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Imagination and Desire: The 2014 Biennale of Sydney

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The 19th Biennale of Sydney has opened once again in locations across the city, from smaller venues to established museums. This year’s biennale, curated by Juliana Engberg of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, is entitled “You Imagine What You Desire,” and celebrates the creative language of an artist’s imagination. Engberg has chosen a full-bodied selection of artists from around the world, as well as established and emerging Australian artists, creating a cultural exchange between Australians and international artists who have traveled to the continent to install their work. “You Imagine What You Desire” gathers a collection of interactive and inspirational pieces, heavy in the areas of video art and the experiential, that Engberg hopes will connect visitors to the artist through their interaction with each piece. Until June 9, 2014, exhibitions and events for the Biennale will take residence on Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3, The Art Gallery of NSW, Carriageworks and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.
TV Moore, Installation view of the 19th Biennale of Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Photograph courtesy of Ben Symons.
The Biennale of Sydney is the world’s fourth oldest international festival, coming in behind the Venice and Sao Paulo biennales, as well as Documenta, and the first to be established in the Asia/Pacific region. It is also the most widely attended contemporary visual arts event in Australia, having doubled the number of attendees over the past three festivals. Since its inception in 1973, thanks to the decreasing cost of world travel, the Biennale has had the opportunity to include more and more international artists in recent years, providing an exciting and well-rounded roster for visitors. This year, the Biennale has appointed curator, writer, publisher and designer Juliana Engberg as the festival’s curator for her multi-faceted experience within the art world, as well as her celebrated curatorial history, including receiving the Herald ‘ANGEL’ award for the program she created for The Edinburgh International Arts Festival in 2009.
 
Hadley+Maxwell, Manners, Habits, and Other Received Ideas, 2014. Photograph by Gunther Hang.
Gabriel Lester, Where Spirits Dwell, 2014.Courtesy of LEO XU PROJECTS and Galerie Fons Welters.
As curator, Engberg has arranged a program that challenges visitors to allow their own imaginations to be hijacked by the minds of the participating artists, asking guests to take a ride on the playful and engaging ideas of some of the world’s brightest creatives. Her quest to present a biennale of immersive, interactive art is apparent right from the beginning – literally right at the entrance of the exhibition on Cockatoo Island with Callum Morton’s The Other Side. Morton’s piece invites guests to sit in the cars of an amusement park ride, which moves forward into double doors at the bottom of a giant billboard-sized model of a Google home screen. The mini-ghost train is a literal spin on the Google “search engine,” taking riders into the unknown depths of the “internet” (which is really comprised of an audio soundtrack, strobe lights, and blackness). The Other Side epitomizes Engberg’s curatorial quest of showcasing art as accessible, family friendly and fun.
 
Callum Morton, The Other Side, 2014. Courtesy of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
Randi & Katrine, The Village, 2014. Courtesy of the artists.
Continuing the child-like whimsy is Danish duo Randi & Katrine’s installation, The Village. Paying tribute to the wild imagination of being a child, the piece imbues the traditional architectural structures found in a village with anthropomorphic qualities. On the five houses in the installation, windows become eyes and ears, doors become mouths, roofs become hair, and each house seems to communicate with the next using puffs of smoke emanating from their chimneys. The faces, both cute and scary at the same time, give visitors a taste of what it was like to see the world through an imaginative child’s eyes, if only for just one moment.
Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger, Bush Power, 2014. Photograph by Ben Symons.
Audience participation continues with Gerda Steiner & Jörg Lenzlinger’s Bush Power, a colorful kinetic playground made from recycled and found objects, inspired by the history of Cockatoo Island. Steiner and Lenzlinger transformed gym equipment into a fantastical sculptural installation, begging visitors to play with its bold colors and musical sounds that are emitted when the machines are used. The resulting piece recontextualizes both the island (which was formerly a penal colony and then a shipbuilding hub) and the recycled materials used, giving everyday objects a new life spreading happy energy to all who engage with them.
Jim Lambie, Zobop, 2014. Courtesy of The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow.
Jim Lambie’s rainbow colored Zobop zigs and zags in hard-edged tape across the entire Level 1 Gallery space at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Filling the space with a single material over a flat and continuous surface, the alternating stripes of bright colors come together in vibrating edges that create a sense of pulsating movement. The optical illusion evokes work of the op-art movement from the 1960s, reinterpreted on the floor and using the impermanent material of masking tape.
Pipilotti Rist, Mercy Garden Retour Skin, 2014. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Luhring Augustine.
Engberg not only wants visitors to experience and play, but to also engage through the power of video art. World renowned Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist’s brand new six-channel Mercy Garden Retour Skin combines her signature all-encompassing viewing environments with lush color and mesmerizing imagery. Shown in an installation setting that invites viewers to lounge comfortably on a carpet and pillows, alone or in pairs, the giant walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia are transformed into a sprawling hyper-visual experience, filled with Rist’s interpretations of alpine and village life.
Douglas Gordon, Phantom, 2011. Courtesy of Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris.
Combining film with installation is Douglas Gordon’s Phantom, a dark and brooding theatrical experience set to a melodic soundtrack of alt pop star Rufus Wainwright, accompanied by a piano. For the set a grand piano sits on a stark and darkened stage in the middle of the room, along with ashes from a burned second piano, with Gordon’s film of a heavily lined eye, opening and closing projected behind. The eye, an iconic symbol, evokes the cycle of birth and death, as it opens and closes hypnotically. The piece seems to pay tribute to Surrealist and Dadaist films of the 1930s, but is modernized with the inclusion of Wainwright’s recognizable voice.
Yael Bartana, Inferno, 2013. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.
Each experience at the 2014 Biennale of Sydney creates a relationship between the visitor and the participating artists through interactive enjoyment. The collection of pieces presented reflects curator Engberg’s mission to democratize art, inviting the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of the creative spirit of the artist, with captivating work that allows the viewer to become part of the art itself.