Tuvalu returns to Venice with first-ever ‘sinking’ pavilion

The Biennale’s smallest national pavilion highlights the world’s biggest issue.

The small island nation of Tuvalu returns to the Venice Biennale in 2015 with a project by Taiwanese artist Vincent J. F. Huang for the second consecutive time. The first-ever “sinking” pavilion will use Chinese philosophy to address and highlight the harsh reality of climate change.

Vincent JF Huang, from 'The Last Penguins' series, 2013, acrylic on fibreglass, 146 x 100 x 90 cm. Inspired by Chinese philosophers Laozi’s and Zhuangzi’s idea of people living in harmony with the environment, Huang started his series of 'The Last Penguins' in 2008. Stationed in various positions of Taichi and in the face of destruction, the penguins try to achieve the impossible as they attempt to save nature from human’s exploitation in the name of civilisation. This installation has been exhibited on the river of Hanover, Shanghai, Taipei and the lagoon in Venice. Image courtesy the artist.

Vincent J. F. Huang, from ‘The Last Penguins’ series, 2013, acrylic on fibreglass, 146 x 100 x 90 cm. Tuvalu Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Inspired by Chinese philosophers Laozi’s and Zhuangzi’s idea of people living in harmony with the environment, Huang started his series of “The Last Penguins” in 2008. Stationed in various positions of Taichi and in the face of destruction, the penguins try to achieve the impossible as they attempt to save nature from human’s exploitation in the name of civilisation. This installation has been exhibited on the river of Hanover, Shanghai, Taipei and the lagoon in Venice. Image courtesy the artist.

On 12 January 2015, the small Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu announced its participation with a national pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (9 May – 22 November 2015). The upcoming project will be created, for the second consecutive time, by Taiwanese artist Vincent J. F. Huang and curated by Dutch-born Dr Thomas J. Berghuis, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The plight of Tuvalu

Located in the Pacific Ocean a mere 4.5 metres above sea level, midway between Hawaii and Australia, Tuvalu has a total area of only 26 square kilometres with a population of around 12,000. The almost negligible country in the middle of the world’s largest ocean is also the third-least populous sovereign nation in the world.

The remote South Pacific island also has one of the smallest carbon footprints in the entire world, but is one of the first places on earth to suffer the serious consequences of climate change. As the sea levels rise and salinisation increases, Tuvalu will slowly sink and will be one of the first places to disappear.

Vincent J. F. Huang, 'Prisoner's Dilemma', 2013, acrylic on fibreglass, 170 x 90 x 80 cm. Tuvalu Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Vincent J. F. Huang, ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, 2013, acrylic on fibreglass, 170 x 90 x 80 cm. Tuvalu Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Social sculpture for Tuvalu

Vincent J. F. Huang has been involved in supporting the plight of Tuvalu for years, and he participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP) in 2012 (Doha) and 2013 (Warsaw) as Tuvalu’s official delegate.

The artist’s continued interest in raising awareness on climate change, and his commitment to Tuvalu’s situation, culminated in Tuvalu’s first participation at the 55th Venice Biennale. The 2013 national pavilion entitled “Destiny Intertwined” served as “a metaphor for the Developed World and Third World and how climate change is causing dire natural calamities.”

Huang’s practice utilises the concept of “social sculpture” as a way “to assist Tuvalu get more global society aid before it becomes uninhabitable,” as the artist told Art Radar. In the artist profile on his website, Huang highlights an important question that seeks to raise awareness among his audiences worldwide:

Is the development of contemporary civilisation pointing to a brighter future, or moving toward destruction?

Vincent J. F. Huang (left) and Dr Thomas J. Berghuis (right) in Venice. Image courtesy the artist.

Vincent J. F. Huang (left) and Dr Thomas J. Berghuis (right) in Venice. Image courtesy the artist.

Chinese philosophy: Man and nature as one

In 2015, Tuvalu returns to the world’s oldest biennale with a pavilion at the Artiglierie, in the Arsenale, and prepares to awe audiences with the first-ever “sinking” pavilion. Huang told Art Radar that the “flood pavilion”

corresponds quite closely to the current condition in Tuvalu, as well as also [being] connected [to] the fate of Venice, both facing the subsequent fate of becoming uninhabitable.

The Tuvalu Pavilion addresses the overall theme of the 2015 Biennale, “All the World’s Future”, envisioned and curated by Okwui Enwezor, which seeks a “fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.” As the curator, Dr Berghuis, told Art Radar, the pavilion

considers what could be the ultimate catastrophe of disappearance, […] recognition of global climate change and of the plea of small island nations such as Tuvalu […] [and] considers the way artists like Vincent J.F. Huang have taken issues of climate change as the subject matter in their work.

Huang and Dr Berghuis are currently working on refining the project for the pavilion, which will see an interpretation of the current and future consequences of climate change through Chinese philosophical thought. The Pavilion will represent a man-made, natural environment that consists of only sky and water and, as Dr Berghuis points out, “in doing so, considers the stark reality of global climate change and the future of small island nations that could ultimately disappear.”

Vincent J. F. Huang, 'Modern Atlantis Project', 2013, live marine ecosystem, glass tank, filtration system, lionfish, starfish, coral and plaster sculptures, 190 x 90 x 90 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Vincent J. F. Huang, ‘Modern Atlantis Project’, 2013, live marine ecosystem, glass tank, filtration system, lionfish, starfish, coral and plaster sculptures, 190 x 90 x 90 cm. Tuvalu Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Dr Berghuis describes to Art Radar how the project is linked to Chinese philosophy:

The exhibition design will feature what we envision will be the first sinking pavilion for the Venice Biennale. […] Here we connect such vision to the first chapter of the Chinese Daoist classic, the Book of Zhuangzi, “Free and Easy Wandering,” describing a giant fish named Kun who changes into a bird whose name is Peng. When Peng beats his wings, the sea roils, and he rises to [an] enormous height. The sky becomes blue, and when the bird looks down, all is blue too. Can we imagine such a world?

The Book of Zhuangzi considers ways of living in harmony with the natural world for mankind to achieve happiness and freedom. But the stark reality, as Dr Berghuis says, is that “we are no longer living in accord with nature, and instead we are facing the ecological catastrophe.”

Huang told Art Radar how the pavilion will bring audiences closer to the current climate change crisis:

The world will be transformed into an extension of sea and archipelagos, rather than the common impression of land on continents. With this, we aspire to demonstrate new possibilities of future survival through our installation project, while providing visitors an opportunity to experience “being in” a sinking crisis.

He adds:

Although Tuvalu is the smallest and poorest pavilion in Venice, […] we will try to make it big.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Taiwanese artists, biennales, biennials, curatorial practice, art and the environment, events in Venice, Venice Biennale

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