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Acclaimed curator Stephanie Rosenthal takes a collaborative approach to her new role as artistic director of the Sydney Biennale. By Ceridwen Dovey.

Sydney Biennale artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal

Curator Stephanie Rosethal in Sydney’s Mortuary station
Credit: DANIEL BOUD

It’s a hot early summer day in Sydney, but Stephanie Rosenthal arrives to meet me looking coolly elegant in flowing whites, not a drop of sweat on her forehead, her eyes bright. She gestures behind her to the spire of the Gothic Revival-style Mortuary station in Chippendale, one of the first venues that fired her imagination when she was searching for new sites for the 2016 Sydney Biennale, of which she is artistic director.

“I’m very interested in rites of passage, and thresholds in life. The Mortuary station is the perfect place for that,” she says. “It was meant to look like a church but it was never really a holy place; it was just a station where people who wanted to bring someone to the cemetery would wait.”

At first glance the ornate Mortuary station seems out of place, tucked away in an unlikely spot of greenery on busy Regent Street, alongside the concrete and metal wasteland of the bus depot and railway tracks leading to Central Station. From 1869 until the late 1930s, it operated as a funeral station designed to transport the dead and their mourners to Rookwood Cemetery. Later, it was used as a platform for dogs and horses on their way to race meetings, as a loading dock for beer kegs, and briefly, after its refurbishment in the 1980s, as a pancake restaurant.

Next week, when the Sydney Biennale opens (it ends on June 6), the station will be transformed into what Rosenthal has called the “Embassy of Transition”. Its two small, coffin-shaped waiting rooms and the gabled platform featuring cherubs and gargoyles will host works by Charwei Tsai and Marco Chiandetti, artists whose practices engage with ideas of transience and transformation.

Tsai, who is from Taipei, has created a participatory performance in which she will write a text from the Tibetan Book of the Dead onto seeds from the Blue Mountains. Chiandetti, who was born in London but has lived all over the world, has built aviaries to hold Indian mynas, a species considered holy in some cultures. The birds will feed on sculptures of body parts made from seeds, which will disappear over the course of the biennale.

Rosenthal, 44, who was born and raised in Germany, is in a state of transition herself, having moved with her infant son from London to Sydney in September. She plans to return in April to her job as chief curator of the Hayward Gallery, at London’s Southbank Centre, a position she has held since 2007; before that she was a curator of contemporary art at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Her partner spends time in Sydney when he can, between stints in London and Delhi. “When you move somewhere, even for eight months,” she says, “it’s a big change.”

Rosenthal is renting in Erskineville, and most mornings she is up at 5.30am, walking her son in Sydney Park. “The weather helps,” she says. “The first time I came to Sydney was for the 2014 biennale, and I noticed Sydney has a very special light, and amazing air quality. I always had imagined Sydney as being a kind of tropical LA, but it’s so much more diverse than LA. I’m amazed at all the cultures and languages here.”

Mortuary station can be glimpsed on the train from Central to Redfern, which is appropriate given Rosenthal’s commitment to expanding the biennale’s geographical scope, linking the high-profile sites on Sydney Harbour or near the waterfront – Cockatoo Island, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace – to lesser-known venues strung into the city’s inner west, including Carriageworks, Newtown library, and Camperdown Cemetery in Newtown.

“At the beginning, I was very much against even using the existing venues,” Rosenthal confides to me in a nearby cafe. “But I don’t think it’s beneficial in art to work too much against things. At the end of the day, it’s my vision, but without the team and a good energy around it, it’s nothing.”

Rosenthal initially toyed with the idea of building pavilions around the city, but in the end decided against spending money “building the shell” in lieu of “showing the art”. Instead, she found a more poetic way of linking the different venues, transforming them from physical locations to “embassies of thought”, each containing artworks playing on similar themes. Cockatoo Island will be the “Embassy of the Real”, a nod to its rich history but also to its use as a film location; Carriageworks, in the inner-city suburb of Eveleigh, will be the “Embassy of Disappearance”, gathering artworks about change over time and gentrification; the Art Gallery of New South Wales will be the “Embassy of Spirits”, hosting, among others, a performance work that asks artists to engage with the museum’s permanent collections.

Rosenthal’s insistence on “using venues which are closer to the people, somewhere people actually live, where it’s not empty in the evenings or weekends” also led to her coming up with the idea of hosting artworks in the “in-between spaces”, which will not be official embassies, but “spaces or places where two things come together, or where there’s a gap, because I think that art can open up that gap”. A walking and bike route will lead biennale visitors between the main venues and into these more informal spaces, such as an abandoned lot on Abercrombie Street that will be transformed into a hanging garden by the Colombian artist Oscar Murillo; or past a roving street bookstall; or into Camperdown Cemetery, where a group of textile workers led by Swedish artist Bo Christian Larsson will make fabric gravestone covers.

