Taiwan and Tuvalu, two small island nations edging the Pacific, are combining forces to bring art activism to the 55th Venice Biennale.
At the 2013 Venice Biennale, the Polynesian island of Tuvalu is drawing international attention to the fact that by 2050 the entire country may be submerged by rising sea levels. The Tuvaluan pavilion, titled “Destiny ∙ Intertwined,” features installation works by Taiwanese eco-artist Vincent J.F. Huang.
The threat of rising tides
Tuvalu, perched just 45 meters above sea level halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has one of the world’s smallest carbon footprints yet is nonetheless on track to become the first country to be engulfed by oceans climbing rapidly due to global warming. This injustice strikes a chord with Vincent J.F. Huang, who has been interested in exploring man’s relationship to the destructive side of nature ever since he witnessed how the 921 earthquake devastated his Taiwanese hometown in 1999.
One world, indivisible
“Destiny ∙ Intertwined“, curated by An-yi Pan, Szu-hsien Li and Shu-ping Shih, emphasises the interconnectivity of climate change and seeks to raise awareness of how individual contributions to global warming will eventually lead to disaster for all nations.
Huang’s main installation In the Name of Civilization is an oil pump that, when activated by visitors, simultaneously guillotines a Tuvaluan turtle and renders the iconic Wall Street bull helpless by stringing it up by its hind legs.
Nearby is the Modern Atlantis Project, in which miniatures of the world’s most iconic landmarks are submerged in an aquarium filled with coral and fish specimens native to Tuvalu. Over time, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and other symbols of civilisation are slowly overgrown by coral as nature fights back. The coral will die once the aquarium’s nutrients have been consumed, symbolising the depletion of the planet’s resources. To reach the aquarium, visitors pass a series of wall hangings made from coral and computer chips, and must walk over a spread of rubber turtles that screech when trodden on.
In a final installation, titled Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Statue of Liberty kowtows before the images of ghostly penguins dressed as Qin Dynasty terracotta soldiers, pleading on its knees for forgiveness.
Speaking of his Venice installations with the non-governmental organisation Responding to Climate Change (RTCC), Huang states:
I think this has a strong visual impact. We want to awake [sic] people when they use the oil and other energy – we are contributing anywhere and at anytime to the climate change. This is not only for Tuvalu, but also for Taipei, Beijing, and New York. Imagine if the sea level rises – all human civilization would be underwater.
Artist as climate activist
Huang’s earlier works are also critiques of modern consumer society and its use of limited natural resources in the name of progress. He frequently draws on imagery of “animal victims”, species that will be most affected by global warming, and on motifs from Chinese history. His Last Feast (2008) replaces the human figures of a famous ancient Chinese painting by Gu Hongzhong with penguins indulging themselves before extinction.
Since learning of the nation’s plight in 2009, Huang has twice visited Tuvalu to create site-specific works, and in 2012 took his piece Animal Delegates to the Doha UN Climate Change Conference, using naked penguins, polar bears and more oil rig torture contraptions to advocate on the island’s behalf.
His “animal victims” also appeared in major cities around the world as part of 2009’s Naked Truth, a happening in which deplumed penguin statues placed in public spaces staged peaceful demonstrations against climate change. When no positive outcomes came of their protest, two penguins and a polar bear hung themselves in despair from London’s Millennium Bridge in the guerrilla street art piece Suicide Penguins (2010).
As both artist and environmentalist, Huang sees it as his duty to find new ways to wake people up to the realities of global warming. In conversation with the Taipei Times after his trip to Doha, Huang said, “I see my job as being to remind people that we are all global citizens who should be aware of and responsible for current and future environmental problems.”
- Venice Biennale 2013: 5 pavilions that reveal Asia’s diversity – May 2013 – from robots to video works, Asian artists show strongly in Italy
- Art and social change: How environmental art is transforming a Taiwanese village – May 2013 – Taiwan’s artists bring creativity to a community renewal project
- Artists Navjot, Wu Mali discuss links between art, social change – museum talk – November 2012 – for these feminist artists from India and Taiwan, the promise of change comes through art and activism
- Taiwanese painter Lien Chien Hsing’s fictional reality – picture feast – July 2012 – Hsing depicts a world without the destruction of nature in his journeys through the mind
- Emerging Taiwanese sound artist addresses environmental issues – interview with Hsu Yen-Ting – June 2012 – can art really make a difference? Hsu tells us why she thinks it can
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