rīvus 23rd Biennale of Sydney

12 March - 13 June 2022

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Country, in particular the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation on whose land the Biennale of Sydney is located. We recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay our respect to Elders, past, present and emerging.

For rīvus 23rd Biennale of Sydney curated by Jose Roca and the Curatorium, Ackroyd & Harvey worked with environmentalist Lille Madden and Uncle Charles ‘Chicka’ Madden, her grandfather and widely respected Gadigal Elder, to make the photographic content of a series of new ‘photographic photosynthesis’ works in seedling grass. Statuesque and framed against a stormy sky, their figures are shown on a monumental scale at 5 metres high at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The photographs, created through the light sensitivity of the pigment chlorophyll, which form the basis for these works were taken under the Sydney Harbour Bridge at Tar-Ra (Dawes Point), a significant site in the history of Gadigal language.

‘The answers are there,’ says Lille Madden, who is an Arrernte, Bundjalung and Kalkadoon woman and the First Nations director at Groundswell* and Sydney coordinator for @seedmob, See*d Indigenous Youth Climate Network. ‘It’s about listening to First Nations voices and supporting them, first and foremost.’

‘We need to fight for what we love and what we care about,’ Madden says. ‘That’s what fuels me. We have to build on that love. We have an opportunity, right now, to take action on the climate crisis. First Nations voices need to be at the forefront. Leading the way. Because we’ve done so for millennia.’

Uncle Charles “Chick” Madden has lived in and around the Redfern and inner city area most of his life serving the Aboriginal community as Director or the Aboriginal Medical Service, Secretary of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Director of the Aboriginal Hostels NSW and is a life member of the Redfern All Blacks. Along with being an active community leader, Uncle Chicka is also an important artist creating a number of ceramic sculptures and paintings inspired by his Gadigal country.

• Groundswell, an Australian giving platform for climate action empowers people to contribute meaningfully to taking action on the issue. The premise is simple. Members join Groundswell by making weekly, quarterly or annual donations. This money is pooled, and four times a year it delivers grants to people and organisations tackling the climate crisis.
• SeedMOB is a movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people for climate justice. Their vision is for a just and sustainable future with strong cultures and communities, powered by renewable energy. Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity, but they also know it is an opportunity to create a more just and sustainable world.

Rivers, wetlands and other salt and freshwater ecosystems feature in the 23rd Biennale of Sydney (2022), titled rīvus, as dynamic living systems with varying degrees of political agency. Indigenous knowledges have long understood non-human entities as living ancestral beings with a right to life that must be protected. But only recently have animals, plants, mountains and bodies of water been granted legal personhood. If we can recognise them as individual beings, what might they say?

rīvus invites several aqueous beings into a dialogue with artists, architects, designers, scientists, and communities, entangling multiple voices and other modes of communication to ask unlikely questions: Can a river sue us over psychoactive sewage? Will oysters grow teeth in aquatic revenge? What do the eels think? Are the swamp oracles speaking in tongues? Do algae reminisce about the days of primordial soup? Are waves the ocean’s desire? Can a waterfall refuse gravity? Considering the water ecology’s perspective entails a fundamental shift in understanding our relationship with the rest of the natural world as a porous chronicle of interwoven fates.

Rivers are the sediment of culture. They are givers of life, routes of communication, places of ritual, sewers and mass graves. They are witnesses and archives, our memory. As such, they have also been co-opted as natural avenues for the colonial enterprise, becoming sites of violent conflict driven by greed, exploitation and the thirst to possess. Indeed, the latin root rīvus, meaning a brook or stream, is also at the origin of the word rivalry.

The 23rd Biennale of Sydney is articulated around a series of conceptual wetlands situated along waterways of the Gadigal and Barramatagal peoples. These imagined ecosystems are populated by artworks, experiments, activisms and research, which together follow the currents of meandering tributaries, expanding out into a delta of interrelated ideas including river horror, creek futurism, Indigenous science, cultural flows, ancestral technologies, counter-mapping, queer ecologies, multispecies justice, hydrofeminism, water healing, spirit streams, fish philosophy and sustainable methods of co-existence.

Sustainability should be an action, not a theme. rīvus will reflect on its own conditions of possibility, becoming the catalyst for works already in progress; encouraging the use of non-polluting materials and production processes; advocating for locality, collectivity, collaboration and reduced waste; acknowledging its own impact on the environment while aiming to lower it through a systemic and creative approach.

The 2022 exhibition has been developed and realised by a Curatorium including:

José Roca, Artistic Director, 23rd Biennale of Sydney
Paschal Daantos Berry, Head of Learning and Participation, Art Gallery of New South Wales
Anna Davis, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Hannah Donnelly, Producer, First Nations Programs, Information + Cultural Exchange (I.C.E.)
Talia Linz, Curator, Artspace