The scale of an event such as the Biennale of Sydney, with the whole city as a canvas, was immediately appealing to Rosenthal. “I work within the context of the architecture of buildings, I’m very much related to the space,” she says. “But if you work in an institution, like me, you’re always confined to your own building.” She describes the Haus der Kunst in Munich, originally built by Hitler as a temple for German art, as “inhuman, a straightforward sandstone block, very geometric”, which inspired her to curate several shows processing German history, and also “how artists deal with that Fascist architecture”.

The Southbank Centre in London, which houses the Hayward Gallery, is the opposite, she says. “It’s a very democratic architecture. People get lost in it, it has all these staircases, and very often people don’t know where they started or ended.”

Rosenthal’s interest in architecture is linked to her belief that boundaries between categories of art need to be blurred. “I feel visual art needs to open up,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in working with other art forms, like dance, architecture. I don’t think art forms should be ring-fenced.” She believes her openness to all kinds of art can be traced back to her upbringing in what she calls a “classic Bildungsbürger family”, a German term for a social class that defines itself through its education rather than material possessions. Growing up, Rosenthal had access to “concerts, theatre, museums, travel”, and was encouraged to take an interest in all forms of culture.

Her particular interest in ephemeral and performance art was stimulated by living in Los Angeles for a year between curatorial jobs, researching an Allan Kaprow show, and she finds the multidisciplinary approach of a choreographer such as William Forsythe – who will be presenting two works at the Sydney Biennale – particularly relevant. “There’s a certain kind of choreography in how we direct people through art shows, and even through cities; how they manipulate us and choreograph us. It’s political, how you direct things through space.”

But while it’s clear Rosenthal is hoping the biennale will facilitate cultural critique of inequality, she is reluctant to frame it as making too bold a political statement. “With me as a German – because something happened in our own country, especially in my family, there is always someone involved in a way where you think, ‘How could they not stand up against it?’ ” she says. “So I was finding a way of creating a place for conversation instead of saying I have an answer, especially coming to Australia as a foreigner.”

At the centre of her artistic vision for the biennale is Redfern, once a working-class and predominantly Indigenous neighbourhood, now rapidly gentrifying. The Australian artist Keg de Souza, whose interdisciplinary art project There Goes the Neighbourhood has over years explored the effects of gentrification on the area, will be creating a sculptural work in Redfern for the biennale, “a kind of shanty town, a sewn-together tent”, as Rosenthal describes it. Paired with a mural-installation to be created by Indigenous artist Daniel Boyd near the site of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, these two works will speak directly to the history of displacement of Aboriginal communities in Sydney and elsewhere.

But for Rosenthal, art and artists themselves are not blameless. “Culture is always part of gentrification, so it’s a good and a bad thing, if the artists come in, because it also means that an area sometimes loses its character, and that people who live there have to move because they’re not part of that,” she says. “Art is in such a difficult place, I think, because we’re trying to be the good guys, but it’s not quite easy like that. Art is important because it helps critical thinking, but on the other hand, art is very much involved in things which it is criticising, like gentrification, like capitalism.”

Rosenthal’s own curatorial style is consciously collaborative. She has appointed 13 “curatorial attachés” to help inform her choices for the biennale, deliberately keeping their roles undefined to allow for fluid working relationships. Some have curated projects within projects; others have given feedback on her overall vision; many have shared expertise or been in conversation with the 80 artists who will be participating in the biennale. One of the attachés, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, who is curatorial manager of international art at Queensland Art Gallery|Gallery of Modern Art, believes Rosenthal has been very generous in offering other curators a stake in the event. “The art world can create intense feedback loops of focused attention, a crucible for unusual ego extremes,” Barlow says, “but Rosenthal is a very unusual person in that she has a great poise and sense of self, but also is truly curious [about] the views of others … She is interested to listen, as well as having something to say.”

For Rosenthal, listening is one of the most crucial skills a curator can have. “Allowing artists to do good works, and being a good conversation partner, is always my goal,” she says. Beyond that, she tries to give herself “permission to work intuitively”. She has a PhD in art history, but does not see her approach as one taken from academia. “It’s important that I link it back to philosophy, that I know where I’m coming from, but I think there are curators who are much more rigid in that sense. I really try to use any opportunity to be as intuitive as I’m allowed, not being an artist, but as a curator who is a mediator between worlds.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "Breaking boundaries". Subscribe here.

Ceridwen Dovey
is the author of Blood Kin and Only the Animals.

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