I’ve been home from the Venice Biennale for almost three months now and I’m thinking about the work I saw and what impressions have stayed with me. I’ve already written about the Phyllida Barlow and Shezad Dawood shows and I’m still thinking about these, especially the latter.
The over-arching impression is one of shows that explore migration and displacement. Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan fits into that, but in a complex and difficult way. Other pieces deal with the issues more straight forward ways.
New Zealand / Aotearoa Pavilion: Lisa Reihana – Emmissaries
The centrepiece of Emissaries is a film — In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) — an impressive work that is already well-known in New Zealand. Reihana has used a wallpaper design that illustrates the voyages of Captain Cook (and others) as a basis for exploring European and Maori interaction, Imperialism, and other tissues still being played out in New Zealand society. The panoramic film gently moves past the viewers with vignettes of action played out, embedded in the wallpaper’s decorative setting. These mini-drams don’t build up to a narrative as such but rather accrete, one serenely following another, to develop a questioning of the relations between the natives and colonists. It’s a beautiful piece of work which seduces and shocks in equal measure.
Tunisia National Pavilion: The Absence of Paths
Refreshingly, Tunisia’s ‘pavilion’ is in fact three booths, dotted around the Biennale sites, that are issuing Travel Visas own return fro an email address. Participants place a thumbprint on a document that is placed into a booklet that explains the work a little. The visa is stamped ‘ONLY HUMAN – The Absence of Paths. I addition to this the owner’s origin and destination are listed as ‘UNKNOWN’ and the status is simply ‘MIGRANT’. It’s a simple a profound gesture, especially in Venice where everyone, pretty much, is a migrant.
Alvar Alto Pavilion of Finland: Erkka Nissinen and Nathaniel Mellors – The Aalto Natives
Art that is funny and serious is rare. The Aalto Natives is both and is provides a weird counterpoint to the ambition of Dawood’s Leviathan and the seriousness of a lot of the work on show. The work is described as an ‘installation with video and animatronic sculpture’. The sculptor elements include a large egg that speaks and has a video projector at its apex. This projects a film — it’s about an hour long, but time flew by — onto the pavilion walls. This projection moves about and is often smeared and distorted. The sculpture also talks to characters in the film. I think that the dais on which this (and a smaller sculpture) sit is stuffed full of all the props used in the film.
The piece is a fantastical story about repopulating the world in the style of Finland and reinvents creation myths in its own image. It’s silly, profane, and very ambitious. I’ll be honest, I kept thinking it was all about to end but then a protagonist would pass through into another world (populated by hand-drawn animation, or muppets, or Finnish ‘scientists’) and we’d be off again. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Watch part of it here, along with an interview wth the artists.
These works — and others I haven’t discussed — all orbit very serious and urgent issues but from very different directions and using wildly different strategies. There’s a formal and intellectual audacity in the best work in Venice that should be applauded and emulated wherever possible.
Also published on Medium.