Despite the dilapidated beauty of Cockatoo Island, its edgy arts events and glamping options, the island still fails to find it’s place in the Inner West’s landscape…
Pitched as being the focal point of the Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island houses gigantic installations telling stories of disco dancers and big rocks. While these large signature works draw in families whose hyperactive kids need a ferry ride and infinite big screen images in a maze of warehouses to tire them out, the art world has remained largely unmoved by the pieces at Cockatoo Island. Since officially becoming a venue in 2008, Cockatoo Island’s wow factor has started to wear thin. After you’ve traipsed around the steel structures, admired the water views and been confused by an artist’s interpretation of Google for a few years in a row you do start to question the validity and credibility of Cockatoo Island as an arts venue. Even if it is amazing. Quite frankly, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust probably doesn’t know what else to do with it.
After being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list 2010, Cockatoo Island is officially untouchable. The grounds showcase the “best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through convict labour” (www.cockatooisland.gov.au). The Island is governed by a Trust whose charter is to care for the island so current and future generations can experience and interpret its remarkable history. Trouble is, convict history is not very ‘hot’ right now. There is no great marketing angle to have ferryloads of Asian tourists come and marvel at our not-so-unique and quite distasteful white history.
There aren’t many domestic tourists wanting to visit industrial wastelands either (even if they can glamp there) so the Trust welcomes any opportunity to ferry over willing patrons to be stunned by art, listen to Nick Cave, or really any kind of event that can bring it some visitors. Even the Drummoyne Chamber of Commerce put on an event there to showcase local businesses.
Like all islands, transportation is key. With limited ferry services (except during peak times like Biennale and New Years Eve), even the businesses that currently tenant the island would struggle with patronage. The Island Bar and restaurant, Societe Overboard, have spectacular views and a great offer, but without regular customers and with supplies being difficult to manage, one hopes the Trust has given them fair market rent (i.e. cheap).
As a conservation and restoration project, the Island requires patience and money. Lots of it. And without that, the short term strategy is to showcase as many interesting events as possible so at least there is some visitation to this heritage site. There really needs to be a clearer vision of what the island is supposed to be – the Inner West’s answer to Old Sydney Town, a refuge for neglected bird colonies like the ibis and seagull, or a significant cultural venue with more than just underwhelming installations every two years. Come on Cockatoo, we know you are potentially much greater than this.
Words: Naveen Gupta.