NIRIN Virtual Tour: Cockatoo Island

By Biennale of Sydney

22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN



Cockatoo Island has a diverse and layered history that resonates through the many site-specific works presented here. In the Dharag language, Cockatoo Island is known as Wareamah – ‘war’ meaning women and ‘eamah’ meaning land – suggesting that the island was a site for women’s ceremonies.

In 1839 Cockatoo Island was set up as a convict penal colony, and today remains a testament to the hardship of the mass transportation and forced labour of prisoners. The island has also been the site of a girls’ reformatory home, a location to accommodate ‘wayward’ teenage boys, a dockyard, and a major ship-building site. In 2000, part of the island was occupied by a branch of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, an Aboriginal rights group. 

NIRIN gathers a diverse range of artworks that navigate historical, political, and social contexts and stories from around the world, and which respond to the industrial, convict and outdoor sites at Cockatoo Island. A major theme is that of BAGARAY-BANG (Healing), with artists bringing healing practices from their own cultural contexts in order to address this site as well as broader histories of colonialism, the removal of people from land, and environmental devastation. 

This island site also becomes, for a number of artists, a metaphor for our world as archipelago, and the inability to escape from the global threat of climate change and man-made pollution. The borders of an island no longer protect and hold but are being rapidly eroded. 

NIRIN gives space to artists to experiment with and re-imagine futures, reaching up into the highest rafters, touching the stone and the water, bringing new life and community, and holding space for diverse forms of gathering. While speaking with the ghosts and vibrations of many pasts, NIRIN is a space for considering together how we heal and what comes next.

Explore the island and discover NIRIN.

NIRIN at Cockatoo Island (2020)Biennale of Sydney

Eric Bridgeman & Haus Yuriyal (Papua New Guinea)

This replica of the artist's round house in Papua New Guinea is called SUNA (Middle Ground) - a word meaning a safe and central location in a village ideal for gathering, and distant enough from potential conflicts at the borders. Read more

Nicholas Galanin (USA)

Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial imagines a future where the statues of veneration that mark our public landscape today – in this case, the Captain Cook statue that currently resides in Sydney’s Hyde Park – have long been forgotten, buried beneath the earth.

Shadow on the Land, an excavation and bush burial Installation ImageBiennale of Sydney

Inverting the gaze of archaeology, which has often framed Indigenous cultures as belonging to the past, this work imagines a possible future where the land begins to heal colonial wounds, while still remembering. Watch the artist interview

ArTree Nepal (Nepal)

Not less expensive than gold expresses the artist collective's frustration over the erasure and disintegration of Indigenous, ethnic and shamanistic medicinal and healing practices in Nepal. These natural processes are denigrated as 'pseudoscience', yet also commercially exploited as exports. Read more

Manuel Ocampo (Philippines)

Ocampo's paintings play with religious and cultural symbolism and iconography. They hang banner-like on Cockatoo Island, each painting the feeling of a billboard announcing a macabre celebration. View the artworks

Ibrahim Mahama (Ghana)

No Friend but the Mountains 2012-20 dresses the entirety of the interior of the Turbine Hall with jute sacks, referencing and stirring the histories of labour and incarceration that lay dormant on the island. Explore the artwork

Tennant Creek Brio (Australia)

We Are the Living History expresses the energetic, experimental and transformative spirit of the Tennant Creek Brio, whose work is a dynamic interplay of influences including Aboriginal desert traditions, abstract expressionism, action painting, found or junk art, street art and activism. Explore more

Tania Bruguera (Cuba/USA)

UNNAMED is a series of interactive performances in which participants choose the name of a person murdered or assassinated for their actions protecting the environment. The name is inscribed onto their body with an inkless tattoo which disappears after a short time; an act of intimate memorialisation. Read the story

Andre Eugene (Haiti)

Eugene’s work called Lavi & Lanmò (Life and Death) appropriates and repurposes 21st century consumer debris, often dumped on Haiti, into fetish sculptures with an apocalyptic MTV-futuristic vision. View the artwork

Jose Dávila (Mexico)

The Act of Perseverance exhibits sculptures created from found objects on Cockatoo Island, the site of an early colonial quarry, a British convict precinct, a World War II shipyard, and now, a protected UNESCO site. The sculptures are metaphors for the forgotten welfare of sandstone, metals and discarded objects that once had usefulness and power. Read more

