What to See During the 2024 Biennale of Sydney

From Giovanna Intra’s subtle and intimate paintings to Nicholas Mangan’s ambitious, materially rich sculptures

BY Verónica Tello in Critic's Guides | 09 APR 24

Giovanni Intra | S_y_d_n_e_y_S_y_d_n_e_y_18 April – 20 May

Giovanni Intra, Cadaveric Time, 1995, Acrylic and gouache on paper, 25 x 16 cm. Courtesy: © Hamish McKay and Estate Giovanni Intra

Sydney is the costliest city in Australia, while the inner-city district of Potts Point ranks as one of the most exclusive suburbs. Conor O’Shea’s apartment gallery, S_y_d_n_e_y_S_y_d_n_e_y_, is located in Aaron M. Bolot’s 17 Wylde Street, one of Potts Point’s best-known post-war modernist apartment buildings. With its simple and grandiose title, S_y_d_n_e_y_S_y_d_n_e_y_ occupies the living room and most of the square meterage of O’Shea’s minimal and expensive one-bedroom rental. While O’Shea’s living quarters have been reduced to the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, the north-facing living room, or gallery, regularly exhibits a collection of conceptual and post-conceptual art, with a particular emphasis on works from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Western Europe. Starting 18 April, S_y_d_n_e_y_S_y_d_n_e_y_ will showcase the artworks of Giovanni Intra, a versatile artist, writer and gallerist who grew up in New Zealand and died aged 34, in 2002, just six years after moving to Los Angeles. The exhibition showcases six miniature paintings Intra created in 1995, focussing on the moments preceding his journey across the Pacific. The paintings – titled Nosology, Cadaveric Time, Nosologie, Physiology: The Devil / BichatThe New Death of Rat Scabies (Mekons) and Fuck Cinema – are tiny and hold gentle, abstract marks and wafer-thin font on black ground. Hanging in neat rows across the white walls of O’Shea’s living room, they embody Intra’s subtle and intimate poetics, his capacity to document the vitality, allure, lavishness and eccentricity of low culture and late modernity, which pulled him towards LA.

James Nguyen | 'Untitled and The Dictionary of Art Terminologies & Movements 2023–24' 12 December 2023 – ongoing

james-nguyen untitled-and-the-dictionary-of-art-terminologies-movements-2023–24-publication
James Nguyen, 'Untitled and The Dictionary of Art Terminologies & Movements 2023–24', 2023 – ongoing, publication. Courtesy: the artist

Pettiness is characterised by things of little significance and is channelled through complaints, focusing excessively on tiny concerns in a small-minded or vindictive manner. Since December 2023, James Nguyen – an artist working in Sydney and Melbourne – has retooled his Instagram account to document and analyse pettiness in Australia’s art world in the context of the war on Gaza, staging three distinct Instagram-based exhibitions of his language-based artworks. Using a low-tech approach (including Apple Notes and Apple Photo Editor), Nguyen experiments with the genres of wall signage, neon, and the dictionary, or what Nguyen calls The Dictionary of Art Terminologies & Movements 2023–24 (2024). The artist seeks to draw out the evasiveness, complacency and performativity of the art world of Australia’s East Coast, the cities where power (money, status, cultural capital, coloniality) is primarily centred. Since 3 February 2024, Nguyen has been gleaning from a leaked WhatsApp chat in which over 600 artists, collectors and academics plotted to disrupt and undermine the pro-Palestinian movement and associated figures in the local art world. ‘Found texts’ from the chat are superimposed onto white cube walls by Nguyen to put such phrases on display: ‘I’m kind of willing to use myself as bait to poke the bear and see how much of her own grave she can dig.’ For The Dictionary of Art Terminologies & Movements 2023–24, Nguyen has drawn on conversations with friends and colleagues in the art community to incisively and humorously articulate how power operates in our scenes. Gossip, rumour and whistleblowing are Nguyen’s most prized mediums for this Instagram exhibition.

