On the eastern apron of Cockatoo Island where rusting shipyard cranes mark a century of industry, artist Jun Yang is scoping out an ambitious art project to construct something akin to a modern observatory.
One of 37 artists so far selected for the Sydney Biennale, including China's Ai Weiwei, Yang is two weeks into a six-week field trip to understand a city with which he's had a mere passing acquaintance.
His starting point is his interest in Australia's waves of migration, not unrelated to his own biography. He was four when his parents left mainland China for Europe, his grandfather an officer in Chiang Kai-shek's army.
Growing up in Austria in the 1980s, the Yangs were one of around 10 families of Chinese descent living in Vienna.
The international artist who calls Vienna, Yokohama and Taipei home, has spoken with seniors and migrant groups based at Marrickville's Addison Rd Community Centre and walked the streets of Auburn. He's visited the Sydney Observatory and read the notebooks of the colony's first astronomer Lieutenant William Dawes.
In the night sky, Yang thinks he has found a common language in which to explore the migrant experience.
"Historically migration was very much connected to astrology, to being able to locate something, to discovery at the time of seafaring, even before the First Fleet arrived," he said.
"Captain Cook, on one of his journeys, had just a quadrant and a sextant in order to read the stars to know where he was on planet earth.
"It's something we now take for granted, like now [the idea of] sending someone to Mars."
Since its inception in 1973, the Biennale of Sydney has showcased the work of almost 1800 artists from more than 100 countries.
Artistic director Mami Kataoka has adopted superposition as the theme of the 21st Biennale – running from March to June 2018 – which, in quantum theory, refers to the ability of electrons to occupy multiple states at once.
At a time of global conflict and ideological division, Biennale director Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker says the many thought-provoking art commissions will consider forms of coexistence.
"We will have the opportunity to reflect on how we live among others," she said. "To ask how we engage with others? How we can create a state of equilibrium, not only on the global stage but also in our daily lives?
"If we trust artists to help us see the world in strange and different ways – not necessarily in ways we expect or know – the works they create will continue to resonate with us far into the future."
On Cockatoo Island, Yang has in mind a sundial built six or seven metres high, a stepped pyramid referenced from a trig station at the Sydney Observatory, a circle to represent the blue planet and a replica megalith, as in Stonehenge.
"At the same time they would be functional in the sense that people could use them to sit there," he said. "I'm not trying to replicate a fully real observatory but to have these references, almost like abstract sculpture. I would like it to be colourful but it's not a children's playground . . . . also as a contrast to the cliff face."
Yang works across film, installation, performance and public engagement.
His first videos called attention to the stereotypes of Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns in Europe. He and his brother went on to design and open their own restaurant in Vienna.
In 2006 Yang designed a museum community garden in Leipzig, Germany, and in 2008 constructed a contemporary art centre in Taipei and brought 47 curators and artists together to discuss cultural policies and shrinking community arts sector budgets. Out of that came the Taipei Contemporary Arts Centre of which Yang is a founder.