Art Radar gives you a selection of must-see national presentations at the 57th Venice Biennale.
With the plethora of national pavilions and presentations at this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale, there is much to choose when visiting the event from May to November 2017. Here Art Radar selects a few favourites to check out.
1. “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play” — United Arab Emirates
Curated by Hammad Nasar, commissioned by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, the exhibition features existing, new commissions and re-fabrications of “lost” works by five UAE-based artists. The show explores the practices of some of UAE’s artists through the analogue of play, by posing a set of nested questions surrounding the notion of “play” and “playfulness” as vehicles to understand the world around us: where does “playfulness” in artistic practice come from? How and where is “play” nurtured? What does “play” do?
Nujoom Alghanem’s sound installation Between Heaven and Earth, the Body I Borrowed is based on a poetry performance, Space, a visual poem, and a reproduction of Silsilat Al Ramad, Volume 1, a self-published journal produced by the artist and members of the Aqwas collective in 1985. Sara Al Haddad has contributed three crocheted yarn installations, including an old work entitled as you try to forget me and two new commissions, don’t you ever leave me alone and can’t you see how i feel.
Vikram Divecha‘s Degenerative Disarrangement is an existing work made from bricks “relocated” in a new iteration, and Bathing Boulders is a commissioned video work documenting the process of washing large rocks from Divecha’s 2014 work Boulder Plot. Lantian Xie presents a selection of “things,” including existing works Hassan’s Ashtray, Half-Cup Saffron and Taxidermy Peacock, and a major commission comprising a series of objects and happenings entitled A Rumble Interrupted Our Chat. Dr Mohamed Yousif has refabricated two previous works which were no longer in existence: Al insiyabiyya bil majadeef taht al maa, a large-scale installation of wooden oars, and Al Shwahid, an assemblage of anthropomorphic spoons looking on a burial mound.
2. “Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge” — Singapore
Commissioned by the National Arts Council, Singapore and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale features the work of Singaporean artist Zai Kuning. The exhibition uncovers forgotten stories of the orang laut, the sea people of the Riau Archipelago. These stories are juxtaposed with an artistic re-imagination of the seventh century voyage of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa through the kingdom of Srivijaya. The central piece is a 17-metre long ship made of rattan, strings and beeswax traversing the hall of the pavilion, suspended from the ceiling. On the floor, beneath the hanging ship, is a sheet of aluminium representing the sea, with a cargo of sealed books dotted throughout the space.
Zai explores the lesser-known narratives and histories of Southeast Asia, with Dapunta Hyang being the first Malay king of a once powerful empire that exercised great political, economic and military influence over modern-day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. With later history, the king has been forgotten, buried underneath the arrival of later rulers and the advent of Islam. Zai’s project is the culmination of over 20 years of research, and the vessel now in the pavilion is the fifth, largest and most intricate to date constructed by Zai.
The exhibition also includes an installation of 24 photographic portraits of living performers of mak yong – a pre-Islamic operatic tradition with Hindu-Buddhist roots that has now only a few remaining masters. Zai came into contact with such performers through his interactions with the orang laut people. In the pavilion, there is an audio recording of an old mak yong master reciting his lament, a poignant reminder of the necessity of safeguarding dying traditions and small, discriminated communities on the verge of extinction.
3. “MY HORIZON” — Australia
The Australian Pavilion features a solo presentation by Brisbane-born, internationally acclaimed artist Tracey Moffat curated by Australia-based writer and curator Natalie King. The exhibition comprises two new series of large-scale photographs, entitled Body Remembers and Passage, and two new video works, Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In. The works use carefully constructed scenarios, and are inspired by sources as diverse as television news reports, poetry, Surrealist painting, documentary photography, Hollywood cinema and the artist’s personal memories.
In a press release about the show, Moffat speaks of her fictional characters as “seen to gaze out to the horizon line, possibly dreaming of escape, or reflecting on their memories”. She goes on to say:
The title MY HORIZON can be interpreted as wanting to see beyond where one is: to have vision, to project out, to exist in the realm of one’s imagination, or to want to go beyond one’s limitations.
Body Remembers comprises ten free-floating photographs that evoke the lives of generations of women who have undertaken domestic and emotional labour, while Passage includes 12 large-scale photographs staged in the late-afternoon sun or at twilight in a mysterious port.
The two-minute video Vigil is inspired by the television news coverage of the December 2010 drowning of dozens of asylum seekers off the coast of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. The White Ghosts Sailed In is also a two-minute long video, which the artist claims comes from a fragment of old nitrate film found in the vault of a former Aboriginal Mission in the centre of Sydney. Moffatt recounts that the footage was recorded by Indigenous people using an early film camera that had been discarded by a member of Captain Cook’s crew.
