NIRIN, The 22 Sydney Biennale in Perspective

By Gabriela Salgado

I am writing from self-isolation in my apartment, listening solely to the occasional chitchat of birds that softly pierces the almost continuous silence: such is the new soundtrack of life in the city. Like them, I am slowly adjusting to a reality that was unthinkable a few weeks ago.

By then I was in Sydney, rushing through the traffic in busy streets to attend the multivenue preview of NIRIN, the 22nd edition of the Biennale of Sydney, which was promptly closed ten days after opening to the public on 14 March as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Given the circumstances, more than ever before I feel privileged to have attended the preview and to be part of the exceptional gathering of artists and thinkers assembled by NIRIN. Hence, the enforcement of self-isolation for travellers seemed a fair price to pay despite adding extra time to the New Zealand government four-week lockdown that is still keeping me at home.

If anything, self-isolation forces us to slow down, offering a longer timespan for reflection.

I wonder whether this was the kind of pause that scientists, artists and philosophers alike were envisioning as a possible remedy to the environmental devastation of our suffering planet. The truth is that before this hit us, we knew too well that the incessant craving for productivity imposed by the global economy’s unremitting greed was to blame for the extinction of many species and the alarming pollution levels. And of course, the comparisons that arise with other historical pandemics don’t measure up to this one: thanks to our globe trotters’ compulsion this pandemic has reached a mind-blowing amount of people in a very short time.

So, as we pause, nature starts restoring and taking over while the target of extinction shifts to us humans. Could we read the pandemic as a balancing act that unquestionably interrupts our highly toxic habits with more efficiency than any theory?  What do you need now, when consumerism is no longer an option? Franco Bifo Berardi states: Now, in the immediate now, we need a vaccine against the malady, we need protective masks, and we need intensive care equipment. And in the long run, we need food, we need affection and pleasure. And a new culture of tenderness, solidarity, and frugality.

“Intriguingly diverse and arranged inside commanding ethnographic museum vitrines, the documents, prints and mixed objects – like compelling islands of memorabilia of power, historical trauma and colonial violence from around the world – upended western anthropology standing as decolonial cabinets of curiosities “

And going back to the Biennale of Sydney, in which ways does this altered reality connect to it?

On the biennale catalogue cover, a statement by artist Rosana Paulino written in bold black characters reads: NIRIN represents something like a spider’s web that connects people and ideas…’, by means of the cancellation of hierarchies of ideas and the concept of centre and periphery… ‘it’s like being in a digital cloud where everything is together’.

This reminds me of feminist theorist and scientist Donna J. Haraway, whose prescient novel Staying with the Trouble posits that tentacular formations appear physically in a multitude of species, as well as being a prominent cognitive feature in indigenous knowledge systems.

Melanie Mununggurr – Cockatoo island pier view

The 22 Biennale of Sydney curatorial team formed by artist Brook Andrew and Barbara Moore placed the curatorial focus largely on artists from first nations and aboriginal lands in the Australian territories, also including a balanced selection of artists from the Global South. Such fundamentally rooted and entangled focus enabled intellectual connections and narratives that are often overshadowed by artworld fashions all the while skewing grand statements. Nevertheless, it is worth noticing that for the first time since its inception, the 47 years old Biennale places aboriginal artists at the centre of the exhibition, galvanising discussions and collective gatherings, and privileging community-led ceremonies and protocols that were mostly absent from previous editions.


Throughout most venues, NIRIN’s curatorial purpose was articulated instead with the visual displays entitled ‘Powerful Objects’, an encyclopaedic compendium of visual culture objects from private and public Australian collections interspersed among other exhibits. Intriguingly diverse and arranged inside commanding ethnographic museum vitrines, the documents, prints and mixed objects – like compelling islands of memorabilia of power, historical trauma and colonial violence from around the world – upended western anthropology standing as decolonial cabinets of curiosities.
Among the most striking works were a few presented at Cockatoo island, a Sydney harbour location that served as a penitentiary and shipyard in the last 200 years.


