Contemporary Art

A New Significance: Curator Mami Kataoka on the 21st Biennale of Sydney

By Holly Black
Curator Mami Kataoka

Curator Mami Kataoka. Courtesy of the Sydney Biennale. © Daniel Boud

Sydney - The oldest biennial in the Asia-Pacific region, The Biennale of Sydney has become a staple in the art-world calendar. Established in 1973, it shows leading artists from Australia and around the world. The Biennale has been curated by influential figures such as Lynne Cooke in 1996 and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in 2008.

This year the artistic director is Mami Kataoka, who has been the chief curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo since 2003. Kataoka has invited around 70 artists, including Ciara Phillips and Ai Weiwei, from around the world to exhibit their work in venues such as the Sydney Opera House and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey (2017). Courtesy of the Sydney Biennale

Her theme, “Superposition”, engages with concerns of conflict, mass migration and political unrest, while simultaneously considering the Biennale’s legacy and optimistic future. We spoke to her ambitions for this international event, which opens on 16 March.

Holly Black: The theme of the 21st Biennale is “Superposition”, a term many people might not be familiar with. What does it mean?

Mami Kataoka: “Superposition” relates to quantum physics, the concept that electrons can occupy multiple states at once but still achieve equilibrium. In reality, it is about the struggle to find balance, which might only be achieved for a split second. The selected artists present a variety of perspectives that show the complexities and difficulties of life.

Beautiful Minds

Anya Gallaccio, Beautiful Minds (2015-2017). Courtesy of the Sydney Biennale. © Luke A Walker

HB: The Art Gallery of New South Wales is presenting an archive show, looking back on the Biennale’s history. Is this an important time to examine its legacy?

MK: Yes, because the Sydney Biennale is the oldest of its kind in the region. Today, it is one of many such as Yokohama, Shanghai, Gwangju… it is an important time to reassess its significance. I wanted to revisit memories from curators, directors and artists and really think about the Biennale of the future.

Lili Dujourie, American Imperialism (1972). Courtesy of the Sydney Biennale

HB: You have also mentioned the importance of exploring multiple, often overlooked histories.

MK: This is an interesting time in terms of multiple modernisms. We are reassessing the significance of some female artists and those from non-Western countries. For instance, the Belgian artist Lili Dujourie was in the biennale in the 1980s, and is now returning to show older work. One must ask the question: what does it mean to show works from decades ago, and how is it relevant to us in 2018? It seems that the biennale model is no longer just about being young or new; we have a different way of looking at things.

Mit Jai Inn, Junta Monochrome #1 (2016). Courtesy of the Sydney Biennale

HB: Ai Weiwei is presenting a 60-metre-long inflatable boat made from the same materials as the boats used by asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea. Does this work relate directly to Cockatoo Island, where it will be shown?

MK: Yes, I think so. The island was a convict settlement before becoming a major shipyard, so it alludes to this idea of forced migration and mandatory detention. Thai artist Mit Jai Inn and Britain’s Anya Gallaccio are engaging with industrial history by making works on site. Also, Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi is showing 11 shipping containers that represent global networks of distribution. This offers an interesting comparison to Ai Weiwei’s boat, which focuses on the movement of human beings.

Yukinori Yanagi, Icarus Cells (2016). Courtesy of the Sydney Biennale

HB: The Sydney Opera House is included as a venue at this Biennale; what do you think is the importance of this building?

MK: It’s a significant site from a creative perspective; it used to have a dedicated visual arts space, which is now gone. Rayyane Tabet is conducting a lecture about the life of Jørn Utzon, who designed the opera house but controversially left before it was completed. The venue will also screen the Australian premiere of Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s documentary about the global refugee crisis. We’re very lucky to be able to screen this film with the artist present.

The 21st Biennale of Sydney will be on display at various venues across Sydney, 16 March – 11 June 2018

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.