21st Sydney Biennale: The Works that Haunt Me

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

Earlier this year Rosie attended the 21st Sydney Biennale with a group of like-minded patrons of Tauranga Art Gallery. What she saw was equal parts overwhelming and inspiring. While some of the works she can barely remember, there are two which, to this day, continue to haunt her.

Video still of Yukinori Yanagi’s 'Landscape with an Eye' at the 21st Sydney Biennale.

As I wandered through the abandoned buildings on Cockatoo Island, two of Hiroshima-based Yukinori Yanagi’s works stopped me in my tracks. I turned a corner, completely unprepared, and found myself face to face with Absolute Dud, a one-tonne iron replica of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 during World War II. Suspended from the ceiling of the former Rectifier Room, the huge weapon was a physical reminder of the terrors of war and the abuse of power, and the communities it continues to affect decades later.

Photo of Yukinori Yanagi’s 'Absolute Dub' taken by Rosie Dawson-Hewes at the 21st Sydney Biennale.

While Absolute Dud was confronting, its neighbouring work, Landscape with an Eye, was more unsettling. As I stood close to the warhead, forcing myself to consider nuclear technology and its misuse, I could hear a soundtrack of nuclear testing coming from next door. The deep boom was unmistakable and terrifying. As I walked into the next room there was a video installation of an enormous eye floating suspended in space. Seeing archival film footage of nuclear tests conducted at different sites in the Pacific Ocean in the eye’s iris made my stomach leap into my throat. It was too much for me and I immediately left.

As I stood outside in the drizzle, waiting for my friends, I pondered these works and their effect on me. I was deeply uncomfortable. It was the first time I’d actively chosen not to absorb a work in a very long time. Why did I feel so uneasy? What was I not happy facing? I was reminded of that saying, often attributed to Banksy – “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.

I went back in and sat with the work for some time. It wasn’t pleasant, but I’m glad I did, because nine months later I’m still thinking about it. Yes, it made me deeply uncomfortable. It made me consider what we, as humans, are doing to each other, to our planet, to unsuspecting communities, in our search for power and control.

Even now, when I look at the photos and videos I took of these works, I still feel emotional. I still feel both sad, for what we’ve done, and motivated, to ensure this kind of action doesn’t happen again. And that’s what truly great art is supposed to do. Yes, sometimes we just want to escape and spend some time being surrounded by beauty – there’s nothing wrong with that. But the role of art is also to challenge, to make us think about our place, our privilege, our priorities. And, with these two works, Yanagi achieved just that.

Rosie Dawson-Hewes is Chairperson of the Tauranga Art Gallery Foundation and Creative Copywriter at WAVE Creative Communications Agency in Mount Maunganui.