Artists Make Good on Threat to Boycott Biennale of Sydney

A controversial corporate sponsorship deal is causing trouble for the Biennale of Sydney.

Tiffany Singh, Biennale of Sydney
Tiffany Singh, "Knock On the Sky Listen to the Sound," (2011), installation view of the 18th Biennale of Sydney (2012) at Pier 2/3.
Photo: Sebastian Kriete.

Following a petition filed earlier this week, five of the more than 90 artists slated to participate in next month’s Biennale of Sydney have officially announced their decision to withdraw from the event, which is slated to open March 21. The boycott centers on Biennale sponsor Transfield Holdings, a stakeholder in Transfield Services. The latter, a Sydney-based construction company, has seen a recent surge in profits thanks to a controversial contract with the Australian government to run mandatory detention centers for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru islands, in Papua New Guinea. Despite the protests, the Biennale has thus far opted not to cut ties with Transfield. A preview event with a talk by the Biennale’s artistic director, Juliana Engberg, scheduled for this past Monday at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, was cancelled due to security concerns.

The statement from the five artists pulling out of the exhibition, posted on Facebook by the Netherlands-based conceptual artists Ahmet Öğüt earlier today, reads as follows:

STATEMENT OF WITHDRAWAL
26 February 2014

We are five of the 41 artists – Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt – who signed a letter to the Board of the Biennale of Sydney in relation to their founding sponsor, Transfield.

We make this statement in light of Transfield’s expanding management of Manus Island and Nauru immigration detention centres. We act in the wake of the death of Reza Berati from inside Manus Island detention centre on February 17. We are in urgent political circumstances with a government that is stepping up their warfare on the world’s most vulnerable people daily.

We have received indications from the Board of the Biennale and Transfield that there will be no movement on their involvement in this issue. In our letter to the Board we asked for action and engagement, but we are told that the issue is too complex, and that the financial agreements are too important to re-negotiate.

And so we make this statement from a critical juncture of political urgency and artistic autonomy.

This is a statement of our withdrawal from the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

We have revoked our works, cancelled our public events and relinquished our artists’ fees. While we have sought ways to address our strong opposition to Australia’s mandatory detention policy as participants of the Biennale, we have decided that withdrawal is our most constructive choice. We do not accept the platform that Transfield provides via the Biennale for critique. We see our participation in the Biennale as an active link in a chain of associations that leads to the abuse of human rights. For us, this is undeniable and indefensible.

Our withdrawal is one action in a multiplicity of others, already enacted and soon to be carried out in and around the Biennale. We do not propose to know the exact ethical, strategic or effective action to end mandatory detention, but we act on conscience and we act with hope.

We have chosen to redirect our energies into multiple forms of action: discussions, workshops, publications, exhibitions and works that will continue to fuel this debate in the public sphere. In this, we stand with our local and international communities that are calling for the closure of Australia’s offshore detention facilities. We ask for their active support in keeping this issue at the forefront of our minds, in the warmest part of our hearts, in the most urgent of discussions and in the most bold of actions, until the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru close.

We withdraw to send a message to the Biennale urging them, again, to act ethically and transparently. To send a message to Transfield that we will not add value to their brand and its inhumane enterprise. Finally, and most importantly, we withdraw to send a message to the Australian Government that we do not accept their unethical policy against asylum seekers.

We ask that the Biennale of Sydney acknowledges the absence of our work from the exhibition. As the Biennale has offered to provide a platform and support for our dissent, we request that our withdrawal be registered on the Biennale website and signposted at the physical site of our projects. In the pervasive silence that the Government enforces around this issue, we will not let this action be unnoticed.

We act in solidarity with all those who are working towards a better future for asylum seekers. We hope that others will join us.


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