Resilience and Retreat In the Sydney and Adelaide Biennales

| Andy Butler
 + Installation view, ‘Ten thousand suns’ 24th Biennale of Sydney featuring art by Pacific Sisters (foreground) and I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih (wall), 2024. photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Christopher Snee.

Resilience and Retreat In the Sydney and Adelaide Biennales

Resilience And Retreat In The Sydney And Adelaide Biennales | Andy Butler

The 2020s have been punishing. We’re not even halfway through the decade, but overlapping crises continue to mount: from the pandemic, the climate crisis, to the genocide in Gaza. All occurring amidst the crushing inequality of a new “Gilded Age”, as the 1% accrued nearly two-thirds of new wealth created since 2020.1 The first year of this decade, just before COVID hit, I travelled from Dhaka Art Summit to the Adelaide Biennale. Both events had attempted to respond to global crises and legacies of colonialism. Curator Leigh Robb’s brilliant Monster Theatres at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) that year conjured the darkest undercurrents of our time. Murmurings of a forthcoming pandemic meant that I never made it to the opening of Brook Andrews Sydney Biennale NIRIN (which I later attended), as the stupidly fast pace of my international art travel abated.

Monster Theatres and NIRIN interrogated many key issues of our time. Four years on, and in the midst of deeper crises, the current Biennales of Adelaide and Sydney are turning towards hope, joy and optimism.

Turning towards hope at a time of deep crisis and inequality—especially for contemporary art events that rely so heavily on the largesse of the 1% amidst dwindling government funding—represents obvious challenges. The crushing cost of living and housing crisis means hope is hard to hang on to, while the live-streamed genocide in Gaza leaves one in the depths of despair. At the Biennale of Sydney, there is so much black and brown joy and resilience, that it reaches a level of overwhelming spectacle, leaving little space to reflect on the difficulties of our time. While in Adelaide, delving into our inner lives, into an Inner Sanctum, makes the world and its structural crises recede too far into the background. Neither Adelaide nor Sydney meaningfully push back against the infrastructure of Biennales, amping up the cognitive dissonance one feels between the artistic sentiments being proposed within structures that maintain and perpetuate a status quo.  


There have been attempts to rethink how the model of these massive contemporary art events function. ruangrupa tried it with lumbung the fifteenth iteration of Documenta. lumbung charted a shift towards commoning and collective practice, proposing new modes of cultural production that have formed mostly in Southeast Asia. Documenta Fifteen did away with the authority and function of the individual curator, with participants coming together through a web of relationships and invitations from one collective to another, shifting the distribution of funds and resources into a more ‘horizontal’ model. The controversies in the lead up to documenta fifteen, mostly centred on the participation of Palestinean collectives, as well as a forensic search for antisemitism as defined by the German government and media, which were leveraged to discredit lumbung and its mostly non-western participants.2

One can feel the effects on the ground in Europe in the wake of Documenta Fifteen—as experimentation, attempts to shift Eurocentric modes of production of art and culture, may be met with rebuke by the systems of power we’re embedded in.3   

For me, both the Adelaide and Sydney Biennials are indicative of divergent but linked conservative curatorial tactics. There is no fundamental rethink, like ruangrupa’s Documenta, of the Biennale infra/structure. While I don’t believe the rethinking of models of cultural production should be foisted on the shoulders of curators, shying away from these discussions in our current moment of crisis feels like a capitulation to power. Both the Adelaide and Sydney biennales exist on different points of the same small axis of movement that is afforded to art and culture by the 1% and governmental agencies, who control and shape the circulation of public discussion through contemporary art.

For Ten Thousand Suns, Artistic Directors Costinas and Guerrero bring a precision to institutional curating that we do not often see in Australia. They cross histories and geographies, bringing works from different times and places together, to spark dialogues that intersect with ideas of joy, hope and resilience during a time of crisis. This is most evident at UNSW Galleries and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

 + Australia to Africa Frank Bowling, 1971. ‘Ten thousand suns’ 24th Biennale of Sydney 2024,photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Christopher Snee.

Ten Thousand Suns at AGNSW begins and is guided by Frank Bowling's monumental Africa to Australia (1971), a starburst yellow canvas made at the height of the Cold War era that traces the borders of the African continent, across South and Southeast Asia, to Australia and the Pacific. The AGNSW chapter traverses this geographic region traced by Bowling, tying together perspectives not often held in the same space.

Bombing of Darwin (2023) by Tiwi Islands based Pauletta Kerinauia, shows Japanese Planes dropping bombs on two warships, painted in locally sourced ochre. Kerinauia’s Grandfather, Matthis Ulungura, is legendary for capturing a downed Japanese pilot in 1942. Across the gallery, Sachiko Kazama’s Pavilion - Earthly Fart (2020), is a woodblock print of Nissan Skylines holding up a world of factories shaped like a mushroom cloud in reference to the imperial vision of WWII Japan.

