Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sydney Biennale Favorites

Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017

I was drawn to the chapter of the Sydney Biennale on Cockatoo Island by the press pictures of Ai Weiwei’s The Law of the Journey (2017). The installation looked curious and topical with its references to the refugee crisis, but I couldn’t have anticipated the power of the work awaiting me. I find Ai Weiwei’s work to be highly conceptual and therefore, at times, it can leave me cold. But this wasn’t my experience of The Law of the Journey, also making for a pleasant surprise.
Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017
The 60-meter-long inflatable rubber boat stuffed full with identical anonymous inflatable figures made in a factory in China that also makes the vessels for transport of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean is breathtaking. It is so much more than an intellectual concept. Approaching the boat from a side room, we are overwhelmed by its sheer size. The PVC vessel towers above us demanding our attention to the magnitude of the problem that it represents. As we walk along the sides, it’s as though we are transported across the seas with the occupants. Some of the figures lean in, others lean out, others over and still more crouch down as if seeking protection from a giant wave. The figures are identical—rubber and faceless, clearly fabricated from the same mold. While they were all male in form, I didn’t get the sense that the work was gendered, that the refugee crisis is by definition a male crisis, but rather, the repetition and unidentifiable figures reinforce what the artist says in the publicity material: this is a generic crisis.

Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017

As visitors walk around the monumental installation, along the edges of the platform on which the boat sits, quotations from well-known writers from different centuries and different parts of the world remind us of our connection to those who suffer on these journeys. Kafka is quoted: “We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours.” And Nawal El Saadawi, “I kept falling like an object thrown into a limitless sea, without shoes and without a bed, slashed by the waters when it starts to sink, and by the wind if it starts to float. Forever sinking and rising between the sea and the sky, with nothing to hold on to except the two eyes.” Even if we have not been to sea, have not fled war, violence and civil unrest, we all have the experience of being cast adrift from the familiarity of everyday life.
Ai Weiwei The Law of the Journey, 2017 
High on a viewing platform at one end of the installation we see hundreds of figures in the bottom of the boat, figures lying down, their heads conjuring images of children caught in the bottom of the boat. The artificial lighting placed high above on the ceiling of what was once a shipbuilding workshop gives some figures a copper colouring. While the transience of the humans in search of another life is emphasized through the inflatable forms, the copper toning of those in the light gave them a permanence, like cast bronze statues. From certain angles, the light givesw the impression of the sun shining on the figures at the end of the day, the tired bodies rocking with the boat on the waves. The new perspective given by height and illumination was, for me, an invitation to contemplate the ongoing phenomenon of dangerous sea crossings by people looking for a better, safer, life.
Yukinori Yanagi, Landscape with an Eye (2018)
Another installation that I found particularly compelling was Yukinori Yanagi’s Landscape with an Eye (2018) in which a video of a giant eye is suspended in the old power generating room of Cockatoo Island's industrial complex. Inside the iris, footage of H-Bomb tests invest the eye with a whole new level of meaning: vision is transformed into desire and destruction for war, power and coercive manipulation. It was also interesting to note how difficult it was to see the piece because the space was dark and not immediately welcoming. Next door in the Rectifier Room, Absolute Dud (2016), a one-tonne replica of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 hangs from the ceiling, a force waiting to explode. The two pieces take on an enormously complex significance: a Japanese artist is presenting these icons of Western destruction on an island originally used for convicts. And the story digs deeper when we see that the two pieces about the misuse of energy and power are displayed in power supply and conversion rooms, that is, in spaces where energy is itself transformed. The layers of meaning in these potent works feel as though the explode all façades, even as they quietly communicate with their environment.
Yukinori Yanagi, Absolute Dud (2016)
Though there was a lot more than these installations to see on Cockatoo Island, I want everyone to catch the ferry to the other side of the Parramatta River and see these two as an imperative.

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