Cockatoo Island: Embassy of the Real

Last week Mary and I travelled to the Sydney Biennale for the Vernissage where we spent three days exploring the art. The title of the 2016 Sydney Biennale is The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed, the works exhibited are divided into seven embassies of thought:

  • Embassy of the Real – Cockatoo Island
  • Embassy of Translation – Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
  • Embassy of Spirits – Art Gallery of New South Wales
  • Embassy of Non-Participation – Artspace
  • Embassy of Transition – Mortuary Station
  • Embassy of Stanislaw Lem – Mobile book stall
  • Embassy of Disappearance – Carriageworks


This post focusses on the Embassy of the Real.

Housed on historical Cockatoo Island, the Embassy of the Real is concerned with the body, physicality, space, and oddly a bit of the psychological. There is a sense of balancing the tangible outer world with the less solid realities of the mind.

William Forsythe, 2013. Nowhere and everywhere at the same time, no. 2. [Automated pendulums].

William Forsythe’s work consists of a long room strung with numerous pendulums that move on automated tracks, so that they are perpetually swinging. The viewer becomes part of the work by negotiating the space.  In order to avoid being hit by a pendulum, the viewer must move in and out, conscious of their steps, the pauses, and at the mercy of the prescribed (and automated) rhythm. Artist and choreographer Forsythe draws attention to our understanding of our own bodies, without music, he turns us into dancers.

This work left an enormous impression on me.  Art work that can “do” something to the audience is very powerful. Despite my art education, I have to admit that I am usually resistant to art that wants me to participate in a physical way: I am a thinker, and I like to approach things in my own time and on my own terms… that and I’m pretty awkward. I cannot explain what magic Forsythe wove here, but I could have played in this room for hours. This artwork made me reassess my body not just as a vehicle to move my brain around, but as a presence in the world, a physical manifestation with sophisticated perambulatory ability (although in fairness I was hit by a pendulum once).

Bharti Kher, 2013-15, Six women [Plaster of paris, wood metal, 123 x 61 x 95.5cm each] 

Exploring the body in a different way is Bharti Kher who presents six naked women sitting on wooden stools.  The women are cast in plaster from real-life models, the detail so convincing, it is almost as though they are living participants that could at any moment shift on their stool, raise a hand, or open their eyes.

The women portrayed are New Delhi prostitutes, and for me they question ideas of vulnerability: “Critically, the vulnerability of the women stems only in part from their nakedness; Kher’s sitters were sex workers, paid by the artist to sit for her, in a self conscious transaction of money and bodily experience” (Biennale of Sydney, 2016, p. 53).

There is a certain vulnerability in nakedness certainly, but I was also struck by the apparent age of some of the subjects: wrinkles, slouched shoulders, a certain birdlike fragility… and yet, these women have an undeniably strong presence in the room. Perhaps because they are not alone, they command the space. The more time I spent with them the more powerful they seemed, their stillness, their identical positions heightened their individuality. I stopped noticing their humble stools, and the raised platforms they sat on began to suggest to me majesty.

Chiharu Shiota, 2009/2016. Flowing water [beds, black thread].

The psychological was certainly at play in the work of Chiharu Shiota.  Installed in one of the island’s barracks Shiota draws her audience into a psychological dream space. The work consists of institutional metal framed beds leaned up against the walls behind a web of black threads that repeatedly criss-cross the space.

When we encountered this installation it had stopped raining outside, and we entered through a doorway that was still dripping run-off from the eaves. Going inside was like entering a different state of wakefulness, somewhere between the dreams and the daylight.  The thick web that enmeshed the walls and lowered the ceiling also seemed to create the illusion of mist, despite the bright light and sunny skies that had appeared outside. The threads were suggestive of something organic, a web, a nest, a network of connective tissue (the microscopic made massive). The beds connected this to the unconscious, or semi conscious, and was suggestive not only of the moments between dreaming and waking (or waking and falling asleep) but also suggested sickness, hospitals or institutions, entrapment.

Emma McNally, 2014-16. Choral field 1 – 12 [graphite on paper, 215 x 304cm]

I suspect people who draw are often drawn to (haha) other people who draw. Emma McNally’s impressive giant drawings absolutely captivated me.  The works are installed on large wooden supports, and are placed facing in different directions, the audience approaches the work across a zigzag boardwalk on the floor.

The works themselves are incredibly complex charts mapping unknown (imaginary?) territories.  They vary from intricate and precise to expressive and smudgy, suggesting a complex battle between chaos and order.


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