In another room, Breda Lynch’s Cake Bomb (2016-2021) recreates a cyanotype print of ‘the Atomic General’ William HP Blandy cutting an extravagant cake with a decorative mushroom cloud atop, to celebrate the nuclear achievements of the American government. It has a slapstick archvillain quality to it, which is only amplified by a Gordon Hookey video work of Kangaroos launching a nuclear missile on Australian parliament house.

 + Installation view, ‘Ten thousand suns’ 24th Biennale of Sydney Pacific Sisters (foreground) and Robert Gabris (wall), 2024. photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Christopher Snee.

In the final room of this chapter, the Pacific Sisters solidify the tone of joy and resilience, with a dash of queer canivale, that Costinas and Guerrero are pushing throughout the Biennale. The collective, based in Aotearoa since 1992, have made four incredible mardi gras-esque costumes that weave together customary practices and fashion. MuroMoa (2023) is named after a site of French nuclear testing. With Volcanic rock, shell, satin, lurex, and more, they create a costume to protect what’s left in a post-nuclear world.

The queer resilience and carnivale energy of Mardis Gras continues in many facets of the Biennale. Over at UNSW for example, Yangamini, a collective of Tiwi sistagirls, have made monumental butt-plugs crafted out of local and traditional materials. A video work plays next to it, footage from the recent Aboriginal float at the Mardis Gras that recreated Malcolm Cole’s participation as drag Captain Cook, with Yangamini member Crystal Love addressing the camera, decrying ‘Evil Ass dreaming’, or the bad spirits that come from white people and mining companies talking out of their ass. The butt plugs are there to trap the “evil ass” energy. It’s emotional range goes from hilarious and joyful, to deep despair at how communities are being treated. There are despairing images of Crystal Love at a Santos conference, surrounded by suited mining types angling to extract profit and resources from Indigenous lands.

 + 24th Biennale of Sydney, ‘Ten Thousand Suns’ featuring art by Yangamini, 2024. UNSW Galleries, photo by Jacquie Manning.
 + 24th Biennale of Sydney, ‘Ten Thousand Suns’ featuring art by Yangamini 2024. UNSW Galleries, photo by Jacquie Manning.

The extraction of value, from people, land and art, by the wealthy classes casts a pall over most of the Biennale, given that curatorially it seems to do nothing to push back against the business-as-usual infrastructure of the event. This goes beyond culture washing. Rather, it feels like black and brown joy and resilience is being instrumentalised for profit. This is nowhere more evident than at White Bay Power Station—the latest piece of industrial infrastructure to be repurposed into a contemporary art space.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, White Bay is mentioned in the same breath as Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall by Guerrero.4 This would mean Sydney now has two Tate Turbine Halls, given that Arts Minister Ben Franklin declared AGNSW’s The Tank as Sydney’s answer to the Tate.5

White Bay, the centrepiece of the Biennale, is filled with artworks that cross into the scale of spectacle, so as not to be swallowed by the cavernous empty shell of the building. A monumental painting by Dylan Mooney of Malcolm Cole—Cole appears in the aforementioned UNSW work, as well as works in Chau Chak Wing—rises sixteen metres high. Cole is in his iconic Captain Cook hat and outfit stands shirtless, smiling, a rainbow wrapping around him.

There’s also a gargantuan TV set by Kaylene Whiskey, in an insallation Kaylene TV, where audiences can enter into the TV set replete with cutouts of Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, Wonder Woman, and other pop culture references that Whiskey often deploys in her paintings. Lots of people stop to take photos inside the fantastical world she’s created.

 + Kaylene TV Kaylene Whiskey, 2023. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain with generous assistance from the Australian Government through Creative Australia, its principal arts investment and advisory body Courtesy the artist, Iwantja Arts and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, White Bay Power Station. Photo by Daniel Boud. mixed media installation.

This is where I encounter a large tour group who I learn are Cartier associates, dripping in luxury clothing, reportedly in town for a Cartier conference—Cartier’s flagship Oceania store is in Sydney. Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain, started by Cartier, has supported a range of global First Nations artists to make work for the Biennale, with this tour group getting insights into the projects supported by the Fondation.

The tour is just starting, with the guide framing work of First Nations artists at White Bay as offering us insights into the capacity of joy as a form of resistance against historic struggles. That despite the horrors faced by First Nations people around the world, indigenous cultures have adapted, and these artists are at the vanguard of bringing ancient traditions into contemporary life.

The guide references the original use of White Bay as a power station: ‘This place used to be around resource extraction’, they say, ‘now, it’s been turned into a place of beauty’.

