Biennale of Sydney – MCA

A partial wander through the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Ciara Phillip

Ciara Phillips

In Ciara Phillip’s printing studio I felt flat and un-involved. Signage informed me that the artist has invited local community groups, is exploring the nature of collaboration, wants to connect with people and develop ideas together. Apparently as part of the audience I was meant to see work in production, interrupting the gallery convention of viewing a completed work of art. I saw: a print studio and associated paraphernalia; a gallery staff member making notes on a clip board – when I approached her to ask about the artist working in the studio she referred me to the information desk; later, a different gallery staff member striding across the space to tell someone not to touch the drying racks. I guess it’s more interesting as an idea or as a participant or as a audience to work actually in production.

Simryn Gill

Simryn Gill
Untitled (Interior) II


Five bronze sculptures, each contained on a plinth, fabulously delicate and complex. They were cast from fissures in dry dams and creeks during a long, severe drought in Australia. The void made visible. Lace-like, beauty from the hard and harsh. The more you look the more you see.

Lucio Fontana
Spatial Concept

Since then I’ve been thinking of Lucio Fontana and the pierced canvas, making apparent the threshold between materiality and immateriality (12-Jun-2016, and an image 21-Dec-2017).

John Olsen
Cooper’s Creek in flood

Of John Olsen, preoccupied with the littoral and the void (6-Apr-2017).

Resin samples

Of my cast resin samples from Mixed Media for Textiles, my glorious failures (14-Sep-2015). Thoughts are bubbling furiously.

Simryn Gill
Carbon Copy (detail)

Simryn Gill
Carbon Copy

Also by Simryn Gill is Carbon Copy. Frame after frame of typed text, varied, text that looks textural, textile-like. A strange mixture of precision, staggered repetition to form twill-like diagonals, and apparent carelessness, poorly typed, spelling and positional “errors”. Then you decipher some of the text and there’s a thudding, booming in your head, hateful words repeated ad nauseum until they almost lose impact and meaning, become part of the fabric of modern discourse.

Yvonne Koolmatrie

Yvonne Koolmatrie
Burial Baskets

Another series of works given additional presence and impact by repetition, variation, and thoughtful display. An expression of tradition, culture, community, country, the varying seasons. One was made ten years ago, the others commissioned for the Biennale. Tradition sustained and sustaining.

One of the things I value about basketry, enjoy being part of, is the sense of doing something fundamental to humanity, that connects people of widely separated times and places and cultures. Coiling, twining, looping… techniques subtly or strongly varied, made with differing or similar materials, with differing purposes and meaning, but creating connections.

Haegue Yang
That ubiquity is explored further in sculptures installed in a gallery of works by Haegue Yang in a series titled The Intermediate.

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Various types of ropes and twines, many synthetic but also natural materials, are combined with a range of objects using predominately basketry techniques in forms that raise ideas of effigies, folk rituals and menacing half-seen monsters.


Shown with a number of video works, bright lights moving in darkness, and installations of reflective surfaces and black venetian blinds, there is an unsettling beauty and sense of danger. The blinds in particular – so domestic, suburban, but hiding prying eyes and giving glimpses of private interiors…

Svay Sareth
There are quite a few video works in the exhibition – not usually a favoured medium for me. You generally walk in part way through, they make considerable time demands on the audience, it’s hard to use the technique of a quick reconnoiter followed by deeper consideration of the works that particularly attract one, and often I find them quite a passive experience.

Prendre les Mesures is documentary footage of a durational performance. Svay Sareth used a large sack needle to measure the length of the causeway at the entrance to the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. 7315 needle lengths, eight hours’ duration.

The film is taken from different viewpoints, close and from a distance. Often the artist seemed in danger of being trampled by the weight of tourists visiting the site. It was hard to tell what he was doing.

The MCA website text includes “While Angkor Wat has been a spiritual location of great significance, Svay calls attention to the expropriation of the temple by varying powers over time, from the colonial-era establishment of an archaeological park, to more recent concessions of ticket sales to private companies, and the ever-present masses of tourists” (https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/artists/svay-sareth/). I didn’t understand that while viewing it, but it was absorbing to watch the focus and attention of the man in all that bustle, what appeared a quiet and gentle determination to continue his chosen task regardless of time, aching knees, the reactions of the other visitors to his presence and to the presence of the film cameras.

A sack needle was displayed on a black cushion on a plinth nearby. It’s fascinating the power of that presentation. Something so ordinary and utilitarian transformed.

4 Responses to “Biennale of Sydney – MCA”


  1. 1 Claire B April 29, 2018 at 8:31 am

    Returning from the Biennale exhibits on Cockatoo Island I only had time to see the Ciara Phillip print room exhibit at the MCA, and will return for the rest of the exhibition this week.
    My thoughts are similar to yours. I felt no sense of community or collaboration. Connecting and developing ideas wasn’t evident, other than marginally in one (what appeared to be contrived) mind map.
    The vibrant excitement of a print studio where the progress of an idea or concept comes to fruition after many trials and errors is sadly missing. Every trial has an emotion attached to it, whether that be frustration, unexpected pleasure, or the realization that your idea has evolved into a totally different outcome to what was intended.
    I felt none of that in this installation.

  2. 2 Linda` April 29, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    Reading your comments on the printing studio experience- sounds very realistic. Hard to think through how something like that would actually work before you do it. Much more involved than simply setting up and seeing what happens.

  3. 3 fibresofbeing April 29, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    Reflecting on comments from Claire and Linda, I think part of the distance was because it felt like a stage set. Not an actual print studio but a recreation of one. I’ve seen alternative approaches – on a grand scale, by Erin Manning at the 2012 Biennale (https://fibresofbeing.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/research-point-textile-art-part-1/ and https://fibresofbeing.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/t1-mmt-p2-joining-and-wrapping-research-erin-manning/). I believe Erin committed to being there every day, working with anyone who wanted to work with her. I went there a few times and if she wasn’t there the worktables were still set up and welcoming. On a lesser scale at the AGNSW Lady and the Unicorn exhibition there is an area with mini-looms and yarns for people to try out.
    Ciara Phillip’s work is an iteration of an ongoing project started in 2010. In 2014 it was nominated for the Turner Prize.
    I’m sure it would be a different experience for a participant in one of the invited groups, or even as an audience to that. Even a whiteboard noting the next few times someone would be there would have helped.

  4. 4 Kevin Murray June 7, 2018 at 8:38 am

    Very thoughtful piece. I enjoyed your comments about the connecting power of basketry.


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