4. “Counterbalance: The Stone and the Mountain” — Korea
Commissioned by Arts Council Korea and curated by Hyundai Motor’s Art Director, Lee Daehyung, the Korean Pavilion presents the work of Cody Choi and Lee Wan, and focuses on the conflicts and dislocation that the two artists perceive in modern Korean identity. In a press release about the exhibition, the curator says:
By revealing the transnational conditions of production and consumption, these two artists create works of arts that are distillations of human experience. If a stone stands for the individual, then the mountain is the societal system in which they are lodged. Through the lens of this exhibition, individual struggles may prove analogous to those of the wider contemporary world.
Seoul-based Cody Choi is representative of a generation of artists who in the 1990s engaged in a cultural “tug of war” with the West in order to preserve a distinct identity. In Venice, his major installation Venetian Rhapsody, at the entrance to and on the roof of the pavilion, is a glowing neon signage that borrows from the visuals typical of Las Vegas and Macao casinos, and reflects on “the spectacle of global capitalism”, as curator Lee comments. Choi’s Thinker sculpture made of toilet paper and the pink American stomach medicine Pepto-Bismol is a reinvention of Rodin’s famous work.
Lee Wan is of a younger generation of artists, who investigates “the hidden lives of individuals exploited by global power structures in countries all over Asia and beyond”. In Proper Time the artist has undertaken the task of researching the diverse economic situations of working people worldwide. The installation comprises 668 clocks, each inscribed with the name, date of birth, nationality and occupation of individuals the artist met and interviewed around the world.
Mr. K and the Collection of Korean History revolves around the artist’s discovery in a Korean antique market of the archive and personal effects of Kim Kimoon (1936-2011). Through Lee’s work, the man takes on the symbolic identity of all Koreans of his generation that lived through Korea’s most defining moments of its 20th century history. Mr K’s belongings are juxtaposed with Lee Wan’s own collection of artefacts, thus creating a multi-layered narrative of Korea’s modern history.
5. “Turned Upside Down, It’s a Forest” — Japan
Organised by The Japan Foundation and curated by Meruro Washida, the exhibition features the three-dimensional work of Takahiro Iwasaki. The artist has used everyday familiar objects including towels, books, and plastic rubbish combined with fine craftsmanship to create pieces like steel towers from the threads pulled out of towels and construction cranes from bookmark strings attached to books. Towels strewn on the floor in an orderly chaos represent a mountainous landscape.
Iwasaki, born in Hiroshima in 1975, does not have any direct experience of the atomic bomb; nevertheless, this important moment in the history of his hometown exerts a particular influence on his practice. From being annihilated by the bomb, to becoming a military city, now Hiroshima has changed face completely and is widely recognised as a city of peace. The use of everyday objects in Iwasaki’s work draws from the numerous artefacts in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, copies of daily necessities now devoid of function.
Architectural elements appear in great detail in Iwasaki’s work, and are inspired by the landscape that surrounds his native, coastal area of Japan, from a traditional shrine built above the sea, to chemical plants that stand along Hiroshima’s coast and oilrigs. Through his figurative representations of Japan’s contemporary landscape, Iwasaki addresses issues such as nuclear energy, the development of resources and the growth of chemical plants, all of which have and are still contributing to serious pollution, despite supporting the high growth of the postwar economy. The artist ultimately questions, as the curator writes, “the attitudes of Japanese people towards science and technology and the way in which we confront nature”.
6. “Continuum – Generation by Generation” — China
The China Pavilion is curated by artist and curator Qiu Zhijie, Dean of the School of Experimental Art at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The exhibition features the work of two contemporary artists, Wu Jian’an and Tang Nannan, and two folk artists, Wang Tianwen and Yao Huifen. The theme of the pavilion revolves around the concept of buxi (不息), which literally translates into ‘ceaselessly’ and ‘unrelentingly’, but as the curator writers, it also implies “unbroken energetic transmission” and “a generative life force that survives through resilience and adaptability to the vicissitudes of history and fate”.
This concept is at the core of Chinese civilisation and is also expressed in The Book of Changes (Yijing) through the phrase: “Life and growth: this is the meaning of transformation and change”. Chinese contemporary art follows the idea represented by buxi, by continuing China’s longstanding traditions and reinterpreting them in a modern key, complementing it with today’s media and technologies. Wu Jian’an, whose chosen medium is paper-cut, uses this ancient art form not only with paper, but to create monumental sculptures and works, such as The Forests of the Daydream Series, comprising five laser-cut copper trees dotted around the exhibition space. With a combination of traditional as well as contemporary cut patterns and figures, these magical trees symbolise the connection between earth and the spiritual realm.
