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A Haunted House at the End of the World: Biennale of Sydney at the White Bay Power Station

by

24th Biennale of Sydney
Ten Thousand Suns
9 March - 10 June 2024
White Bay Power Station

The twenty-fourth edition of the Sydney Biennale, Ten Thousand Suns, proposes celebration, abundance and joy as a means of challenging ‘Western fatalistic constructions of the apocalypse’. However, within the walls of its central venue – the newly opened White Bay Power Station – the Biennale feels as though the apocalypse has already played out and all that remains is this gargantuan tomb, scattered with memories, corpses and ghosts. 

Inside the carcass of White Bay Power station, I find myself cold, hungry and surrounded by the hundred-year-old viscera of an industry which may well have already dealt the killing blow to the only world I know of. I feel like I am trapped in the dress rehearsal for a nuclear winter. Ironically for a Biennale focused on the solar and radiant, the noxious spectre of carbon emissions seems to have blocked out the titular ten thousand suns; it is dark, blindingly dark in here. Navigating this site can often feel like stumbling through the corridors of a haunted house. Hiding around each corner one finds the apparition of a barely lit artwork or one of the ten thousand volunteers who seem to have been trapped here in career-limbo for an eternity; the thousand yard stare of free labour scarier than any animatronic skeleton. 

White Bay’s coal powered past rusts here in a purgatory between neglect and preservation – haunted by the hulking machinery of colonial extraction. Although this year’s artistic directors Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero make use of the site by contextualising artwork within the joint crises of colonialism and climate collapse, it feels as though the site isn’t willing to bend to such curatorial interventions. The spirit of this place – a wicked spirit at that – strikes back at the desecration of its halls. Squeezed between its dilapidated bones, artworks feel diminished by and subsumed into the visual noise of post-industrial ruin. ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.’1 

Felix De Rooy, Astral Madonna, 1986. Presentation at the 24th Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous assistance from Mondriaan Fund. Courtesy the artist © Felix De Rooy. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photography: Document Photography.

‘Can one haunt a haunting?’ should have been the question posed by the twenty-fourth Sydney Biennale as it isn’t only the site that is haunted but the artwork itself. At first it reveals itself in a whisper, a tiny trick of the light revealing a message to me upon the shiny acrylic face of Felix De Rooy’s large digital prints of post-apocalyptic deities installed across the industrious space. Monumental figures composed of historical artifacts, geological formations and man-made junk rise into the cosmos out of the deadened landscape of a now alien earth. Interestingly, De Rooy’s work revels in the apocalypse as an opportunity to ‘escape the prison of genetic and historical identity’. His deities are compounded from the interconnected histories of colonial subjecthood into an end time of poly-cultural singularity. ‘Exorcised from the European testament’ an ectoplasmic halo hovers atop the head of each god. I tilt my head side to side, conjuring this ghost through angles of refraction until it reveals itself to me.2 The spirit of the rushed installer calling out from that thankless beyond, only now able to communicate through the greasy script of unwiped fingerprints. It may sound easy to ignore such a minor visitation, but the poltergeists of exhibition dysfunction make their presence widely apparent. From the deadened screen of Chitra Ganesh’s three-now-two channelled video How We Do to the arrested holographic fans of Joel Sherwood Spring’s HOLECODED to Lawrence Lek’s barely playable rendition of Nepenthe which itself takes place within a haunted ruin.  

Lawrence Lek, Nepenthe (Summer Palace Ruins Edition), 2022. Presentation at the 24th Biennale of Sydney was made possible with assistance from the British Council. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, Presented initially at QUAD, Derby, England © Lawrence Lek. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Daniel Boud

Evoking the pain of a cultural history fractured by colonial conquest, Lek’s multi-media installation and game Nepenthe (Summer Palace Ruins Edition) summons the ghostly visage of artifacts and temples plundered by Anglo-French aggressors during the Second Opium Wars and now scattered throughout the collections of western museological institutions. Barred from physically retrieving these items, Lek virtually recreates them upon this isle of forgotten souls. Walking through the playable space of Nepenthe feels like straining to remember a distant memory. The choppy frame rate seems to emulate a fractured recollection, making each step through these monuments of loss utterly disorienting. Images blend together in a nauseating motion blur which recalls the slippage between fact and fabrication. While wandering, I become stuck on a staircase, as if the game could not bear to go on looking upon any more solemn, fading memories. As if to render is to remember. I struggle with the controller, trying to shake the unity game engine from its paralysing bereavement but instead, it removes us from the scene. I phase through the floor, under the map, to a cave where perhaps I and the game would be safe from the tortures of reminiscence. I cannot tell you if Lek’s unoptimized ghost in the machine deepened or disserviced my experience of the Nepenthe

