Lost at Sea

Plans to transform Australia’s Cockatoo Island into permanent art site rejected

Cockatoo Island was established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 for its importance in the country’s convict history. (Courtesy Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbor)

Off the southern coast of Japan is a small island town named Naoshima, hailed as the country’s “art island” for hosting Tadao Ando-designed museums and large outdoor sculptures by artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Walter De Maria, and George Rickey. Since adopting its recent cultural status in the last decade, the quaint island town of 3,000 permanent residents now receives more than 700,000 visitors annually.

Australia nearly has a ‘Naoshima’ of its own in Cockatoo Island, an even smaller body of land off the coast of Sydney that UNESCO proclaimed as a World Heritage Site in 2010 and, in coordination with the Biennale of Sydney, has temporarily hosted large-scale installations by artists including Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang within its historic industrial buildings. In an attempt to solidify the island’s new-found cultural role, the Cockatoo Island Foundation Limited was established last year to transform Cockatoo Island into a permanent art site. Like Naoshima, the group envisioned Cockatoo Island as a site of multiple indoor and outdoor works of art with plenty of landscaping left over to benefit native biodiversity.

Photo of a sculpture showing migrants huddled on a raft

Cockatoo Island once hosted an installation of Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey (2017). (Courtesy Biennale of Sydney)

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the group contains prominent art world figures, including Danny Goldberg and Tony Berg, that have guaranteed to put $80 million towards the project if the federal government would chip in another $190 million. “There is absolutely no personal commercial benefit in this,” Berg told the Herald. “We have this vision for something really fantastic to happen on Cockatoo Island, make it a place of excitement, but if at the end of the day, the review and the government say that is not the way they want to go, we will pack up our stuff and go away.”

The proposal, however, was recently rejected by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, the organization that currently owns the island, stating that the move could negatively affect the site’s historical presence. “When we were set up 20 years ago,” Joseph Carrozzi, chairman of the trust, told the Art Newspaper, “the concept of the trust was to protect, rehabilitate and preserve the historical sites. We want the government to say the trust should have an ongoing role in managing these sites because they are unique. We want all the assets to be fundamentally community assets, and (used) for the purpose of telling the story of Australia in a very specific way[…] rather than a commercialized enterprise.”

The island is currently locked in an ongoing tension between its historic past and its potential future as a haven for contemporary art. At the very least, Cockatoo Island will continue its participation in the Biennale of Sydney, including its 22nd iteration taking place throughout the city starting March 14.

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