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Preview of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, In conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal, Artistic Director

Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable, 2015–16; heavy-duty fabric, metalised film, transparent film, polyurethane ink, fog machine, LED lighting, electronic wiring; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. Created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photographer: Ben Symons


Preview of the 20th Biennale of Sydney


In conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal, Artistic Director

The 20th Biennale of Sydney, The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed, under the artistic direction of Stephanie Rosenthal, opens to the public in Sydney, Australia, on 18 March and continues until 5 June 2016. For event information plus details about the Embassies of Thought, the attachés and the artists: https://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/20bos/

Amarie Bergman: The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed intriguingly hints at virtual realities and recollections of ‘info particles’ about recent astrophysical advances, especially space-time and simultaneous multi-universes, and accentuates an ever-increasing intuitive awareness we have about the continuum of reality. Can you tell me why the title was actually chosen?

Stephanie Rosenthal: There are two reasons since the title, divided in two parts, is a hybrid. The first part means the fact that I’m interested in The Now. My focus is on the artworks which are really helping us to understand the world we’re living in, at the moment, with all these changes - in relation to technology, our body and our perception - along with the ways we communicate / collect information and how we learn. All that’s really changed so dramatically in the last 20 years and I feel we really haven’t understood what it means to us: the advantages and disadvantages. Artists have always been good at finding an ‘alternate universe;’ also navigating the world we’re living in, really looking at where we’re at, yet anticipating what’s ahead of us. This is related to the fact that I think the future is already here. it’s just not evenly distributed reminds us that when we say we have all these technological tools, what we could call our big black mirror - the iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, smart phone - there’s a high percentage of the world which doesn’t have that mirror. And it means there’s a huge split. So what does this split mean and what may be its consequences? That’s why I gave the Biennale that title. It’s an older quote by William Gibson, a sci-fi writer who has always been someone who catches the scene, but it kind of talks about what is happening.  

Chen Chieh-jen, The Bianwen Book, 2014. Photograph: Chen Chieh-jen Studio

AB: You came up with a (r)evolutionary protocol for this Biennale: the inclusion of an exclusive team of 13 Attachés made up of eminent curators, writers and theorists to work with you to shape the exhibition. How has it focused your attention not only to orchestrate your vision about what was possible but also amplify it?

SR: The idea of having the Attachés was to enlarge my own knowledge horizons. I wanted them to advise me on what artists are interesting, which ones to look at and have conversations with, gather information, and also act as a sounding board. At the same time, I wanted peers and other thinkers to have conversations with the invited artists and ensure they get enough attention with the developing concepts. These biennale exhibitions have to be established quite fast and, in our case, we have 19 venues. A huge exhibition! So I wanted to make sure there were enough of these conversations going on and not just deal with the kind of accelerated delivery mode we’re in.

It was really, really successful, I felt, the way I worked with the Attachés very individually. They each have a different expertise and I had different relationships to them, so I very much enjoyed an unregulated way of working; very much a ‘living in’ of their expertise. For example, Mami Kataoka has specialised in nature and spirituality, so I talked with her quite alot for the Embassy of Spirit.

We’ve had several round tables together. It showed what might happen when we bring in another point of view. But it was important to me that I take the responsibility and not court democratic decisions. It was about having critical advisors on my side and then taking it on to make my own call. 

Archie Moore, Clover, 2012; acrylic paint, sticks; 300 x 200 x 150 cm. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Erika Scott

AB: Do you feel this multi-faceted approach has proven to be a viable prototype for your next large-scale project? 

SR: Definitely, I think it’s a very good model.

AB: The Bureau of Writing, an experimental writing program, operates alongside the 20th Biennale of Sydney. By having closer, early access to Biennale’s content and using unusual modalities, have you observed The Bureau is prompting another kind of electricity of anticipation for the public?

SR: To me, the Bureau of Writing is very much a process-led slow access to the themes of the Embassies of Thought, a bit like a growing tree of knowledge. It’s a very open and generous education from our side to be a platform for young writers to engage with the themes. Yes, there’ll be public moments, like a reading or, like last week, a performance they all gave together, but we’re not asking the Bureau to produce continuously with outcomes. We didn’t want it to be a rushed approach; rather we wanted it to be more a slowing down and going deep. The Attachés and the Bureau writers are similar; they are people who take the time, and have the time, to drill down with something. I guess the downside is with the energy of the Biennale things have to be developed sometimes really quickly, although I see it’s very important that there are these moments of reflection. By having these two different groups these moments are created. 

Marco Chiandetti, The hand of the artist in bird seed, 2015; bird seed; 40 x 10 x 9 cm. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Marco Chiandetti

AB: As the National Art Curator for Imperfect Idler or When Things Disappear, the 2014 inaugural Biennial of Contemporary Art of Cartagena de Indiasa, you became engaged with aspects of disappearance. How did it affect your curatorial style/decision for the 20th Biennale of Sydney to include the Embassy of Disappearance?