In a similar way, Tang Nannan uses video as his primary medium to reinterpret the tradition of classical Chinese painting, both in appearance and representation. In his videos, mountains and seas merge into one, and isolated figures or animals, and elements of contemporaneity form part of the landscape.
Wang Tianwen, a traditional puppet carver brings his craftmanship to the exhibition with a series of handcrafted leather engravings entitled Wind, Rain, Thunder, Lightning, Rainbow also used for puppet plays in the pavilion. His collaborative work with Tang Nannan, Happy Excursion, occupies window niches on the walls of the space, depicting traditional landscapes with contemporary elements. Yao Huifen’s work reinterprets Chinese classical paintings in embroidery, such as Skeleton Fantasy Show by Song Dynasty painter Li Song, in which a puppet master represented as a skeleton plays with a skeleton puppet in front of children. Her collaborative work with Tang Nannan combines embroidery with video projections.
7. “UNDER ONE SUN. The Art of Living Together” — Azerbaijan
The Azerbaijan Pavilion is curated by Prof Dr Martin Roth, the former director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Emin Mammadov, the artistic adviser of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and occupies two floors of Palazzo Lezze with the works of two artists. The exhibition unfolds by exploring the multicultural roots of Azerbaijan, where multiple ethnicities coexist and cohabit within its borders, with different traditions and cultural values. The show promotes cultural tolerance and peace among diverse groups of people, in a time when xenophobia, extremism, religious discrimination and terrorism are creating calamities and hatred.
The performance group HYPNOTICA, founded by eight artists in 2009, works with video mapping to create interactions of language and visitors’ presence within a space. Their immersive video installation UNITY shows the cultural and ethnic diversity that characterises Azerbaijan. Individuals from different backgrounds and ethnic groups appear on screens talking in their language about their life. The voices are superimposed onto one another, merging into one, and displaying the concept of ‘unity’ and coexistence, while the video projected onto the floor and walls of the room unifies languages and cultural diversity through text and the presence of a human figure.
Elvin Nabizade’s works utilise the musical instrument as a symbol of diversity, tradition and multiculturalism in two installation works. The titular piece comprises about 50 Saz (traditional string instruments) arranged in the space to form a sort of rainbow shape snaking around the exhibition space. Nabizade considers not only the act of speaking but also music as a common language that unifies people and connects different minorities. The artist also offers a commentary on the disappearance of tradition and folk culture. Sphere is also composed of musical instruments, albeit a host of different ones arranged in a spherical shape hanging from the ceiling like an earth globe. Nabizade imagines thus a world of united nations coexisting peacefully and harmonically.
9. “Songs for Disaster Relief” — Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s exhibition is co-presented for the third time by M+ and HKADC (Hong Kong Arts Development Council), and curated by Guest Curator Ying Kwok, with Consulting Curator Doryun Chong, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of M+. The show features a solo by acclaimed Hong Kong artist Samson Young, who has created new commissions specifically for the Venice Biennale. The new body of work reframes the popularity of ‘charity singles’, which were all the rage in the 1980s and were recordings made for charitable causes by super-group artists. Young considers such recordings as historic events and culturally transformative moments, which coincided with the rise of neo-liberalist aspirations and the globalisation of the popular music industry.
Young was inspired to explore this ‘tradition’ when one of the best known charity singles, We Are The World, was recently remade. He then started to repurpose songs like We Are The World and Do They Know It’s Christmas, by deliberately creating misreadings and combining the sound element with immersive, audio-visual installations comprising drawings, objects, videos, spatial sound installations and site-specific works.
One of the key pieces, Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth-maker who fell to earth), is a large 3D-printed statue, a “digital collage” of disparate elements encased in a glass vitrine made by the artist, which reflects the broadness of his research into the subject matter explored in the show. In a room, Young has created an immersive environment with TV screens, music, disco-like lights in red, blue and purple hues, and domestic furniture, an installation that takes as its point of departure the artist’s discovery of an item of fake news from the internet about a fictional South African musician named “Boomtown Gundane”.
