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Artists Withdraw from the 19th Sydney Biennale over Transfield Sponsorship

February 26, 2014


Ahmet Öğüt

I see the Biennale of Sydney’s decision to cut all ties with Transfield and Resignation of the Chairman, as a very positive development for the future of the Biennial and the role of Biennial’s in general. I decided to return and participate in the Biennial, since our demand from the Biennial stated in our withdrawal letter was fulfilled. I acknowledge that this process is not easy for the Biennial team; I have donated my artist fee to the Biennial as a sign of appreciation of art workers’ hard work. I think it is time to join forces together as one voice; for all artists, curators, art workers and cultural producers to create new constructive opportunities, develop further debates, and continue to be in support of the human rights of asylum seekers.


The chairman of the Sydney Biennale and of its major sponsor Transfield Holdings, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, has resigned his position with the festival.

Organisers have announced that they will cut all ties with Transfield Holdings and with Transfield Services, a contractor for Australia’s network of immigration detention centres.

“We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately,” organisers said in a statement.

Read more here. 


Four more artists withdraw from the 19th Biennale of Sydney

March 5th 2014

After much consideration we: Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray, have decided to withdraw our works from the 19th Biennale of Sydney, because of its relation to Transfield, a company involved in the Australian government policy of mandatory detention.

Our motivations reflect those outlined in the statement issued by artists Ögüt, Castro, Ólafsson, Sofo and de Vietri on February 26th, added as a reference with this letter. They close their statement by expressing their hope that others will join them in “solidarity with all those who are working towards a better future for asylum seekers.” Our withdrawal is such an act of solidarity.

We have requested the Biennale that our withdrawal be registered on their website and signposted at the physical site of exhibition, so that this action will not be unnoticed.

With Regards,

Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide,  Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray



26 February 2014

We are five of the 41 artists – Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt – who signed a letter to the Board of the Biennale of Sydney in relation to their founding sponsor, Transfield.

We make this statement in light of Transfield’s expanding management of Manus Island and Nauru immigration detention centres. We act in the wake of the death of Reza Berati from inside Manus Island detention centre on February 17. We are in urgent political circumstances with a government that is stepping up their warfare on the world’s most vulnerable people daily.

We have received indications from the Board of the Biennale and Transfield that there will be no movement on their involvement in this issue. In our letter to the Board we asked for action and engagement, but we are told that the issue is too complex, and that the financial agreements are too important to re-negotiate.

And so we make this statement from a critical juncture of political urgency and artistic autonomy.

This is a statement of our withdrawal from the 19th Biennale of Sydney.

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.

We have chosen to redirect our energies into multiple forms of action: discussions, workshops, publications, exhibitions and works that will continue to fuel this debate in the public sphere. In this, we stand with our local and international communities that are calling for the closure of Australia’s offshore detention facilities. We ask for their active support in keeping this issue at the forefront of our minds, in the warmest part of our hearts, in the most urgent of discussions and in the most bold of actions, until the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru close.

We withdraw to send a message to the Biennale urging them, again, to act ethically and transparently. To send a message to Transfield that we will not add value to their brand and its inhumane enterprise. Finally, and most importantly, we withdraw to send a message to the Australian Government that we do not accept their unethical policy against asylum seekers.

We ask that the Biennale of Sydney acknowledge the absence of our work from the exhibition. As the Biennale has offered to provide a platform and support for our dissent, we request that our withdrawal be registered on the Biennale website and signposted at the physical site of our projects. In the pervasive silence that the Government enforces around this issue, we will not let this action be unnoticed.

We act in solidarity with all those who are working towards a better future for asylum seekers. We hope that others will join us.

Libia Castro
Ólafur Ólafsson
Charlie Sofo
Gabrielle de Vietri
Ahmet Öğüt


For more information please see: The Sydney Biennale Case: Open Letters.

Additionally,  a statement from Ahmet Öğüt on the matter:

Making Decisions With Heart in Times of Crisis

Maintaining ethical standards in the art world is the responsibility not only of artists, but also cultural institutions and those who support them. Any decision taken by an institution should be made with respect for its public, the people who work for it and the artists who collaborate with it.

The most important criteria to safeguard are trust, sincerity and respect. 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.

It is our responsibility to prioritize collective, progressive, constructive and creative ideas in a moment of crisis such as this. It is time to give up our personal concerns as priorities and examine the real, sincere meaning behind what we all do and what we can achieve.

What I see here is a lack of ethical transparency; a last-minute call from an Australian citizen to boycott; a Biennale team and board that has known of its sponsor’s engagements for a very long time; invited artists left uninformed; as sponsor, Transfield Holdings without a clear distinction from Transfield Services, who is very well aware that their business decision as a major contractor on the highly criticized refugee detention camps at Manus Island and in Nauru is ethically indefensible; and the implications of this both on the cultural scene, and on the broader discussion of Australian citizens demanding an urgent change of policy from the Australian Government.

What we have now is a letter to the board of the Biennale signed by a group of deeply concerned participating artists, a public petition with more than one thousand signatories, and a rather insensitive statement by the Biennale Board in response stating “Artists must make a decision according to their own understanding and beliefs.” This turns the issue into an individual matter, and that is what is upsetting, instead of addressing a collective responsibility.

After all this conversation I have come to the conclusion that I must withdraw from the Biennale of Sydney. I would only rejoin the conversation if:

1. A majority group of participating artists decides to have a collective action challenging the current crisis.

2. If the BoS negotiates a transparent and ethical funding agreement with all sponsors.

3. If Transfield Services reconsiders its current agreements with government and the BoS is not implicated in any wealth generated from the mandatory detention policies.

4. If we all work together for a better future of the Biennale of Sydney, while sending a clear message to Australian Government that we will not accept the ethically indefensible policy of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Ahmet Öğüt

February – 2014


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