A banner in Melbourne protesting Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. ASIO stands for Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

A banner in Melbourne protesting Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. ASIO stands for Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. (photo by Flick user Takver)

Five artists have announced their withdrawal from the Biennale of Sydney, ArtsHub reported today. The action is the latest in an ongoing controversy over one of the Biennale’s major sponsors, Transfield, a company that contracts with the Australian government to manage its highly controversial offshore mandatory detention centers for asylum seekers.

The logo and a sample of the graphic identity of this year's Sydney Biennale. (via sydney.com)

The logo and a sample of the graphic identity of this year’s Sydney Biennale. (via sydney.com)

A group of participating artists — 28 at first, but the number quickly increased to 41, out of 90 total in the show — petitioned the Biennale last week, asking the board to break with Transfield. The board declined, citing both financial reasons and loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family, whose members hold executive positions at both Transfield and the Biennale. In response, the five artists Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri, and Ahmet Öğüt now announced that they will not participate in the Biennale. In their collective statement on the matter, which is dated February 26 and posted on the #19BoS Working Group site, they say:

We have revoked our works, cancelled our public events and relinquished our artists’ fees. While we have sought ways to address our strong opposition to Australia’s mandatory detention policy as participants of the Biennale, we have decided that withdrawal is our most constructive choice. We do not accept the platform that Transfield provides via the Biennale for critique. We see our participation in the Biennale as an active link in a chain of associations that leads to the abuse of human rights. For us, this is undeniable and indefensible.

Our withdrawal is one action in a multiplicity of others, already enacted and soon to be carried out in and around the Biennale. We do not propose to know the exact ethical, strategic or effective action to end mandatory detention, but we act on conscience and we act with hope.

The artists go on to “ask that the Biennale of Sydney acknowledge the absence of our work from the exhibition” both onsite, where the projects would have been displayed, and on the event’s website. Artist Ahmet Öğüt has also written a personal statement about the decision, which he sent to Hyperallergic. In it, he says:

Maintaining ethical standards in the art world is the responsibility not only of artists, but also cultural institutions and those who support them. … I always saw biennales as a unique autonomous pedagogic site to explore ideas freely, to define the level of ethics in the art world without the need to prioritise profit, and to emphatically shape the zeitgeist of art in relation to life and society. Now I see that this position is in danger. Biennales cannot avoid their social and ethical responsibilities towards their public, their collaborators and artists when it comes to the source their finances.

The case of the Biennale of Sydney is not about asking individual artists to make decisions according to their own understanding and beliefs. This is misleading. If everyone is truly sincere, we cannot abandon one another. I don’t want to address a single target — not the Biennale itself, the sponsor, the artists, nor Australian Citizens in general. All I know is that we should unite in demanding a change to unethical policies.

I believe artists can have the most powerful impact, if — and when — they come together and share collective creative ideas in this moment of crisis. Even if only a few artists out of 94 participate, there is still an exhibition. But there would be no exhibition without all 94 artists.

The Biennale, in turn, issued a statement in response to the withdrawal of the five artists:

We have been in contact with the artists who are withdrawing since the weekend and understand their reasons for doing so. While disappointed these four works [two of the artists were collaborating] will not be shown in the Biennale, we will continue to work in these final weeks to install more than 200 works for the exhibition to allow the public to engage with what promises to be a tremendous Biennale.

The Sydney Morning Herald notes that the City of Sydney, which has promised $300,000 (US$268,830) every two years for the next three Biennales, has begun to question the event’s relationship with Transfield as well. After a vote at a Monday night council meeting, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore will write to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, “calling on them to honour Australia’s human rights obligations in regard to the treatment of asylum seekers,” the paper reports.

Two petitions are circulating online, calling for the Biennale to cut ties with Transfield. They currently have nearly 2,000 signatures combined.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

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