Lawrence Lek, Nepenthe (Summer Palace Ruins Edition), 2022. Presentation at the 24th Biennale of Sydney was made possible with assistance from the British Council. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, Presented initially at QUAD, Derby, England © Lawrence Lek. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

Not all spirits linger though, some works in this mausoleum appear completely un-ensouled, none more apparent than the lifeless cadavers of Britz & Mitte, a pair of hyper realistic fox fursuits created by Alvaro Ubano and Petrit Halilaj. Appearing prominently in the promotional material for the Biennale, these skins were once inhabited by the artists in a playful post-human performance as the two embodied the adaptive resilience of the fox within Sydney’s urban sprawl. Staged for exhibition however, the fursuits are vacant and lifeless, laid limply upon the floor. Their bodies sag into themselves, as if they had become trapped here, starving to death and now partially decomposed. The surrounding installation seems to suggest the couple tried in vain to scratch and claw their way out of this industrial tomb, streaking the walls with soot-stained paws in gestures of futile desperation. What was surely intended to be an irreverent tribute to the perseverance of the natural world in the face of ceaseless human conquest, instead appears as a premature eulogy for a planetary ecology on the brink of collapse. In its silence and stillness, all Britz & Mitte manage to impart is a sadness and a shame in being so carelessly human. 

Álvaro Urbano and Petrit Halilaj, Britz & Mitte, 2023 (detail). Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous assistance from Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen and James Lie and assistance from Accion Cultural Española. Courtesy the artists © Álvaro Urbano Petrit Halilaj. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

Other corpses have been cruelly exhumed, dragged from their eternal rest into the light of days which do not belong to them. Originally staged in 1991, Adelaide based collective VNS Matrix’s A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century has been strung up and re-animated to address the future we now wade through. This multimedia manifesto appears in the present as a cluster of tightly hung banners, crammed into the central fuselage of White Bay Power Station. Overlapping and obscuring the text of one another, the series of works seem to muddy into an unintelligible scream. Gaudy neon gradients and crudely cut photo-montage mutants operate from an aesthetic which is now very retro in its futurism. Akin to those late-night sightings of a Simpsons vaporwave edit in the YouTube suggestions bar, the visual language of VNS Matrix is the lingering relic of a cultural thrust which has decidedly moved on. Credited with coining the term ‘cyberfeminism’, VNS Matrix were pioneers in the field which has since burgeoned into the zeitgeist of contemporary arts and academic discourse. Although, Laden with the antiquated rhetoric of bio-essentialism and prose characterised by the cheesy, in-your-face attitude of 90’s pulp sci-fi, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century reads more like a mood board than a substantive creed. Provocations such as ‘The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix’ and ‘Suck my code’ come across as facile and adolescent which works to undermine cyberfeminism as a serious political movement. 

Left to right: VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, 1991 (reprinted for exhibition 2024) (detail); Infiltrate, 1994 (reprinted for exhibition 2024) (detail); SUCK MY CODE, 1996 (reprinted for exhibition 2024). Presentation at the 24th Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous assistance from the Australian Government through Creative Australia, its principal arts investment and advisory body and generous assistance from Arts South Australia. Courtesy the artists © VNS Matrix. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

While owed a great deal of respect for rearing the revolutionary spirit of Cyberfeminism, it is unclear what is to be gained by revisiting VNS Matrix’s prototypical work especially considering the refinement of their later projects. As Virginia Barrat of VNS Matrix reflected in 2017 ‘Cyberfeminism circa 1991 had glaring insufficiencies’. The first ram-raid on technology’s sanctified halls was a gender war, paying little heed to the political economy of technological production and consumption… But that first action, with all its insufficiencies, smashed the field wide open and these gaps provided pivot points towards a more intersectional cyberfeminism.’ So thoroughly outmoded by the nuanced intersectionality and technological R&D of its younger contemporaries such as Tabita Rezaire and Mary Maggic, it feels remis to resuscitate the ancient progenitor of cyberfeminism to represent a discourse which has developed beyond its frame. With many of the aims of cyberfeminism still unrealised, I wish I was staring into the future rather than picking over the past.