SR: How I worked in Colombia informed how I work in Sydney: essentially, to just be aware. It’s stimulating to be able to do intense research and realize artists do work very often quite differently to negotiate the issues and concerns within their own country, and to do this quite precisely. I learned alot from the Colombian artists, and to think about where we’re at in the world in relation to the acceleration and how, through acceleration, things get lost but also things get revealed. For this Biennale, I wanted to think about how artists feel about the disappearance of history, personal events, cultural relevance, language and certain structures. So the Embassy of Disappearance, at Carriageworks, goes very much back to my interest in Latin American history of art.

AB: Venues within the concentration of Sydney’s harbour area and central business district, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, AGNSW, and Artspace, along with Cockatoo Island, have been synonymous with other Biennales. What was your rationale to also go ingeniously beyond to explore – and find! – several unprecedented, yet accessible, locations in inner urban areas?

SR: I didn’t know Sydney very well so I looked kind of blatantly at locations I felt attracted to: certain factions, frictions or fractures in the city that would be good for artists to work on. In my position as Chief Curator at the Hayward, I do alot of exhibitions inside public spaces but I’ve always wanted to allow people to basically stumble over contemporary art, be a kind of passer-by, having an encounter / a conversation with the work and getting into it. We came up with “in-between spaces,” ostensibly opening up venues which are more surprising – the Mortuary Station, Camperdown Cemetery, little plots of land, buildings in a park – and to have a walkway for people from the CBD to Newtown.

Daniel Boyd, What Remains, 2016; site-specific installation, mirrored disks, synthetic polymer paint; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Station Gallery, Melbourne. Created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photographer: Ben Symons

AB: Which two performance art events in the 20th Biennale of Sydney can you predict are absolute “must-sees!”?

SR: Always difficult to say! Something I’ve never done before is the commission we’ve given to Justene Williams and the Sydney Chamber Opera to re-invent Victory Over the Sun, a futurist (anti-) opera that premiered in 1913 with set and costume designs by Kasimir Malevich. The installation and performance will happen only a few times at the beginning of the Biennale. Very exciting! And, I’m so pleased we could bring Boris Charmatz to Sydney. He’s one of the most important choreographers and will be presenting manger at the opening weekend on Saturday 19 March. An exceptional “must-see!”  

Nina Beier, Tileables, 2014; ceramic tiles; installed dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London. Production supported by Johnson Tiles and the Danish Arts Foundation. Photographer: Ben Symons

AB: Lastly, Stephanie, what would you most want the collective public attending The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed to have as the #1 revelation that lingers in their consciousness?

SR: To realize, once more, that contemporary art is about critical thinking. That it does allow us to open up our minds and have more awareness to perceive the world slightly differently. Contemporary art is not entertainment; it is about political statements, perceptions and the time we’re living in. Through the seven Embassies of Thought, I hope the 20th Biennale of Sydney will bring across the idea of being inspired to re-think on many levels. WM


Stephanie Rosenthal has held the position of Chief Curator at the Hayward Gallery in London since 2007. A key focus of her curatorial practice is the exploration of the relationship between visual art and performance. Rosenthal holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Cologne and an MA from the Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich. Writing and lecturing extensively on the subjects of curating and performative practices in public institutions, Rosenthal has also contributed numerous essays to books and periodicals on contemporary art and artists, including recent publications that accompanied the major retrospective exhibitions Ana Mendieta: Traces (2013) and Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer (2013). Notable exhibitions that Rosenthal has curated at the Hayward Gallery include MIRRORCITY (2014); Pipilotti Rist: Eyeball Massage (2012); Art of Change: New Directions from China (2012); MOVE: Choreographing You (2010); Walking in My Mind (2009); and Robin Rhode: Who Saw Who (2009). During her previous tenure of more than a decade at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Rosenthal worked on several celebrated exhibitions such as Night (1998) and Objects in 20th Century Art (2000). Appointed to the position of Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art in 2000, Rosenthal went on to deliver a series of significant exhibitions including Alan Kaprow – Art as Life (2006); Aernout Mik – Dispersions (2004); Abigail O’Brien – The Seven Sacraments (2003); and Stories. Narrative Structures in Contemporary Art (2002). She also curated the highly acclaimed exhibition Paul McCarthy: LaLa Land Parody Paradise, which toured to Whitechapel Gallery, London in 2005. In recent times she was one of three curators coordinating Imperfect Idler or When Things Disappear, the national section of the inaugural International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Cartagena de Indiasa, presented in Colombia from February to April 2014. Rosenthal has taken part in international advisory panels and participated in symposia since 1996 on the subjects of modern and contemporary art.




Amarie Bergman

Conceptual and reductive artist, Amarie Bergman, shows her work at non-objective art galleries in Sydney and Paris. She writes for Whitehot Magazine and currently is based in Canberra, Australia.

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