Biennale of Sydney

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Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi, Haukulasi (detail), 1995–2021. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from Creative New Zealand. Installation view, 23rd Biennale of Sydney, rīvus, 2022, Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay Arts Precinct. Photograph: Document Photography. Courtesy the artist and Adelaide Contemporary Experimental, South Australia.

The opening of the 23rd Biennale of Sydney coincided with what politicians and news outlets termed a “rain bomb”. Across the country’s east coast, unprecedented torrential downpours saw rivers swell, dams bulge and entire towns left underwater. It was, in fact, the release of an “atmospheric river” that had formed in the skies over Meanjin/Brisbane in late February containing almost 16 times the amount of water in Sydney Harbour. Rainwater washed down sandstone walls, pooling at the perimeter of the expansive Cutaway at Barangaroo; cold, dank winds whistled through the nearby Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay situated at the water’s edge—two of the exhibition’s five venues and the focal points of this piece. The potency of the Biennale’s aqueous theme, poignantly titled rīvus (meaning stream in Latin), was evident.

The term ‘rain bomb’ makes meteorologists twitch for its scientific inaccuracy. It also posits nature as enemy and extreme weather its terrorism, rather than a force we play a part in creating ourselves. In this case, human impact produced a La Niña “on steroids”.[02] 02. Ibid. The Sydney Biennale took a less combative approach than that embodied in the phrase ‘rain bomb’ by proposing the symbiosis of spiritual and ecological practice. Along with artists, architects, designers, scientists and communities, seven rivers were listed as participants: the Atrato, the Baaka/Darling, the Birrarung/Yarra, the Boral, the Burramatta, the Napo and the Vilcabamba. The North Sea was represented by an Embassy and each venue was situated as a ‘conceptual wetland’.

This curatorial approach arose from Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, which recognises Aotearoa New Zealand’s Whanganui River and its tributaries as “an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements”. In the last decade, legal personhood has been conferred on multiple waterways across the world, including the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India, the Vilcabamba River in Ecuador and the Atrato River in Colombia.[04] 04. Alessandro Pelizzon, Erin O’Donnell, and Anne Poelina, “Australia’s Rivers are Ancestral Beings,” Pursuit, 18 October 2021, These legislative decisions are a way to both embed Indigenous knowledge in settler systems of governance and to invoke the rights of—and help protect—natural elements.

The Western ontologies that divide the human and non-human (as well as land and water) drive governance and management of the environment. Meanwhile, “Indigenous knowledges have long understood non-human entities as living ancestral beings with a right to life that must be protected. But only recently have animals, plants, mountains and bodies of water been granted legal personhood. If we can recognise them as individual beings, what might they say?”, writes Colombian Artistic Director José Roca in the Biennale’s accompanying curatorial statement.

For the 23rd iteration of the world’s third-longest continuously running biennale, Roca took a collaborative approach to leading the exhibition, veering away from a directorship based on personality cult in favour of a curatorium comprising Paschal Daantos Berry, Anna Davis, Hannah Donnelly and Talia Linz. Across the 330 works in the culminating presentation, the 89 participants shared Indigenous ancestral narratives, linked art-making to practices of care and stretched between ecological dread and hope…