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A visit to Cockatoo Island, and Ai Weiwei's Law of the Journey

17 March 2018

It is hard to believe that I have now been in Sydney for more than three years and that, until Thursday this week, I had not yet set foot on Cockatoo Island.  Maybe it has something to do with my two failed attempts to visit the island in 2015 and 2016.  Twice I had planned to spend an evening with my Year 10 girls on Cockatoo Island during their camp week, and twice these plans were scuppered by storm clouds in various shapes and forms.  As a result, I suppose, I must have thought that making plans to visit this amazing historical site were somewhat doomed, under a bad spell, and that terrible things might happen, were I to try for a third time.

Well, I am pleased to say that I finally broke that spell.  It was a beautiful day this Thursday, 15 March, the day before the official opening of Sydney’s 21st Biennale.  Once again, like the Sculptures at Barangaroo or the Sculptures by the Sea at Bondi, on which I have published musings before, it is fascinating to see the symbiosis between Sydney’s beautiful sights and the artworks displayed. 

Cockatoo Island is, of course, well worth a visit in its own right, and I very much enjoyed strolling along its Upper and Lower Islands, visiting the various sites and learning about its fascinating history as an overflow prison site for convicts, a naval dockyard and an innovative place for ship design and ship repair.  There are many places to relax as well, benches to enjoy the views, sea gulls queuing patiently for free beer (so it seems!) and bars to provide a refreshing snack.

The main draw card at the moment is one of the Biennale’s exhibits, Ai Weiwei’s impressive Law of the Journey, a huge boat (60 metres in length), filled to the brim with refugees, faceless figures fabricated from black PVC material, their facelessness symbolic of the anonymity of their fates and personal stories.  Ai Weiwei’s works are rarely l’art pour l’art, almost always a political statement, using art to illustrate problems of injustice or inequity.

The sculpture is fascinating not only because of its magnitude and of course its contemporary references, but also because of the quotes written on its periphery that provide a hugely thought-provoking historical context for the eternal big questions of hope, liberty, national boundaries, racism, hostility and hospitality.  I have photographed some of them and hope that they will give my readers as much food for thought as they have given me.

Storm clouds gathered again during my return ferry trip, but I am glad that the curse of Cockatoo Island has finally been broken.  I am sure I will be back.  What a fascinating site, and what a great time to visit it.

There are many other Biennale art exhibits on Cockatoo Island and other Sydney sites, and they are on show until 11 June.

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