While the Transfield controversy almost derailed 2014’s Festival, the 20th Biennale of Sydney is set to open tomorrow as planned.

The last edition of Sydney’s famed modern art expo in 2014 was so consumed by controversy following the boycott of many artists and patrons in protest of a sponsorship deal with Transfield Services, that questions were raised about the future of the event. However, the 20th Biennale of Sydney, opening tomorrow, is set to go ahead without a hitch. Spanning three months and featuring 83 artists from 35 countries, the festival will include over 200 works presented at galleries and other locations across Sydney.

The traditional epicentre of the event at Cockatoo Island will host the Biennale’s Embassy of the Real. On opening weekend artist Justine Williams and the Sydney Chamber Opera will present Victory Over the Sun, a radical revival of the legendary Russian Futurist opera, with a new score by Huw Belling.

The Biennale’s principal venues include the Museum of Contemporary Art, renamed the Embassy of Translation and the Art Gallery of NSW, dubbed the Embassy of Spirits. There will also be events across the city including a huge public work by Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum, who will create a large-scale diagram on a billboard at 95 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills.

The Biennale’s hub, Cockatoo Island

The festival was almost derailed two years ago after public pressure and artist boycotts led to the resignation of Chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis. The Belgiorno-Nettis family owns Transfield Holdings, which was a major shareholder in Transfield Services, a company that came under fire for its management of offshore asylum seeker detention facilities. The Biennale severed ties with Transfield Holdings, its founding partner and major sponsor, stating: “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately.” Fortunately, the Nielson Foundation stepped in as the new principal Patron, and the Biennale was able to continue. Transfield Services has since been renamed Broadspectrum after the Belgiorno-Nettis family withdrew the company’s rights to use that name and sold all of its stake in the company. Belgiorno-Nettis and Transfield Holdings are still acknowledged in the catalogue and on the website for their 40 years of patronage.

Although the Biennale officially begins on March 18, 2016’s Festival is already underway. Tonight Mike Parr will be performing his live art piece, BDH, in the carpark outside Carriageworks to launch the venue as the Embassy of Disappearance. Parr has explained that the title is an acronym that the performance will make clear, and given his courting of controversy and predilection for performative self-mutilation, it will no doubt be something extreme.


The Biennale of Sydney runs from March 18 to June 5 at venues across Sydney.

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