Latai Taumoepeau (Australia)

The Last Resort is a performance installation which explores the fragility and vulnerability of saltwater ecologies and communities of Pacific Island nations in Oceania. The work responds to the emotional, geo-political and physical labour of Pacific people and their struggle in the acceleration of rising sea levels due to the melting of ice glaciers, threatening mass exodus and displacement. Explore the installation

Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands) Art Centre (Australia)

Across multiple Biennale locations, 14 artists from Iltja Ntjarra (Many Hands) Art Centre trace stories of Country as well as struggles with housing and displacement by painting beautiful landscapes and powerful messages of self-determination onto ‘dollar shop’ bags. View all of the artworks

Paulo Nazareth (Brazil)

For this project, Nazareth aims to trace and document the history of an 11,500-year-old fossil named Luzia. The fossil, found in a cave in Belo Horizonte, is said to be the Upper Palaeolithic period skeleton of a Palaeo-Indian. She was named Luzia as a homage to the Australopithecus fossil named Lucy, the 3.8 million-year-old hominid whose remains were found in Ethiopia that same year. Learn more

Sissel M Bergh (Norway)

On screen, #Tjaetsie / knowhowknow presents a visual and sonic journey into the aquatic world that has nourished Sami people for thousands of years. Journeying below the surface of the ocean, Bergh’s film explores worlds otherwise invisible to us, inviting us to listen to Gorriijh guine, goddess of the ocean, and meet the creatures who live in and around it, as well as fishermen, scientists and boat builders, as part of this political and poetic engagement with the ocean. Read more

Léuli Eshrāghi (Australia/Canada)

re(cul)naissance comprises a neon, fabric, water pool and moving image installation. The work "proposes a future state of unmitigated wellbeing and unashamed pleasure for faafafine, faatama, queer, trans, non-binary and further peoples who have been violently removed from our erstwhile key roles in intellectual and ceremonial life in multiple Indigenous kinship systems.” Explore the artwork

Lisa Reihana (New Zealand)

Te Wai Ngunguru (Nomads of the Sea) weaves historical fact with fiction in this striking time-based installation which re-imagines the late 18th century nomadic life of the female convict Charlotte Badger, a pakeha (European) woman of British descent who is co-opted by a Maori chief. Read more

Vajiko Chachkhiani (Germany/Georgia)

Army without the General consists of an enormous tree stump, embedded within a pile of excavated earth including rocks, soil and branches, around which are situated numerous tombstones baring portraits of the unknown deceased. We are dwarfed by this unknown or lost landscape as if it has been removed or stolen from a far-away place and dumped for our contemplation and confusion. Read more

Lucas Ihlein & Kim Williams (Australia)

"What would a genuinely plastic-free Biennale look like?” As anyone living in the world in 2020 would recognise, this is nigh-on-impossible to achieve. How did Ihlein and Williams facilitate the Biennale's desire to "go plastic-free"? Learn more

Lhola Amira (South Africa)

Amira's Philisa: Ditaola installation addresses the wounds left by colonisation across many disparate contexts. Amira creates portals for memory and rejuvenation, where through a beaded curtain above a ceremonial healing bed of salt, one can hear the sounds of singing, to listen and remember. These portals are spaces for healing through connection to the earth, the ancestral, and the spiritual. Explore the artwork

Adrift Lab (Australia/Canada/UK)

Adrift Lab is a group of researchers who study ‘all things adrift in the ocean’, looking particularly at the impact of plastic pollution on the oceans and its wildlife, as well as on ourselves. An arrangement of reclaimed wooden tables reference the group's kitchen table on Lord Howe Island, a site of conversation and intellectual discussion which displays a number of specimens, thousands of images and hours of video collected over the years. Read more

S.J Norman (Australia/Germany/USA)

In Magna Mater, 12 Indigenous people who identify as men, are on the masculine spectrum, or were assigned male at birth, and with whom Norman is in kinship, document themselves on smartphones having their hair brushed, 100 strokes each day, over the course of the same moon cycle, by a caregiver or caregivers from their family or community. The hairbrushes are displayed on chairs facing the films of the performers, evoking the multiple presence and resonance of the original processes. Read more

Anna Boghiguian (Egypt)

