Cultured Cockatoos

Cultured Cockatoos
Sydney, Australia

Sydney, Australia


Being something of a globetrotter, it’s not often that I declare one place better than any other, not even my own city. However the events of the last two days have turned me into a flag-waving, one-eyed, totally-smitten Sydneysider. I bloody love this city! I know it can be expensive and pretentious but it turns out it has just as much propensity to be accessible and free!

Let me start by acknowledging that this week is NAIDOC week – an annual celebration of Indigenous history and culture with events held all around the city and suburbs. This years theme is “The Spirit of the Tent Embassy” and I was lucky enough to stumble across the cluster of tents set up in Hyde Park and drink in the inclusive festival atmosphere. For more info about related events about town, check out the City of Sydney website.

From Hyde Park, I toddled down to the harbour to find the free ferry that would whisk me off to Cockatoo Island for the 18th Biennale of Sydney exhibition. I don’t often have reason to catch a ferry so when I do, it’s always a thrill. I also love being amongst tourists to feed off their excitement and borrow their eyes to see the worlds most beautiful harbour anew and fall in love with it all over again. We pulled out of Circular Quay, passed the Opera House, hung a left under the Bridge and in 20 chilly minutes, arrived at our destination.

Despite the many and varied events that have been hosted on Cockatoo Island over recent years, this was my first visit to the World Heritage site. I didn’t know much about it, only that my maternal-grandfather had worked on the island as a shipwright many moons ago. It also served as a prison for some time and the evidence of both former incarnations are writ large on its landscape and architecture.

Those of you who know me well will have picked up on my latter day interest in photography, or rather phoneography via Instagram. More than a hobby, It’s actually been a useful tool for me to displace my focus on the past and put it on the present moment. It has also enabled me to see beauty everywhere I go (and taken me a bit longer to get anywhere with all the stopping to photograph the roses, so to speak). Those of you who’ve gone that step further and are following me on Instagram (username: patches_mcgee – go on, you know you want to!) will know if there’s one thing I like more than a bit of urban decay, it’s industrial dilapidation so the minute I stepped off the ferry onto Cockatoo Island, I nearly passed out from overwhelm!!!

Quite simply, the island is breathtaking from every aspect – its vistas sing the praises of nature with spectacular views all around whilst its constructs loom large as cathedrals of heavy industry and history. And we haven’t even got to the art yet!

The Biennale is actually spread across 5 venues this year – The Art Gallery of NSW, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Pier 2/3, Carriageworks and Cockatoo Island – each with their own theme. The Islands theme is “Stories, Senses and Spheres” and is further divided between the lower island with works dealing with more elemental themes of water, wind and earth whilst the upper island deals with harsher human stories mostly with a message of hope.

With around 67 works by 55 different artists, there are far too many pieces to describe. At any rate, the collection is so playfully woven into the landscape, that it’s the sensory engagement with the works that really bring them to life. The exhibition certainly elicits a childlike wonder with the hide and seek nature of it inviting audiences to explore the terrain in order find hidden gems in every nook and cranny.

If I had to pick my top three highlights though, I would say Jonathan Jones, untitled (oysters and tea cups) – an Indigenous artists take on a modern day midden made of oyster shells and tea cups commenting on the coming together of two cultures; a shipping container cut to look as delicate as paper (I can’t find the name of the piece or artist on the Biennale website and don’t remember off the top of my head) that juxtaposes the strength of steel with the delicacy of the almost lace-like pattern lit from within; and Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Series – an interactive sculptural installation that responds to the audience with lights and movement as they pass through – futuristic and fantastical.

I also want to make special mention of another group of ‘art works’ which are also conspicuously absent from the Biennale website. On the upper island there is a small house to the right of the ramp (best advice for approaching the upper island – up the ramp, down the steps) which contains a fairly extensive collection of strange organic looking sculptures. I have to admit, I didn’t find them especially aesthetically pleasing at first glance but as I sticky beaked around, I overheard one of the volunteers telling the story of the former groundskeeper who was fired after he was discovered to be secretly living on the island. He left, never to be seen or heard from again. Shortly after, a pest controller was bought in for a routine inspection and in the course of his work, uncovered all of these mysterious objects that were the work of the former groundskeeper. In addition to that, they also discovered letters, writings and the photo of a mystery woman who was apparently the love of his life. It’s all very Twin Peaks and I encourage you to check it out and ask the guides to tell you the story.

After my first afternoon on Cockatoo Island, I had barely scratched the surface so vowed to return the next day which I did… for the entire day and I still feel like there’s so much more to see. On both occasions, even leaving the island was a treat. I was lucky enough to visit while the moon was full and see it from the front deck of the ferry rise through a pink then purple then blue night sky and hang elegantly over our iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Even though it was bitterly cold, I simply couldn’t care so rugged up against the biting wind and spray to enjoy the choppy ride and spectacular views, feeling very much like the King of the World or at least a Princess of Sydney.

The good news is that the Biennale runs until 16 September so there’s plenty of time – don’t delay though because you’ll need time to realise you need more time! Don’t forget the ferry to and fro is free and leaves from Circular Quay and Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay. But wait, there’s more – there are also free guided walking tours daily at 11.30am and 1.00pm (and 2.30pm on weekends) as well as Mystery Tours on Saturdays at 11.30am led by various prominent personalities – I have no idea if we’re talking about the likes of Kylie Minogue or the exhibition curators or even the old groundskeeper – I guess we just have to turn up to find out!

So pack a picnic (although there are plenty of eating options there) and charge your cameras (I was iPhone only and ran the battery down completely on both days) and head to Cockatoo Island for what promises to be one of the most spectacular free experiences Sydney has to offer.


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