Nicholas Mangan | Museum of Contemporary Art Australia5 April – 30 June

Nicholas Mangan, Termite Economies, 2018-20, 'Nicholas Mangan: A World Undone', 2024, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Sutton Gallery, Australia and LABOR, Mexico; photograph: Zan Wimberley

The Museum of Contemporary Art is situated in Circular Quay, constructed by convicts between 1837 and 1844 on the site of the first colonial settlement at Sydney Cove in Australia. Nicholas Mangan’s exhibition ‘A World Undone’ mines Australia’s deep histories of colonialism and extraction within the island continent and its surrounding waters. Context is everything in Mangan’s practice. Curated by Anneke Jaspers and Anna Davis, the mid-career survey presents the full breadth of Mangan’s ambitious large-scale sculptures for the first time, including Termite Economies (2018), Ancient Lights (2015), Limits to Growth (2016) and his latest project Core-Coralations (2021–ongoing), which surveils the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef. The mood is grim as one walks through the museum’s white cubes. But Mangan’s sculptural installations are undeniably generative. One walks away from this materially rich show, comprising coral limestone, printed plaster, video, plywood, coconuts, a diesel fuel generator, steel, dirt, flywire and much more, with a better sense of how to counter-map the politics of place, and trace the often-ambiguous movements of capital across the Pacific. The exhibition design, led by Ying-Lan Dann, is also worth mentioning; it is understated yet elegant, bold yet supportive.

'Language Exchange' | Fairfield City Museum & Gallery24 February – 8 June

Deanna Hitti, M is for Madraseh (school), 2023, ‘Language Exchange’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Fairfield City Museum & Gallery

Forty per cent of Australians identify as ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ (CALD), a category developed by the Australian government in the late 1990s to refer to those of us who don’t identify with the dominant Anglo population. Though comprising almost half the country, non-Anglo Australians are under-represented in the arts. Within this context, Amy Prcevich has curated ‘Language Exchange’. Through video, participatory art, painting and other media, the exhibition offers a contemporary history of how diasporic and Indigenous artists in Australia are grappling with the loss of cultural heritage and developing methodologies for unlearning the hegemony of the English language. The exhibition indirectly builds on Mladen Stilinović’s iconic textile work An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist (1992) but with a mantra closer to something like, ‘We don’t need English.’ As exhibiting Wiradjuri artist and poet Jazz Money articulates via her video work abandon to begin (2024): ‘to truly learn [the Indigenous language of] Wiradjuri is to understand that the language is the soil from which the culture grows, that Country is embedded in the language, and language is born of Country. […] And so to embrace this learning, the colonisers’ thinking must be unlearnt.’

Diana Baker Smith | Penrith Regional Gallery11 May – 4 August

Diana Baker Smith, 'This Place Where They Dwell', 2024, Four channel 4K video, 5.15 minutes. Courtesy: the artist and Penrith Regional Gallery

For ‘This Place Where They Dwell’, Diana Baker Smith takes Margo Lewers, a postwar Sydney-based modernist painter and sculptor, as her subject matter. Lewers, a renowned but under-documented artist, was the previous proprietor of the building that currently houses Penrith Regional Gallery. The gallery, originally her family home, has been divided among four modest rooms, which I imagine to be a former lounge room, a dining area and two bedrooms. In response to the history and architecture of the place, Baker-Smith has created a four-channel video and sound installation in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Lizzie Thomson and soprano Jane Sheldon. The dispersed audio-visual installation beckons viewers to move through the space and sit with the former Lewers home’s historical and aural vibrations. What role does the artist’s estate – and its material or imagined traces – play in remembrance of Lewers? What does the artist’s home offer for rethinking the politics of art historiography? And what are the conditions that determine remembrance in Australian art history? Offering no easy answers, Baker Smith’s work instead dwells on the minutiae of the domestic life of a female artist from yesteryear, subtly but unambiguously critiquing the project of artistic canons and settler-colonialism.

Main image: Diana Baker Smith, 'This Place Where They Dwell', 2024, Four channel 4K video, 5.15 minutes. Courtesy: the artist and Penrith Regional Gallery

Veronica Tello is a senior lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Theory at School of Art & Design, University of New South Wales.