Lifestyle & Culture

Last Chance to See Biennale of Sydney Art Exhibition: Rīvus

Barkandji Canoe sitting in the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Andry Marwick gives you a sneak peek into Sydney’s Arts and Culture scene at the 23rd Biennale, the largest art exhibition held in Australia.  

From 12 March to 13 June this year Sydney will again showcase its 23rd Biennale called Rīvus. The largest art exhibition held in Australia will exhibit contemporary works from many Australian and international artists all to this year’s collective theme of rivers, waterways, and water environments.

With climate change and environmental desecration at the forefront of the minds of many, this year’s Biennale seems more important than ever before. Viewers are encouraged to engage with these artworks not just as incredible pieces of works to admire but as avant-garde and tangible representations of social and environmental issues that urge us to question.

The works presented at the Biennale are more or less an artistic approach to activism and what it means to coexist alongside our rivers and wetlands in the 21st century. The exhibition this year is also of great importance to many Indigenous artists whose work and voice are brought to centerstage.

The vast collection of works will be featured all over Sydney, from the Art Gallery of New South Wales to the National Art School, The Cutaway at Barangaroo, and the Museum of Contemporary Art to name a few.

Together the multitude of artworks harmonize to create a truly immersive and thought-provoking exhibit, a definite must-see in the upcoming weeks.

A few highlights and must-see works of this year’s Biennale include:


Naziha Mestaoui 

One beat, one tree (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

Image by Biennale of Sydney

In her work One beat, one tree created in 2012 by late Belgian artist Naziha Mestaoui, this interactive installation work invites visitors to plant a digital realm shown on a large screen by stepping on a sensor in front of the work. The tree grows according to the movements of the participants and for every virtual tree planted a real one is planted in return. At the conclusion of the Biennale, these trees will be planted all across Australia.


Ackroyd and Harvey (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

Since 1990 British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have collaborated together to create works that incorporate nature itself as their medium. Their works reference the notion of memory and time as well as the culture and nature of the surrounding environment, bringing forth the conversation of our modern climate crisis.

Lille Madden/Tar-Ra (Dawes Point) 2022, Image by Biennale of Sydney

On display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales are their photographic works on grass.

These five metre high portraits blur the boundaries of art, activism and the natural environment. Created in a dark room by projecting a large scale image onto a vertical canvas of living seedling grass the photograph is quite literally absorbed into nature. The grass canvas acts in the same way as a photographic film negative. When the image is projected onto it the grass grows greener with the production of chlorophyll in places where light is more intense while in areas that get little to no light the natural colour of the grass will not be that green.

To create the photographic images for the work Ackroyd and Harvey worked in collaboration with respected Gadigal Elder Uncle Charles Madden alongside his Granddaughter Lille Madden who is a SeedMob activist as well as a First Nations director at Groundswell who advocates and amplifies action on climate change.

Uncle Charles ‘Chicka’ Madden / Ta-Ra (Dawes Point) 2022, Image by Biennale of Sydney

The portraits were taken of the subjects underneath the towering Harbour bridge at Tar-Ra or Dawes Point, a significant location in history as it was the site of the first contact between Indigenous peoples and Europeans in Australia.


Badger Bates 

Barkandji Canoe 2020 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) 

The work of Badger Bates, an Indigenous artist born in 1947 revolves around the importance and significance of the river and the land to his own identity.

Made using traditional methods and practices for the first time in 70 years Bates’ Barkandji Canoe was constructed with the collaborative help of school students from Bates’ hometown of Wilcannia along with local artists and elders as part of the Djamu Regional Program established by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In a 2020 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald Bate’s responded in reference to the depletion of the Darling River (Baarka) and the Barkandji people’s long fight against the NSW government regarding cultural water rights.

“they can take our water, but they can’t take our culture,

“When we go fishing we go as a family and we sit and talk and remember and pass stories on about our ancestors and our land water”, Bates stated

Image by Andry Marwick

To the Barkandji people like Bates himself as well as many other Indigenous peoples the rivers and the land on which they live are inextricably connected. To them, the river is their life-giving mother, a giver of food and a place to pass culture upon, but in recent years industrial industries and climate change have depleted and desecrated these significant sites. For Bates, this Canoe represents a culture that refuses to be taken the victim by the impacts of industry, government and climate change. The rivers’ waters may be receding but their culture will remain the same.

Bates’s many other works can also be found in and around the Art Gallery of New South Wales and at the cutaway in Barangaroo.


Friends of Myall Creek 

Myall Creek Gathering Cloak Stories (National Art School, Darlinghurst)

This particular work was created to raise awareness of the Myall Creek Massacre in order to bring to light the truth of Australian history which we collectively share.

The centre depicts the massacre that occurred in 1838 when 28 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed in an unprovoked yet deliberate attack. Surrounding the central image are numerous contributions including Gomeroi songlines, flora and fauna as well as individual perspectives and stories since the massacre.

Images by Biennale of Sydney

One side of the cloak is covered in possum fur while moving around to the other side reveals the stories and art. A possum cloak holds significance for Aboriginal peoples as it was once a commonly used garment and is a cultural symbol. The first imprint of non-indigenous hands on a possum fur cloak is also featured in this work.

This work exposes this dark part of our colonial history through the artistic collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community members in Rural NSW.


Milton Becerra 

Lost Parradise – Vibrational Energy H2O 2022

Created by Venezuelan artist Milton Becerra this installation work in the Museum of Contemporary Art consists of three large stones suspended above the ground by a network of threads.

These threads holding the stones up in a web-like appearance create subtle vibrations and sounds under the constant tension. Taking inspiration from natural forms, ancestral stories, and traditional Venezuelan hammocks Beccara emulates the natural world and its beauty and energy.

Whether you’re visiting Sydney for a weekend or just going for the day, the 23rd Biennale is simply something you have to see. The Sydney Biennale only happens every 2 years and the train trip from Newcastle is just a two and a half hour journey, so grab your backpack, camera, or sketchbook and head on down to Sydney while you still can and experience it for yourself.

Feature Image by Andry Marwick, Yak Media Staff Writer

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