Looking Back at Biennale of Sydney

By Paula Latos-Valier

Since 1973 the Biennale of Sydney exhibitions have presented the work of almost 1800 artists from over 100 countries. Most of these artists were also brought to Sydney by the Biennale, which often facilitated their travel and coordinated their professional engagements in a national outreach program to art schools and universities across Australia.

From the beginning, the Biennale of Sydney has acted as a catalyst for cultural development and discussion. It has created unique opportunities for direct contact between artists, writers, and curators from other countries – as well as collectors and gallery directors – with their counterparts in Australia. This outreach program has involved hundreds of educational and cultural institutions and as a result, has invigorated artists, students and educators alike.

Over four decades the Biennale of Sydney’s regular importation and commission of major works of art have offered rare collecting opportunities to many public institutions across Australia. Works of substantial scale by artists of international renown, which would otherwise have been out of the reach of local collections, became accessible. The cumulative impact of the Biennale of Sydney on the holdings in public collections probably remains little known today, but is another example of the Biennale’s enduring contribution to Australian art and culture.

The following introductions to the first 10 editions of the Biennale of Sydney provide an insight into the ideas and achievements of the organisation. We thank Paula Latos-Valier for her insight into the history of the Biennale.


The Inaugural Biennale of Sydney: 1973

The Biennale of Sydney

23 November – December
Franco Belgiorno-Nettis AC CBE, Founding Governor

The Biennale of Sydney was created in 1973 as an international showcase for contemporary art. Conceived, invented and financially supported by Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, it grew out of the Transfield Art Prize for contemporary Australian art (an acquisitive prize which reached its peak in the1960s). It operated for about a dozen years before Transfield decided to transform what was originally a local initiative, into an international exhibition.



2nd Biennale of Sydney: 1976

Recent International Forms in Art

13 November – 19 December
Thomas G. McCullough, Artistic Director

This was the first Biennale held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which was to become the primary venue for the exhibition over the next two decades. The 1976 exhibition was also the first to articulate a tight curatorial theme developed by an Artistic Director. The decision to allow a single curator to determine the theme and the selection of artists became the hallmark of all subsequent Biennale of Sydney exhibitions, and is perceived to be one of its enduring strengths.



3rd Biennale of Sydney: 1979

European Dialogue

12 April – 27 May
Nick Waterlow OAM, Artistic Director

The third Biennale of Sydney involved over one hundred and thirty artists and artist groups from nineteen countries, and included special segments devoted to recent European drawing and photography which toured nationally.



4th Biennale of Sydney: 1982

Vision in Disbelief

7 April – 23 May
William Wright, Artistic Director

‘Vision in Disbelief’ was an inclusive event. It was the largest of all Biennale exhibitions, over two hundred and twenty individuals and groups from seventeen countries took part. It featured separate sections devoted to performance, video and sound, the latter being presented in part at a new venue, the National Broadcaster ABC Radio.



5th Biennale of Sydney: 1984

Private Symbol: Social Metaphor

11 April – 17 June
Leon Paroissien, Artistic Director

The fifth Biennale of Sydney brought together the work of sixty one individuals and collectives from twenty countries that spanned several generations. It took as its theme the expression of personal and public political issues, and explored the metaphors and symbols used by artists to express their individual beliefs.



6th Biennale of Sydney: 1986

Origins, Originality + Beyond

16 May – 6 July 1986
Nick Waterlow OAM, Artistic Director

The sixth Biennale of Sydney questioned the concept of what constituted originality in the work of artists as diverse as Jannis Kounellis, Anselm Kiefer, Eric Fischl, Sherrie Levine, Carlo Maria Mariani and Susan Norrie. Glen Baxter created a memorable and eloquent image for the catalogue and poster, ‘It was Tom’s first brush with Modernism’ which playfully engaged some of the serious undercurrents of the theme, as did Malcolm McLaren’s spray painted framing of his album cover image for Bow Wow Wow’s ‘Go Wild in the Country’.



7th Biennale of Sydney: 1988

From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c1940–1988

18 May – 3 July 1988, Sydney
4 August – 18 September 1988, Melbourne
Nick Waterlow OAM, Artistic Director

The 1988 Sydney Biennale was special in that it took place in the year of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations and for the first time was able to tour to Melbourne. Under the auspices of the Australian Bicentennial Authority the exhibition displayed a rich range of Australian art over half a century. The show looked thematically at the historical context for the development of a number of key Australian modernist artists whose work was presented alongside their peers or inspirations from around the world.



8th Biennale of Sydney: 1990

The Readymade Boomerang: Certain Relations in 20th Century Art

11 April – 3 June
René Block, Artistic Director

The renowned eighth Biennale of Sydney was an exhibition which demonstrated the distinctive historical connections of the ‘readymade’ as it spirals conceptually through twentieth century art. ‘Art is Easy’ was splashed across the cover of the catalogue, a deceptive statement given the complexity and subtlety of René Block’s curatorial concept. The exhibition, titled ‘The Readymade Boomerang’, centred on three key figures at the start of the century; Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia, and the distinctive historical connections their work had throughout the century.



9th Biennale of Sydney: 1992/3

The Boundary Rider

15 December 1992 – 14 March
Anthony Bond, Artistic Director

The 1992/3 Biennale reflected a shift away from Europe and the USA and over ninety percent of the artists in the exhibition had not been exhibited before in Australia. Titled ‘The Boundary Rider’ and curated by Tony Bond, the exhibition took as its theme the exploration of physical, psychological and cultural boundaries.



10th Biennale of Sydney: 1996

Jurassic Technologies Revenant

27 July – 22 September 1996
Dr Lynne Cooke, Artistic Director

Preceded by the Biennale of Ideas in 1995, the tenth Biennale of Sydney in 1996 was a tightly focused exhibition. Cooke saw that Australian culture was through dint of geography and history dependent on reproductive technologies for information, entertainment and for views of contemporary developments elsewhere. The exhibition featured forty-eight artists from twenty four countries, a deliberate curatorial decision to have a smaller show enriched by more substantial statements rather than a sample of each artist.


More information coming soon for subsequent Biennale of Sydney editions, from 1998 to 2014.