While in residency at Monash University, Melbourne, Boghiguian worked closely with local artists and the university community to create The Uprooted, a depiction of many groups of people experiencing exile. Imbedded within this industrial setting, there is a heightened awareness of human migration reflecting the border and the refugee crisis, evocative of holding and waiting spaces within detention centres and refugee camps. Watch the artwork highlight video

Into All That Is Here With The Two Cockatoo Too Into All That Is Here With The Two Cockatoo Too (2020) by Laure ProuvostBiennale of Sydney

Laure Prouvost (France/UK)

Into All That Is Here with the Two Cockatoo Too takes advantage of the Dog Leg Tunnel on Cockatoo Island to present an immersive installation that invites a sensorial experience of language and the perception of ideas. Read more

Meth Kelly Meth Kelly (2020) by Warwick ThorntonBiennale of Sydney

Warwick Thornton (Australia)

The video installation Meth Kelly explores how Australia’s colonial frontier narrative has been shaped by the imaginary heroic actions of the cult figure Ned Kelly. Through a video work projected in one of the shadowy tunnels of the ex-convict structures at Cockatoo Island, this work questions the legitimacy of Kelly’s hero status through a modern reinterpretation of his moral persona. Read more

Tony Albert (Australia)

Healing Land, Remembering Country is a site for reflection, writing, sharing and healing. The artist invites us to share memories on paper embedded with local seeds. Baskets made by Indigenous artists act as the vessels to hold and care for people’s gifted memories. Connecting the multi-layered histories of this site to others, the seeded paper will be planted at different locations to re-generate flora. Explore the artwork

Jota Mombaça (Brazil/Portugal/Germany)

Jota Mombaça’s installation and video work expand upon the world of a fictional, dystopic short story written by the artist and titled ‘The Birth of Urana’. This story forms part of the artist’s larger practice, in which visions of the end of the world open new ways to think about inhabiting our bodies. Read more

Gina Athena Ulysse (Haiti/USA)

An Equitable Human Assertion Rasanblaj I is a site-specific work that gathers together materials from around the world, including Australia, which are not simply objects but have agency, sometimes helping to draw together shared histories. Read more

Katarina Matiasek (Austria)

Far from Settled traces the cultural, political and personal reverberations that resurface with acts of repatriation. Through experimental interview-based filmmaking and a sculptural infrastructure, Matiasek presents an un-doing of the anthropological archive, imbuing it with places, people, and stories originally ignored or erased through processes of collection, storage and display. Read more

Lawrence Abu Hamdan (Jordan/Lebanon)

In the installation Once Removed, the artist chronicles the testimony of a young historian, Bassel Abi Chahine. He is the reincarnation of a 16-year-old soldier who died in 1984, during the Lebanese Civil War. Many of the sounds in the installation come from the background – noise that seeps onto a recording, sounds that leak into phone calls or through walls. Read more

Sammy Baloji (Democratic Republic of Congo/Belgium/Italy)

Kasala - The Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error draws upon two pre-colonial cultural forms, the kasala and lusaka, mnemotechnical devices (memory devices), used by the Luba peoples to whom the artist belongs. The kasala, a form of praise poetry often chanted, here becomes a fictional narrative realised in performance and sculptural form. Read more

Mohamed Bourouissa (Algeria/France)

BRUTAL FAMILY ROOTS reflects on the artist's childhood memories of the Acacia or ‘wattle’ tree - a romantic link to his childhood in Algeria. In collaboration with poets, songwriters and a sound engineer, the artist transformed the active energy frequencies of the living Acacia into audible, rhythmic frequencies that share its story. The symphonic vibrations generated by these plants invite a quiet contemplation. Read more

Jose Dávila (Mexico)

The riddles have been unriddled presents site-specific sculptures from found objects on Cockatoo Island, the site of an early colonial quarry, a British convict precinct of incarceration, a place where ships were built for WWII, and now a protected UNESCO site...

Davila's sculptures, as seen here in Legacy is Seldom Stable, are metaphors for the forgotten welfare of sandstone, metals and discarded objects that once had usefulness and power. Explore all of Davila's artworks

Keep exploring Cockatoo Island or take another NIRIN Virtual Tour.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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NIRIN: Art From the Edge
The Biennale of Sydney (2020) presents contemporary art from around the globe in a First Nations-led exhibition
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