 

VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, 1991 (video created 2024) (detail). Auslan performance: William Maggs, video production: Topbunk. Presentation at the 24th Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous assistance from the Australian Government through Creative Australia, its principal arts investment and advisory body and generous assistance from Arts South Australia. Courtesy the artists © VNS Matrix. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

Returning to the lower catacombs of the power station, exhausted and dispirited, I slump down upon a metal bench facing a projection of Adaptation, a film by American artist, Josh Kline. Admittedly, by this point, I am sort of disillusioned and highly inattentive. I can feel my head grind against my notes app, as I reach for some words, any words, to describe the work in front of me which I am not really watching. I collapse, fingers driven by muscle memory, I open Instagram to micro-dose a feed of images illustrating an apocalypse which has supposedly not arrived yet, as if these visions of genocide, ecocide and collapse are prophecies rather than realities. The tomb in my phone screen feels like a maquette of the tomb I am currently stuck inside of, so perhaps in some way the twenty-fourth Sydney Biennale does capture the feeling of the times, though maybe not in the defiant joyousness that its artistic directors insist upon. Itching to escape from this cold, impersonal place, I make a bargain with myself. I will put my phone down when Kline’s film loops back to the beginning, I will pay attention, I will think and feel deeply against the numbing bitterness which colours this place and I will write about how this too made me feel sad, empty, doomed, a ghost. Then I will allow myself to leave this place and return to the light of a single sun which seems to condemn this world to such an inevitable end.

Josh Kline, Adaptation, 2019-2022. Collection of the artist; courtesy 47 Canal, New York. Shown at the Biennale of Sydney as a video projection with permission of the artist. © Josh Kline. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

And so, the film starts again, and my eyes seem to finally catch the glow of Adaptation. Passing between the semi-submerged husks of skyscrapers, a tiny tugboat and its crew scavenge the drowned streets of New York City. In a series of scenes brimming with the tired comradery of after work drinks, the anonymous crew of the vessel wind down after a day of unexplained labours. As the setting sun glistens across the perpetual flood which has embalmed this empty metropolis, the ensemble decompresses aboard their life raft; A cup of coffee, a warm smile, a cigarette passed between fingers. Floating down this post-climate-collapse lazy river, the handful of, I guess you’d call them survivors, take in the end of the day, together looking out upon the flat ocean which stretches into infinity between the headstones of the old world. The ambient pacing and everyday pleasures, labours and longings of these survivors renders the apocalypse mundane. Intersecting the morose jazz score, a monologue is recited which makes it clear that their world has indeed ended, and our protagonists are starkly aware of it.

‘Human aspirations, dreams, and plans
human disappointment, exhaustion, and failure
that grew like blood diamonds
in glass and steel and concrete

temporary rented homes for temporary rented lives
rotting, dissolving, and forgotten in the drink

there is oxygen in the water but not for you’

It is a sombre speech, but defeatism is resisted by the accompanying imagery; the tired persistence and small joys of the crew. In the face of this empty and dying world, what is there to do but build what we can with who we have during the time we have left. For them, like us, crisis has become the status quo but instead of reacting in a conceit of defiant celebration, Kline’s film renders a stoic fatalism which refuses to deny the pain nor pleasure of subsistence whether it be before, during or after the end of the world.

Josh Kline, Adaptation, 2019-2022. Collection of the artist; courtesy 47 Canal, New York. Shown at the Biennale of Sydney as a video projection with permission of the artist. © Josh Kline. Installation view, 24th Biennale of Sydney, Ten Thousand Suns, 2024, White Bay Power Station. Photograph: Document Photography.

My mind wanders back through the Biennale’s graveyard with a newfound sympathy. Although many of the works staged in this sarcophagus fail to evoke the promise of a ‘collective celebration’ which may ‘shrug off the apocalyptic normal as a governing rubric and totalising event-structure’, within even the most lifeless of corpses, the most woeful of ghosts, the saddest of memories there is still the glimmer of a stubborn, loving, deeply human persistence which traverses the length of our slow collective cataclysms.3 I step out of White Bay Power Station into the dying light of a solitary sun, bellied with a hope that perhaps like Kline’s crew of mariners or De Rooy’s post-collapse deities, there can exist a beginning after the end, a world to be built anew.

Jake Starr is a multidisciplinary artist residing on Gadigal land (Sydney, Australia). Their work occupies the realms of new media, sculpture, writing and photography. Starr’s practice engages with new technologies, non-anthropocentric theory and a diverse lineage of documentary processes to reify the glitches, contradictions and ideological undercurrents of data sets, illuminating the material realities of abstracted information while theorising on the future implications of our technological and ideological systems.