“Attention. Attention.” mimicked the noisy black-sheened saffron-billed Mynah birds. “Here and now boys; here and now, boys.” These lilting words startled Will Farnaby as he lay shipwrecked, resting among the mossy glades and olive shadows of the forest floor on the forbidden island of Pala. Aldous Huxley described Will’s near-death experience in his novel Island (1962), whose manuscript was salvaged from the ashes of his burning home in California.
I thought of the Mynahs’ mellifluous words as I contemplated, in solitude, the “here and now” while watching these reviled non-native birds devour plant seeds attached to site-specific sculptures installed by British artist Marco Chiandetti for the Sydney Biennale 2016. His works “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” reminded me of global discussions about displacement, racism, refugees and identity that, perhaps, Will Farnaby conjured as he lay exhausted, wondering if he were dead or alive.
Chiandetti’s installations involve onlookers in a ritualistic performance as they circulate, slowly, around a series of aviaries housing these pesky scavengers. I felt sombre looking at the bleakness of the sculptures, such as the artist’s forearm covered in seeds, as they were pecked at and destroyed. The seeds then passed through the birds’ bodies and their remains lay on the ground. My eyes rested on the moist nurturing earth below that was punctuated by embryonic shoots, their tiny green tongues gasping for air and sunlight. This transition to re-birth that I was watching encapsulated the religious beliefs in gods and religious leaders such as Buddha and, in some cultures, the conviction that funeral practices treat the physical death of a person as a temporary interruption before the passage of human souls into an afterlife. In Egypt, birds, such as the phoenix, are believed to fly these souls on their final journey to freedom and eternal life.
Set in the grounds of the neo-gothic Mortuary Station in Redfern, Stephanie Rosenthal, curator of the Biennale, and also London’s Hayward Gallery, has chosen this Victorian heritage building as the “Embassy of Transition”. This refers to the site’s former funereal use as a train station where bodies were transported to Rookwood Cemetery for burial. For the Biennale Rosenthal chose different historical buildings in Sydney to establish “embassies”, or safe spaces, to think and explore the “intersection between the spiritual and the philosophical” – the ethereal and ephemeral passage between reality and today’s virtual world of technology.
It is interesting to think Huxley, a devotee of the psychedelic powers of the cactus mescaline might, again, be linked to the Biennale. In The Doors of Perception (1954) he writes that drugs provide a chemical catalyst to “open the mind and free the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures”. Huxley’s beliefs are based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol, a book of instructions for the dying when “somebody is sitting there all the time and telling you what’s what”. This manual teaches the dying to control and direct their level of awareness, leading to liberation over a period of 49 days.
Rosenthal chose Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai to build on the Buddhist themes of impermanence, emptiness, suffering and compassion. These meditative ideas resonate as one walks between giant burning incense coils hanging from the wooden rafters or lying on the cold black and ochre-coloured tiles of the Mortuary Station floor. All senses are alerted to a spiritual stillness, savouring the smell of sandalwood while mesmerized by the white translucent smoke pirouetting to the tempo of the afternoon breeze, ash falling softly on the hard tiles.
Tsai follows a practice of writing ancient religious scripts on organic materials such as tofu and mushrooms, her congregation watching their deterioration into decay and degeneration. In Sydney, she uses delicate brushstrokes and indigo ink to inscribe text of the Tibetan Bardo on each coil. As they slowly burned I reflected on the transitional period between life in a precarious natural world and death in a vacuous spiritual world.
These immersive artworks must take individuals on different paths according to their life experiences. Perhaps Huxley would have been caught in the metaphysical cosmos of his mind and used his fingers to count the 49 days to final liberation? Perhaps Will Faraday just wanted to be with the boys in the “here and now”?