The Biennale of Sydney is held on Cockatoo Island.
The upcoming Biennale of Sydney has had its share of stumbling blocks in the weeks ahead of its March 21 opening—not for the usual logistical issues such as sensitive artwork transport or financial woes, but for the presence of founding sponsor Transfield, a major contractor in charge of the mandatory detention centers on neighboring Nauru and Manus islands.
A growing number of disturbing accounts of beatings, sexual abuse, and inhumane conditions with indefinite detentions have been documented in both reports as well as video, tainting ties to the Australian-based corporation known for its operations, maintenance and construction services.
Ten artists have so far pulled out of the Biennale: Libia Castro, Olafur Olafsson, Ahmet Ogut, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri, Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp, and Nathan Gray.
A part of the detention camp on Manus Island.
A statement on behalf of Castro, Olafsson, Sofo, de Vietri, and Ogut explained: "We have revoked our works, cancelled our public events and relinquished our artists’ fees. We see our participation in the Biennale as an active link in a chain of associations that leads to the abuse of human rights. For us, this is undeniable and indefensible.”
Many established art biennales are quite large scale, thus requiring sponsors with deep pockets. With the objective of spreading and sharing art with an international scope, biennales are just as susceptible to being supported by dubious financial sources as are some of our most respected museums and even galleries. This status quo in the arts has always been somewhat controversial, yet many artists feel that if they want their work to be supported they have little choice but to comply with the conventional rules of the traditional system.
Pulling out of a major biennale could not have been an easy decision for the artists after months of hard work so close to the opening. But with hints of an alternative exhibition in play, they may garner further support from those in their community who are skeptical of official withdrawal. In the longer run, these artists have taken a brave stand that not only puts into question the need for large scale events with questionable funding, but the ethical sustainability of large scale arts institutions as well.
Ultimately, the ten artists’ instinct to withdraw did result in tangible consequences: the Biennale of Sydney just announced it will sever ties with Transfield, and chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis resigned from his post only two weeks before the opening. I can’t help but wonder if this will spur more artists to respond to murky chains of causation in the future.