Often, when friends or acquaintances discover that I've finally left paid employment (I'm still avoiding the ageist 'R' word) they ask me whether I have plans for this phase of my life. I'm never sure just how to answer this question because for me the greatest pleasure of no longer going to work is that I don't have to make any plans. I'm enjoying the lack of structure. Of course I have to plan to shop for groceries or catch up with friends or visit family, but there are days when I can just make it up as I go along. There's also space in my life that enables me to respond to a last minute invitation from a friend to join a group from the Asian Arts Society of Australia (TAASA)who were visiting the Sydney Biennale exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW specifically to look at some of the work by Asian artists.
It was a wonderful couple of hours. With the guidance of curator Dr Lim Chye Hong we looked only at four works and had time to examine them in detail, discuss them and tease out meanings and relationships. Chye observed that many of the works in the current Biennale clearly were marked by the hand. So many modern works of art are highly conceptual, and often involve film, video and digital elements. But all the works we examined on this visit were highly crafted by hand.
I'm always particularly interested in art works that incorporate traditional crafts, or where the technical skill of the artist is evident. I also love works that use paper and its textural qualities, so a room filled with paper shopping bags of various sizes and provenances where Japanese artist Yuken Teruya had carefully cut and torn shapes from one side of the bag to create miniature trees within the bags, was a magical experience.
Even more surprising was a work by very young inner Mongolian artist. At first sight (and indeed, second and third sight) Gao Rong had recreated, in full-scale, loving detail, the cramped but ordered interior of her grandmother's home. This was interesting and moving. But when we eventually discovered that the whole structure was created in fabric, with embroidered detail, the work became extraordinary. The mould and cracks on the walls, the weathered and worn surface of the chests, the floral patterning on the ubiquitous thermoses, the clock and the photographs on the wall - all were embroidered.
I was moved by a more traditional work by Yun-Fei Ji - two long horizontal scrolls that depicted the uprooting of agricultural and village life to create the Three Gorge Dam on the Yangtze River. What was remarkable with this work was the use of traditional painting techniques to depict, with great subtlety and layers of meaning, a modern phenomenon.
I was particularly interested in this work as next month I'm travelling to China and will spend several days on a boat trip on the Yangtze to the area depicted in this work. Chye raised interesting ideas in discussing the politics of this work. The Dam is often depicted as an environmental disaster that displaced millions of people. Undoubtedly this is so. But Chye reminded us that China has a long history of damming rivers and generally intervening with nature to either suit the will of its rulers or accommodate its people. I'm looking forward to my trip in the Yangtze.
This experience finally persuaded me to visit Cockatoo Island, where many larger art works had been installed for the Biennale. Friends had been urging me to visit, the Biennale is closing this weekend, and Spring weather and the freedom of my days made a visit irresistible. Anyway, what's not to like about an excursion that begins and ends with a ferry trip on Sydney Harbour?
Cockatoo Island is fascinating even without the Biennale. The Biennale is icing on the cake. For those who don't know it, the Island is situated in the inner reaches of Sydney Harbour.
After white settlement it was initially used as a prison in the first part of the nineteenth century, when convicts were forced to build barracks and a chapel that still remain. Then for more than a century it was used as a shipbuilding site and so is still littered with the vast industrial structures and spaces of that time.
The echoing spaces are perfect locations for many of the larger artworks of the Biennale, such as Cal Lane's lacy work constructed from a shipping container and surrounded by sand stencilled into lacy shapes. I was reminded of Chye's comments at the AGNSW that so many of the Biennale's works are 'marked by the hand'. This huge metal construction in an industrial space had memories and associations of hand-made fabrics - of doilies, tablecloths and wallpaper.
Inevitably, my favourite works were those made of paper or textiles. I looked for ages at Monika Grzymala's work 'The River', created in collaboration with the Euraba Artists and Papermakers, where rushes and twigs gradually transform to filaments of thread and leaves of paper.
I encountered again a work I'd seen several years ago at the excellent and surprising White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney - Jin Nu's 'Where Have All the Children Gone?'
This collection of painstakingly made, translucent silk dresses was hung in a room that had been one of the bedrooms of a supervisor's house on the Island. Both the dresses and the location were nostalgic with inevitable longings for times past and unknown histories. When I see this collection of small girls' dresses it also provokes thoughts of unborn girl children as a consequence of China's one-child policy.
Li Hongbo's 'Ocean of Flowers' drew gasps of delight as you entered a big room filled with flowers constructed from pleated and folded brightly coloured paper. But even here there was a dark side. When you looked closely the 'flowers' formed themselves into shapes reminiscent of cannons and guns - muzzles pointed in all directions.
Such a great excursion. Such a great way to spend one of my many free days. I have so many photographs. No gallery, however beautiful, could match Cockatoo Island as a location for artworks. Like so many of the works, the Island itself is 'marked by the hand' with its evidence of layers of Sydney's settled history.