COCKATOO Island is a gorgeous 20-minute ferry ride from the centre of Sydney, one that takes in the iconic splendour of Sydney Opera House and the engineering triumph that is Sydney Harbour Bridge.
But the island, a key venue for the 19th Biennale of Sydney, has a multi-layered and sometimes dark history that turns out to be the city’s own story in microcosm.
A former penal colony, where oppressive barracks were first built in 1839, its reputedly shark-infested waters guaranteed that escape was rare. In the late 1860s the island was home to a girls’ industrial school and reformatory: orphaned children and “delinquents” housed in the appalling conditions of its former cells. Ironically, it is now a popular camping spot for schoolchildren, boasting outdoor kitchens and permanent tents that are testament to modern Sydney’s love affair with the outdoor life.
The island has also been the scene of the country’s shipbuilding might, once boasting the largest dry dock in the world, and home to Australia’s naval dockyards. During World War II, it was the main boat repair yard for the South West Pacific.
There, in the cavernous space of the former turbine hall, I spotted that some of the rusting hulks of hydraulic gear were imported from Glasgow, imprinted with the name of the once mighty Possil Works; and these weren’t the only exports from Glasgow on display. For last week, on a blisteringly hot day that made a pleasant mockery of the word autumn, the first thing I spotted on Cockatoo Island was a large scaffolding sign, bearing the words You Create What You Will, written out in lightbulbs. It would be familiar to anyone who has visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art as the work of the Glasgow artist Nathan Coley.
Over the next few months the island, with its ready-made atmosphere of ghosts, history and dereliction, plays host to the Biennale of Sydney, a vast five-venue art exhibition boasting more than 90 artists from 31 countries which has been curated by Melbourne’s Juliana Engberg – and Coley is amongst a clutch of Glaswegians whose presence has been a notable talking point here over the last few days. He is showing his illuminated text works at three key venues, linking the biennale’s spaces and lighting up the night sky. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, coincidentally run by the Scot Liz Ann Macgregor, there are works by Turner prize-winners Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce, one of Jim Lambie’s signature striped floors and a haunting film, The Rag Papers, by Canadian Glaswegian Corin Sworn, who represented Scotland at Venice last year. In Carriageworks, meanwhile, a vast former train shed which holds a barrage of film and video works, another Glasgow School of Art graduate, Henry Coombes, is showing his film I am the Architect, This is not Happening This is Unacceptable.
Artistic director Juliana Engberg has deep roots in Scotland, where she has been on the visiting staff at Glasgow School of Art. In 2009, she was invited by Jonathan Mills to curate a visual arts strand at the Edinburgh International Festival, with her show The Enlightenments. And in 2012 she worked on an artistic exchange between her own gallery, ACCA in Melbourne and Glasgow’s Common Guild. It is part of what she describes as a ”love affair” between the two cities. Visiting Glasgow International in April 2012, she recalls she trudged out to a former stables in Bellahouston Park at the end of a long day of gallery going. She didn’t regret it, for it was there she first saw the work of Henry Coombes.
The 19th biennale, which will attract around 600,000 visitors, has been controversial. Just weeks before the opening, the vast Australian infrastructure company Transfield Services, which has historic and financial links with the biennale’s chair Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and his investment company Transfield Holdings, announced it would take on a 1.2 billion Australian dollar contract with the government to provide services to detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island. The islands are part of the country’s mandatory detention policy that sees asylum seekers detained in controversial offshore camps, in conditions widely criticised by human rights groups.
Belgiorno-Nettis’s father founded the biennale in 1973, and six per cent of its current budget came through the sponsorship of a joint Transfield philanthropic enterprise called the Transfield Foundation. In the weeks leading up to the Biennale, 35 artists signed a letter calling for its links to Transfield to be severed. Nine artists suggested they would boycott the event. In the end, Belgiorno-Nettis resigned as chair of the biennale, which then cut its ties with Transfield, and only two artists didn’t take part. The protest enraged some politicians and commentators, but has raised important questions about the role and ethics of sponsorship in a close-knit Australian art scene where private philanthropy is key.
During the course of this controversy Engberg has been diplomatic but has gently and implacably spoken up for artists. “I am surprised that people have ever thought that arts and politics weren’t part of the same world,” she told me. “Some people seem to have been living in a bubble where art is docile, polite or simply entertaining.”
For the visitor, the biennale cannot be judged against a controversy that played no part in the show’s planning and conception, but it turns out that Engberg has produced an exhibition that is not found either ethically or aesthetically wanting. It contains works that explore issues of migration, protest and indigenous rights, whilst also providing moments of physical pleasure like Pippilotti Rist’s immersive video installation Mercy Garden Retour Skin.
Back on Cockatoo Island, you feel you have landed in a place where the normal rules don’t apply, whether in Danish artist Eva Koch’s film of a vast waterfall, which flows on an endless loop in the huge Turbine Shop, or the dreamy street in artist Ulla von Brandenburg’s film Street, Play, Way where her characters are accosted at every turn by ancient and archetypal figures like a trickster and a musician. You reach the work through suspended curtains of sailcloth and while you watch water laps in the dock at your feet and debris shifts with ebb and flow of the tides.
But you can also experience the place as an island dystopia. Susan Norrie’s vibrant, furious work Dissent is a video of angry Japanese protests against the energy industry in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and is set in a disused power plant surrounded by obsolete electricity meters and gauges. The young Lithuanian artist Ignas Krunglevicius has produced one of the high points of the whole show. In a grotty, disused warehouse his two-screen video work Interrogation spells out the words of a real police interview of a murder suspect. He is also a composer and the story unfolds to a powerful soundtrack that suggests that police work is as much about the orchestration of power as the unfolding of truth.
For her part Juliana Engberg describes her scheme for the island in chocolate-box terms, with a twist. The island, she says, is “sweet at the centre, but increasingly bitter when you get close to the borders”. In Sydney last week it was hard not to draw wider resonance from these words. As Coley’s text – a quote from George Bernard Shaw – suggests, artists make what they need in the world and we make of art what we need, too. In an impressive biennale, Cockatoo Island suggests that, whatever their intentions, artists and their art are rarely insulated from the pressures of history.
• The Biennale of Sydney runs until 9 June, www.biennaleofsydney.com.au