This Sydney Biennale — the 17th exhibition of contemporary art — is the largest ever, featuring more than 440 works by 166 artists and collaborators from 36 countries. The works are presented in seven venues across Sydney, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Cockatoo Island, Pier 2/3 and the Sydney Opera House.

At the launch on Cockatoo Island last week — with the main hall of the industrial precinct lit up in a spectacular fashion by Cai Guo-Qiang’s suspended, light-emitting cars — artistic director David Elliott said that the Biennale aims “to present diverse cultures on the equal playing field of contemporary art, where no culture can assume superiority over any other”.


This sense of artistic democracy extends to even the smaller details. One of the best parts of the Biennale is being able to read the artwork descriptions, which are refreshingly free of the sort of impenetrable “art-speak” that normally bedevils these exhibitions. I’m not sure if the Biennale would like to adopt this as a marketing slogan, but you really don’t have to be wearing a black skivvy to enjoy it. This must be the influence of Elliott, who speaks passionately yet comprehensibly on his topic, and can even crack a joke.

Highlights for me included Chinese artist Shen Shaomin’s Bonsai series and Mexican artist Enrique Chagoya’s politically charged drawings, both at the MCA. And at the Botanic Gardens – Janet Laurence’s WAITING — A Medicinal Garden for Ailing Plants, and Fiona Hall’s Barbarians at the Gate.

Any fans of the Tokyo Shock Boys should head to Woolloomooloo’s Artspace, which is being taken over for the duration of the Biennale by Tokyo’s experimental performance space SuperDeluxe.

There, you will be able to see bands, DJs, “sound artists” and the super groovy “PechaKucha Nights”, which is kind of like Chatroulette without the webcam. Anyone can go down there on Thursday nights and show off their genius with 20 slides in 20 seconds.

I am particularly looking forward to seeing Japanese surf/garage rock outfit Jackie and the Cedrics and the “heavily distorted post-punk all-girl trio nisennenmondai”.

The Biennale runs until  August 1 and almost all the events are free. Wear what you like.