Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

You Imagine What You Desire - reviewing a portion of the 19th Biennale of Sydney

I should preface this review with a caveat. I did not see the whole of the Biennale, so my review relates to the artworks in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Spread across five venues, the Biennale can also be viewed at Carriageworks, Cockatoo Island and Artspace. Only in Sydney for a day I had to be very organised with my art consumption, and seeing four exhibitions in one day amounts to ‘binge-watching’ a popular television show. In addition to the Biennale I saw the Treasures of Afghanistan and ArtExpress, which deserve their own reviews another time.

The MCA is an imposing building overlooking the harbour, and on my visit I had brought Melbourne’s rain with me so everything was bathed in drizzle. The Biennale is found on the first and third floor of the MCA, starting with Jim Lambie’s floor and wall based artwork Zobop (2014).

An exciting and interactive piece, Zobop consists of vinyl tape in many colours forming concentric patterns on the floor of the gallery. The audience wanders around and mostly takes photos. The artist has also included shoes and sunglasses suspended from the ceiling, held together with tape, among other unexplained assemblages. Lambie installs these in galleries around the world with the intention of challenging the audience’s proprioceptive process, that is, our understanding of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. Certainly the Zobop can be disorienting, but I think it would have been more challenging to walk through a room which also had covered walls, like Yayoi Kusama’s installations. The Zobop is fun, though, the way it is, and perhaps the vertiginousness was just lost on me.

The stand out work at the MCA was New York based Roni Horn’s Nine Liquid Incidents (2010-12). Large glass discs in varying tones of blue are positioned around a large white room. The surface of each glass sculpture has been fire-polished and weights a significant amount. They look uncannily like water, and surface in concave and highly shiny. The edges are rough like the sand-ground glass you sometimes find on the beach.

The very watery appearance of these objects, combined with our knowledge of their rigid material, and their fiery construction, complicates our first impressions. I found them quite arresting to look at. The wall texts usefully reminded me of the other less beautiful qualities of water, its brutality and ability to inspire fear. Though the ideas stemming from this work were complex, its construction was very simple, and yet highly effective. The same cannot be said for other pieces in the exhibition, which I found physically complex but conceptually empty.

A short train ride away at the AGNSW the first artwork I encountered was similar in colour to Zobop – it was a million coloured streamers hung from the ceiling. They caught the breeze of the air-conditioning and flickered in waves. This is a great entrance piece and though I did not discover the artist, I hoped it was a tie-in with Zobop, not least to give me another excuse to write the word Zobop.

The standout work at AGNSW was the ongoing performance by Chinese artist Yingmei Duan. Happy Yingmei (2014) is a performance taking place in the gallery for the duration of the Biennale, it involves the artist living in a forest room in the gallery’s lower level. Visitors are invited into the forest space which is a darkened room with leaves on the floor and decaying trees forming a pathway through.

I walked through with three other twenty-five year olds who coincidentally also to come from China. She sang to us and soon struck up a conversation about the nature of performance art, speaking Mandarin and English for her dual audience. She asked us to pass by each other, without repeating the actions of the previous person. When it came to my turn I wasn’t sure what to do, not having fully grasped the exercise, so I walked stiffly past, but she beckoned me back. On my second turn I crouched down and mimed moving through the forest, as though struggling to see what was ahead.

We all nervously giggled and she asked me if I’d studied theatre, and I replied that I hadn’t. Yingmei then addressed the first of the Chinese visitors and asked their names and what they were studying, and whether they thought they had a lot of freedom in China today. One responded that yes they do, but that parents have a long list of accomplishments they expect of their child. Yingmei asked if they liked growing up under the One Child Policy, the only male present said, ‘Not really’.

Being thrust into this unexpected world where talking about the nature of performance art, participating in it and discussing freedoms experienced by Chinese young people was a heady mix to say the least. Yingmei draws her audience in with her soft voice, singing us a Chinese song, and her confident manner in dealing with strangers. She is like a teacher and a performer too, while blurring the boundary between both.

I’ve written in the past about participatory art, it won’t surprise regular readers that this was the most memorable artwork I encountered in the Biennale. I wanted to thank Yingmei for giving her time to her audience so fully, for performing every day, but I found I had no words, not even a thank you in Chinese. All I could do as she concluded the conversation was to nod and smile bemusedly at what had just happened. As I left the gallery, to step out into the rain, an attendant thanked us for coming, I told him how I enjoyed Yingmei’s work and he said she was getting lots of good feedback. He said she puts up with some crappy audiences though, who don’t want to participate and still expect performance art to be a performance they watch and not something they get to do too. From an artist who trained under Marina Abramović, we should always expect the unexpected.

The Biennale continues until 9 June and I feel confident that there are many more spontaneous and memorable experiences to be had across its other venues.


Roni Horn
Ten Liquid Incidents, 2010–12
solid cast glass, ten units 45.5 x 91.5 cm (diameter) each
Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Courtesy Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul
The presentation of this project was made possible through the generous support of Simon and Catriona Mordant
Photograph: Ben Symons

Jim Lambie
Zobop, 2014
vinyl tape, varnish
dimensions variable
Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow
Created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney
Photograph: Ben Symons

Yingmei Duan
Happy Yingmei, 2011
performance and sound installation at Lilith Performance Studio, Malmö
Courtesy the artist
Photograph: Lilith Performance Studio, Malmö