In yet another room, Young recreates a theatrical environment with old theatre chairs and a large screen projection of the Kwan Sing Choir of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions singing a muted, whispered version of We Are The World. Near the canal, another screen shows the artist floating in the sea on a rowboat singing a Cantonese-language version of Bridge over Troubled Water, while in the courtyard a neon sculpture hangs on the wall, based on the artist’s handwriting of a statement from a speech given by Mao Zedong in 1957. The exhibition offers an array of vantage points in a cross-cultural context, exploring urgent philosophical and socio-political questions.
10. “Lisa Reihana: Emissaries” — New Zealand
Curated by Rhana Devenport, Director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, the New Zealand Pavilion features Lisa Reihana‘s latest panoramic video installation in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015—17) alongside interrelated photo-based and sculptural works. Reihana draws on fiction, historical evidence, mythology and kinship to disrupt notions of truth, gender and representation through poetic and technically ambitious works. In “Emissaries”, she returns imperialism’s gaze with a speculative twist, reinterpreting the French wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804–5), which references the journeys of Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse and Louis Antoine de Bougainville, and the three Pacific voyages of British navigator James Cook around 250 years ago.
In her panoramic video she inserts real and invented narratives of encounter with filmic and animation technologies, reimaging the scenarios presented in the neoclassical wallpaper from a Pacific perspective. Different vignettes with music, song and rituals unfold, featuring traditions from diverse locations in the Pacific Ocean, including Nootka Sound, Hawai’i, Tahiti, Tonga, Cook Islands, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. The ‘infection’ referred to in the title of the exhibition reveals itself in the encounters between the native populace and the English sailors, artists, scientists and astronomers in different scenes.
The ‘Venus’, as curator Rhana Devenport explains, alludes to the worldwide scientific endeavour to measure the heavens by documenting the 1769 Transit of Venus, in order to determine the astronomical unit – the distance between Earth and the Sun. Venus also refers to arcadian views of the South Seas, with Bougainville having named Tahiti ‘New Cythera’ in reference to the birthplace of the goddess of love. At the core of the encounters represented by Reihana are two pivotal characters from opposing cultural perspectives: Joseph Banks, the ambitious scientist on Cook’s first voyage, and the Chief Mourner, a character who led traumatic rituals of mourning in the Society Islands. Through this work, Reihana explores notions of expansionism, power and desire, in a “continuum of re-enactment and alterity”.
11. “Lost in Tngri” — Mongolia
Curated by Dalkh-Ochir Yondonjunai and organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Mongolian Contemporary Art Support Association, the Mongolia Pavilion features the work of five contemporary Mongolia artists who explore the urgencies of Mongolia’s present and future. The country finds itself at a crossroads between its traditional nomadic culture and the growing reality of globalisation and economic development. Based on Shamanism and Buddhism, Mongolian culture values its connection with nature and the environment, which is relentlessly being transformed by the increasing exploitation of resources such as mining and industrial development since the collapse of the socialist regime in 1990. In the exhibition, through film, installation, sculpture and sound, the artists from across different generations question Mongolia’s future.
Chimeddorj Shagdarjav’s I’m Bird (2016) consists of 60 bronze cranes that combine the shape of the bird with that of guns. With the crane as symbol of youth and happiness and the guns as a metaphor for technical advancement as well as violence, the artist comments on the transformations taking place in his country, which suggest associations of history, strife, exodus and foreboding. Enkhtaivan Ochirbat’s Karma (2013) also explores the relationship between human development and the environment, with a projection of the dry terrains of a desert and a single chair with a short back that hardly would support someone sitting on it. The shifting projection emitting moving lights interacts with the viewer walking within the installation, creating a destabilising environment.
Munkhbolor Ganbold, Bolortuvshin Jargalsaikhan and Davaajargal Tsaschikher belong to a younger generation of artists, born in the 1980s, who grew up during a chaotic time of societal changes. In Karma of Eating (2016), Munkhbolor Ganbold draws attention to the damages on the Mongolian ecosystem, especially those caused by the overbreeding of goats for the cashmere business. Bolortuvshin Jargalsaikhan has created Raped (2016) to address the devastation left by unregulated mining and widespread environmental pollution, while Davaajargal Tsaschikher’s Reexist (2017) is a sound piece mixing noises from nature as well as traditional and electronic music, representing the possibility for a harmonoius coexistence between nature and man. He states: “Death is not the end! There is rebirth, recurrence, reincarnation, re-existence …”.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
Related Topics: Emirati artists, Azerbaijani artists, Chinese artists, Taiwanese artists, Mongolian artists, Japanese artists, Korean artists, artists from Oceania, Hong Kong artists, Singaporean artists, biennales, 57th Venice Biennale
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