The Art Gallery of NSW (Art Gallery Road. The Domain; +61 2 9225 1744; has a smart ground floor restaurant which is light and airy with great views over Woolloomooloo wharf. Starters are $18 - 21; the pheasant and guinea fowl terrine was good. Barramundi comes with borlotti beans and a sweet and sour onion sauce ($32), or pork cheek with pickled cabbage, apple and calvados sauce ($29). They also do a big afternoon tea between 2 - 4pm for $25 or $33 with bubbles.

Downstairs, their café has a little terrace with a water view and a lighter menu. Caesar salad is $10, a Croque Monsieur $9, a soup and sandwich deal for $15. They even do breakfast starting at 10am.

The MCA (Circular Quay West; +61) 2 9245 2400; restaurant is one of my favourites: their terrace has a great view of the harbour and opera house. There is a Biennale menu of $29 for a main course and a glass of wine. The slow braised beef was very rich and hearty: Sydney is now getting into slow food for the winter.

On Cockatoo Island there is a little kiosk and café but you could just have a waterside picnic and enjoy the views.

Where to stay

I like the trendy Potts Point area for its great location and diverse cafes and restaurants. Macleay Lodge (71 Macleay Street, Potts Point; doubles from $70) has simple rooms, but the place is clean and friendly and excellent value. Breakfast is not included but that’s a bonus as you can try all the great local pavement cafes instead.

Victoria Court (122 Victoria Street, Potts Point; doubles $100-130) is a smart old Victorian building with spacious ensuite bedrooms, with comfy beds: continental breakfast and paper included.

The Macleay Serviced Apartments (28 Macleay Street, Potts Point; doubles from $140). For a little more money you can get a smart apartment and for $160 a twinkling harbour view. They have a pool and room service from the neighbouring restaurants.

The Cockatoo Island; (+61 2 8898 9774; Sites from $45. Double tents with mats, chairs and lantern from $90) campsite’s ready-erected tents make the place resemble a bit of a ‘tent-city’ and I have a horrible feeling that it is going to attract a lot of school groups. However the facilities are good, generally it should be a peaceful spot and it has great views. The central Circular Quay ferries ( ) pass regularly though the attractive Balmain peninsula and Rozelle with great shopping and dining opportunities are also handy.

A bone of contention

As my husband and I took the (free) ferry back to Circular Quay from Cockatoo Island, I mused on the Biennale title: The Beauty of Distance; Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age and how it had a Damian Hurst ring.

Trying to remember the title for the pickled shark, I came up with ‘The unbelievable….?’ My husband butted in: ‘ The unbelievable reality that someone has spent money to see this!’ I pointed out that he hadn’t (it’s all free) and to stop whinging.

Contemporary art is controversial, it divides opinions but will always give you a talking point. Visit the Biennale and make your own mind up.