Barbara McGrady – Multimedia installation

Mohamed Bourouissa – Brutal Family Roots, 2020

Greeted by Ibrahim Mahama’s colossal installation of jute sacks the visitors were immersed in a multisensorial experience upon entering the Turbine Hall. The mesmerising signature work by the young Ghanaian artist included sections of its previous iterations, like ‘Out of Bounds’ presented in Okwui Enwezor Venice Biennale in 2015. However, as if reversing the public art gesture, instead of draping the outdoor walls the work covered the iron cladded interior with its multi-textured brown skin.

Mohamed Borouissa’s sonic installation in a yellow-infused room ‘Brutal Family Roots’ offered a welcomed respite to the visitors’ intensive agenda. The artist transformed the building’s hard edge industrial past by placing pot planted acacia trees on a vast yellow carpet. An hypnotical and calm-inducing soundtrack produced by capturing the acacia/mimosa trees pulsations processed with electronic sound and rap poetry gave us the chance to take off our shoes and embrace a moment of rest in the warm sun-bathed room. Produced in collaboration with sound artists during his residency in the bushland near Sydney, the work traces a number of routes that connects his Algerian childhood with the Australian landscape through the migration of species and languages. Bourouissa’s practice is developed in what he defines like margins of hypervisibility, a welcome move towards de-acceleration that allow visitors to stop and be present. His definition of margin resonated with the title of the biennale, as NIRIN means ‘edge’.

On the penitentiary plateau at Cockatoo Island, Australian conceptual artist Tony Albert invited visitors to his greenhouse to write significant memories on small pieces of paper implanted with kangaroo grass seeds. After being placed on hand-woven baskets, the collected memories will be added to a community-led seed bank project that restores grassland across country. With recent devastation by fire, large parts of Australia are in serious need of reforestation, and Albert’s collective ecopoetic project ‘Healing the Land Remembering Country’ embeds human chronicles in nature’s preservation, poignantly turning intangible tribulations of the human soul into bushes.


Gina Athena Ulysee ‘An Equitable Human Assertion, Rasamblaj I’

Powerful Objects – Ship model of Columbus ship Santa Maria, rhinoceros horn and other objects

Gina Athena Ulysee’ ‘An Equitable Human Assertion, Rasamblaj I’ crowned the top level of the Cockatoo island building which was infamously used as a prison in the early 1800s. Displaying the gourds of the calabash tree commonly used for multiple purposes by people of African and indigenous descent, Ulysee gifted the obscure site a healing gesture. In the gourds, she placed ritual objects employed in the protocols of African spirituality to restore balance, such as colourful beads that represent sacred entities, herbs and different types of shells historically used as currency in trade or in divination rituals.

Madagascar born Joel Andrianomearisoa’s pervasive swathes of black fabric veiled a number of the Biennale exhibition spaces, running as a dark flesh tunnel through the upper floor Museum of Contemporary Art that one had to traverse to reach the adjacent suite of galleries. In the Gallery of New South Wales his translucent black shrouds partially veiled historical European paintings, intervening their one-sided narratives with a symbol of bereavement in a manner that recalled what author Chimamanda Ngozi Odichie calls ‘the danger of a single story’. With all their delicate subtlety, the works effectively uncovered the obstinate denial of Australia’s identity as an ancient cradle of aboriginal civilisation.

This brings me back to NIRIN’s purpose. By means of a non-essentialist selection of artworks and discourses, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney presents a humanity that Denise Ferreira da Silva drawing from quantum physics described as entangled in a planetary “difference without separability” . That is not conditioned by spacetime and its hierarchical subcategories.

Little we knew that we were far too close to a deeply entangled human experience that contemporary humans hadn’t anticipated until a few weeks ago.


Tony Albert In collaboration with Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network – Healing Land, Remembering Country

Back to top