This feels dystopic. $100 million was poured into the refurbishment of White Bay to turn it into a contemporary art space, with luxury brands building cultural cachet off the work of First Nations artists. This area is earmarked for even further development given that White Bay is soon to have a train station open near it, with the Biennale and a contemporary art space adding to the amenity of the area. Property developers in Sydney are about to make a mint extracting value out of the joy of black and brown people who’ve overcome “historic” struggles, to sell the appeal of the area. Apartments are already going for millions, with a housing market more unaffordable than London.

A pair of works at Chau Chak Wing are metonymic of how Ten Thousand Suns feels, and I see them after passing a large group of older white women gathering for a tour who are giving Division of Wentworth philanthropist, all with matching blonde haircuts and designer clothes.

Nine framed facsimiles of drawings hang on a wall near the exhibition entrance. Originally in pastel, graphite, charcoal, they were made by the Carrolup Child Artists in the late 1940s—all held against their will as Stolen Generations children in the Carrolup Native Settlement in Western Australia. Hundreds of drawings were made in the late 40s, after a staff member encouraged children to draw to try and control rowdy behaviour. One drawing, an outline of the Australian continent filled with blocks of colour, is eerily reminiscent of contemporary maps of the different language groups of Aboriginal Australia.

According to the work’s didactic, a British philanthropist was so taken with these drawings, that they were exhibited widely in the UK and Australia. ‘Tragically’, reads the didactic, ‘their acclaimed artworks soon became a propaganda tool allowing the State to feel vindicated for their racist policies.’ 

In one video work exhibited at Chau Chak from 1988 (Alphabet City Serenade), the late Native American artist and poet Diane Burns reads a poem about gentrification on the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side. ‘Once they build the raildorad, the buffalo split… Brother can you spare me a dime?’ As shots of old tenements ripe for development loom behind her. ‘I’m a hopeful Aborigine, trying to find a place to be.’ It ends with a direct address to camera. ‘Hey man.. Do you have a cigarette, do you know a place I could sublet?’, before delivering the brutal line, ‘Oh, you want to talk about gentrification?’.

I wonder whether any of the philanthropist types on the tour own property in Redfern.

The spectacle of joy and resilience of brown and black people in this Biennale feels like history repeating itself, to vindicate the crushing world constructed by the wealthy. Joy and resilience amongst groups who’ve felt the brunt of the imperial project would exist without biennales, yet the machine of the Biennale of Sydney is able to instrumentalise it for continued wealth accumulation. Costinas and Guerrero are obviously astute enough curators to subtly draw attention to this dynamic, while not actively pushing back against it. This dynamic is a common one in the Biennale circuit, described by Slavoj Žižek as the Obsessional Neurotic Stance: ‘You talk all the time, not to achieve something’, he says, ‘but to make it sure that nothing will happen.’6

The sheer scale of joyful resilience the Biennale inundates its audience with is exhausting. Even if the artists and curators are driven by a political passion, or with visions for possible worlds other than our own, this energy is corralled in such a way that we don’t have time to reimagine how culture is made under capitalism. 

Inner Sanctum, curated by José Da Silva, by contrast to Ten Thousand Suns carnivalesque curatorial tactics attempts to create a space for contemplation and slowness. The spectacle of brown and black hope is turned down many notches—with da Silva removing the hyperbolic ideas of decolonial worldbuilding, joyful resilience and activism.

Instead, Inner Sanctum attempts to take us to inner worlds, to the sacred spaces of imagination—to a place of reflection and hope.

 + My Painted Country 1 George Cooley, 2024. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Saul Steed. installation view: 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum.

It opens with George Cooley’s My Painted Country, a monumental landscape in iridescent colours, sitting like a silent sentry behind the entry desk of the museum. Painted from memory based on Cooley’s time spent opal mining in the region, the kaleidoscopic colours renders the landscape anew. Next to it, is a fossilised squid tube from the cretaceous period, on loan from the South Australian Museum. The fossil is covered in opals, reminiscent of the inland sea which enveloped South Australia millions of years ago.

It feels vertiginous standing there—impossible to conceive of a history that goes back millions of years on this land mass. ‘Inland Sea’ is the title of this first chapter of the Biennale, which invites audiences to reflect on deep and geologic time. I find myself in stunned silence.

Poetry and the literary play a central role in Inner Sanctum. Artists who cross over into poetry, and vice versa, create feelings of expansiveness, introspection and awe.

Choral singers from the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir emanate out from pendant speakers in Artist/Poet Jazz Money’s This is how we love (2022), an ‘anthem’ she was originally commissioned to write for queer choirs. ‘A family of joy/a family of care/with open arms and open hearts/this is how we love’. There’s a focus on platonic love and networks of care, and its sounds expand out across many gallery spaces.

