Biennale of Sydney

Lucas Ihlein & Kim Williams

Kim Williams and Lucas Ihlein, "Plastic-free Biennale: Microplastics field trip in Wollongong",documentation of event, 2019

Lucas Ihlein

Born 1975 in Sydney, Australia
Lives and works in Wollongong, Australia

Kim Williams

Born 1959 in Mornington, Australia
Lives and works in Wollongong, Australia


Lucas Ihlein uses socially-engaged art to explore human-environment relations. His recent project Sugar vs the Reef? in collaboration with Kim Williams, investigates grassroots cultural leadership in the Queensland sugarcane industry. Ihlein is a student at the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation, and a researcher at University of Wollongong.

Kim Williams works with environmental projects using socially engaged art. Her most recent work at the time of writing is Sugar vs the Reef?, in collaboration with Lucas Ihlein. The artists worked with farmers, Australian South Sea Islanders, Yuwibara custodians and natural resource managers to create public ‘agri/cultural’ events that demonstrated transformative farming practices.

Plastic-free Biennale is a strange beast! We have been commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney to facilitate its desire ’to go plastic-free’. As anyone living in the world in 2020 would recognise, this is nigh-on-impossible to achieve. 

So, how can we as artists work in this space where good intentions butt up against our inevitable failure? 

First, we acknowledge that we ourselves don’t have any special insights about how to go plastic-free. In our everyday lives' plastic is all around us! It’s so useful that we cannot really imagine living without it. And yet every day, overwhelming waves of media wash up tales of gigantic plastic gyres in the ocean, plastic microparticles in our food, plastic in our soil and plastic choking seabirds to death. 

And where would the art world be without plastic? Without bubble-wrap how can we safely transport precious artworks? Without vinyl decals how can we create professional-looking signage? Without acrylic paint how can we make our white cubes look clean and of museum standard? 

Plastic is so useful, and so dangerous. 

What would a genuinely plastic-free Biennale look like? 

Quite different, we suspect!

Our approach involves tugging at the edges of the problem from a range of different angles. We’ve been meeting with the staff of the Biennale, listening to their plastic-free dreams, and allowing them a little space in their incredibly busy workflow to share ideas for how to tackle it. 

Things are happening from the bottom up, involving behaviour-change by individuals. But the staff is also realising that their small changes need to be accompanied by top-down, policy level transformation. Curatorial decisions about the aesthetics of art gallery presentation, and the procurement of corporate partnerships and contracts – these need to become part of a new art world code of conduct. And the Biennale's Board of Directors needs to back it up! It’s a work-in-progress …

In the meantime, we are working with Societé Overboard – one of the main food and beverage caterers at Cockatoo Island. Cockatoo, being an island, is perhaps a metaphor for the entire planet. What would happen to the place if there was no means of exporting all the plastic crap that we (the art world community) are complicit in producing? How can we cut down on the gazillion single-use packaging items generated during the Biennale? 

Here’s one way: by reintroducing the good old-fashioned act of washing up! Visitors to the Biennale (that’s you!)  are invited to clean up after themselves rather than chucking their trash in a bin and walking away. Changing the systems of a cafe involves curly logistics, like compliance with food safety, composting, increased water usage (during a drought!) and how to move all of those bodies in and out of the space without the whole conga-line of washer-upperers getting stuck in a sudsy traffic jam. 

We’re also trying to learn from scientists about the myriad of different types of plastics in the world and what they’re good for. What possible substitutes might be emerging? While all this is going on, we’re working with some Wollongong kids, and with our local Wadi Wadi Elder Aunty Barbara Nicholson, to create a catchy song about plastics. And we’re going to take you along for the ride as we unravel our Plastic-free Biennale story on our project blog: plasticfreebiennale.sydney. Wish us luck!

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