by Patrick Sutczak
To begin my Biennale experience, I woke to up to what I was to discover later that evening, would become the hottest recorded winter day in Sydney for seventeen years. As I stood on the balcony of the hotel, uncomfortably high above the bustling street below, I sipped on my cup of tea and watched the interweaving ribbons of vehicles exit and enter the city-side of the Harbour Bridge. It was 7 am and it was already 20 degrees. A quick glance toward my hastily pulled-up bed and I realised the pile of warm clothing nestled at the foot of it was now just useless bag-filler for the journey home. If nothing else, this was a reminder that preparation is excellent, but releasing myself of expectation was even better. No finer day to visit Cockatoo Island.
Somewhere up river, away from the morning mechanics of Sydney in full-swing, a once-prohibited site for many years promised to resonate with the echoes of a different era in song with creative contemporary culture from Australia and around the world. I had heard so much about this incredible island and I was eager to see it for myself and discover the art contained within her industrial walls. Minutes later with my satchel laden with journal and pens slapping steadily against my side, I embarked on a brisk yet delightful walk through the streets toward the quay. A generous free ferry beckoned to take me to my location, but the terminal next door offered a few stops along the way for a pittance. Determined to wring every bit of the magnificent harbour into the short time I had, I parted with some coin and patiently waited with fellow water-travellers to be taken on our respective journeys.
With the intensity of the sun increasing, the refreshing mist of harbour waves cooled my face as I sat position at the front of the boat. The grey bulk of the bridge loomed overhead and was gone as the ferry passed under it and onward faithful to the schedule. Icon upon icon upon icon revealed itself as I lived in a travel brochure of surreal overexposure to things that I knew, though I had never actually seen before. The boat docked and departed a few times, and we were on our way to the island. With no one getting off, and an awful lot of people getting on, I was confident that the 18th Biennale of Sydney had a momentum that would carry through until the final days.
The island made so famous by its convict, maritime, and wartime history stood fast in the water ahead. A rock adorned with remnants of both the enslaved and the entrusted, her buildings stood out as a stark contrast to the modern monoliths of steel, glass and concrete reaching skyward in the distance behind. The ferry slowed to the wash of waves intensifying against the pier, and within seconds, I was among a line of eager viewers shuffling onto the island ready for artistic indulgence in a self-guided tour of wherever the eyes or ears drew attention.
I took a moment to stand on the grassy expanse just beyond the information terminal to watch the ferry pull away and throttle up to power away to the next pick up. Surrounded by water, I was temporarily marooned. Lost on an island that asked for nothing more than to be discovered, her invitation teasing me forward was a concrete field leading up to a sandstone chunk seemingly bitten from her cheek. There were buildings up ahead, delightfully industrial and undeniably large. And so like a survivor, I instinctively began to move toward them. Behind me, a massive banner advertising the site as an artistic venue flapped against the wall of a freestanding building and gained my attention as I stopped to take a photo. Regarding my visual handiwork on the digital screen I turned my back to the sun. When I lifted my head, I saw something I hadn’t seen at first sight. At the base of the rising cliff wall some distance from where I stood, there appeared to be a tunnel carved into the stone. Unusual, unexpected and deliciously inviting I retreated from the heat into the heart of Cockatoo Island’s history and re-invention as a cultural precinct of artistic success, and my first experience of the Biennale of Sydney…