 + This is How We Love Jazz Money, 2024. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Saul Steed. installation view: 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, one of Australia’s greatest poets, brings together photographs inspired by her 2023 verse novel She is the Earth, which charts a journey through grief and the healing potential of Country, of reconnecting with her Aboriginal family. ‘There is no way back/my past is blank/my future unseen/at night, I am a child’, her voice feels intimate coming down from a speaker above a seat, black and white photos of Country in front of the viewer. One, an image of wispy clouds over the ocean, with handwritten text ‘as song fills air, it is a hymn’, in subtle reference to the religious drive of missionaries.

Da Silva conceives of five parts that are like chapters in a novel taking us deep into ourselves and back out to the world. After the chapter The Inland Sea comes A Clearing, A Periphery, to speak to atmosphere and memory; The River Path, for ancestral knowledge and spirituality; A Quiet Spot, where inner and outer worlds collide; The Writing of Love and Finding It, a coda on love as the defining characteristic of human consciousness.

This structure works well in the catalogue under the poetic guidance of da Silva’s prose. The reality of executing this narrative spatially in the gallery is where Inner Sanctum falters. Da Silva’s vision feels too ambitious for the footprint of the space. There are stunning moments of introspection and quiet, but the echoes of a calamitous outside world recede too far into the distance. The artistic energy of the works isn’t shaped into coherent enough threads to allow us to think deeply on the political, social, cultural or economic contexts that we’re in.

There are moments where the reflective space opened up by works in Inner Sanctum allows us to find a stillness, while also allowing touchpoints to think deeply on the shadows of the political world we inhabit. Jasmine Togo Brisby’s As Above, So Below is brilliant in its arrangement of sculptural forms to create the footprint of a slaveship’s hull, speaking to the history of blackbirding and slavery that Australia is implicated in. The quietude around the work gives it a spare beauty, with the dark undercurrents of its form powerfully emanating out of it.

 + As Above So Below Jasmine Togo-Brisby, 2024. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Saul Steed. installation view: 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Inner Sanctum.

Biennales that trade in hyperbolic statements can feel fraudulent in their claims of art’s capacity to change the world from within infrastructures built by those in power. In this sense, Inner Sanctum feels more honest than Ten Thousand Suns. It demarcates the truer limits of art and culture within these walls. We can sit in quiet meditation, but do nothing to shift the world around us, whatever the political drives we bring to our work.

This pair of Biennales represent an art world at an impasse during a time of deep turmoil. The artistic and curatorial visions are worthwhile in many ways, and particular moments feel genuinely moving. At no point was I so cynical that I questioned the value of being an artist, of dedicating oneself to working with culture—yet, it feels like in the current mess of Biennale’s and the art world, we can either give over hyperbolic statements of joy and resilience to the rich, like in Ten Thousand Suns, or retreat so far inwards we get lost, as in Inner Sanctum.

In both cases, there’s a chasm formed between art and culture and the realities of the political world and political passions we bring to our work. As rightfully reiterated by Sophia Cai’s recent piece in Overland—for many of the artists within these Biennale’s, especially those whose work and lived experiences ‘challenge historically privileged world views— including patriarchy, heteronormativity of whiteness’, their very existence in public cultural discourse is already a political statement.7 For these Biennale’s to corral this energy into spectacle on the one hand—in the case of Sydney—or interiority on the other hand—in the case of Adelaide—limits their capacity to inspire and contribute to meaningful change, or to generate honest and robust discussions about power. At a time of such crisis we are seeing people taking to the streets, artists standing up for their values against deep inequity and genocide and putting their careers and livelihoods on the line by speaking out. We need these large-scale events to demand much more from our cultural infrastructure.

Ten Thousand Suns, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Australia. 9 March–10 June, 2024.
Inner Sanctum, 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Australia. 1 March—2 June, 2024.


1. In a report published in 2023 by Oxfam International they found that ‘…since 2020, $26 trillion (63 percent) of all new wealth was captured by the richest 1 percent, while $16 trillion (37 percent) went to the rest of the world put together. A billionaire gained roughly $1.7 million for every $1 of new global wealth earned by a person in the bottom 90 percent.’ A summary of the report can be found here:

2. You can see examples of the controversy and anti-semitism accusations that prefaced Documenta here:  and

3. This has frequently resulted in accusations of anti-semitism being directed towards artists who have been vocally pro-palestine and subsequent censorship and cancellations of exhibitions: For example and

4. Linda Morris, 'This once-derelict Sydney building is ‘better than Tate Modern’, say curators', The Sydney Morning Herald, October 21 2023.

5. Kelly Burke, 'The Sydney Modern project is finally open. Has the Art Gallery of NSW’s $344m expansion paid off?', The Guardian Newspaper, 3 December 2022.

6. Interview between Joanna Kavena and Slavoj Žižek, 'The life and philosophy of Slavoj Žižek', The Institute of Art and Ideas, 19th November 2023.

7. Sophia Cai, 'Why art can’t be apolitical', Overland, 10 APRIL 2024,

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