Nothing quite prepares you for Venice during the Biennale, let alone the Venice Biennale in August. The scale and quality of the art on show was unfathomable and the sun was scorching. We had several reasons for our visit: the Creative Time Summit, the annual conference examining social and political issues, which this year was invited to be part of the Biennale; the Giardini pavilions,; the main exhibition, All the World’s Futures, across the central pavilion and the Arsenale; and of course Scotland’s presentation in the Palazzo Fontana, by Graham Fagen.
Since returning I have been flicking through the 400 page ‘concise’ catalogue trying to digest what I saw. Thinking about what I was drawn to, there emerges a balance between monumental, global issues (and physically dominating works) and more intimate personal stories: contrasts between works but also within works as well as in talks during the summit.
One such presentation was by Joshua Wong, an eighteen-year-old student from Hong Kong who has become the figurehead in the region’s campaign for educational reform. Since he was fourteen this young man has strived to politicise a generation, draw attention to the privatisation of the education system and right the alarming fact that just 18% of the citizens can enter higher education. Wong’s story is one of what happens when a personal campaign becomes a movement, garnering support from hundreds of thousands of people, and with it the potential to make real, significant change.
This idea of the voice of the individual in social and political commentary within art was reflected in a room dedicated to Hans Haacke. The display showcased his iconic MoMA Poll from 1970 alongside a new work, World Poll. In similar institutional critique style, four iPads took visitors through twenty multiple-choice questions; the evolving results displayed on an accompanying TV screen. On completing the poll I was left pondering about connections between social standing, political views and interest in art, whilst waiting to see whether my views matched the majority of other participants on the TV screen, which, unsurprisingly, they did.
Two contrasting, yet equally powerful, film works on show can also be seen an example of the balance between the monumental and intimate: John Akomfra’s epic and at times harrowing three-screen film Vertigo Sea, 2015, and Steve McQueen’s personal and deeply moving, Ashes, 2014-15.
Through montage and appropriation in Vertigo Sea Akomfra explores the ‘moral economies’ of humanity versus the environment. Archival footage shows the scale and spectacle of whaling as well as the barbaric killing and skinning of a polar bear, combined with original footage of costumed, black men evoking ideas of landed gentry in the Scottish wilderness. I walked away further questioning man’s recurring desire to control and dominate the natural world, not only of the past but also of the present and wondering what future generations will think when they view archival footage of today.
This film was complimented by McQueen’s latest work. Also drawing on found footage, this time rediscovered from his own archive, taken in collaboration with cinematographer, Robbie Mulle, when they were working on another project. Ashes is a sombre and personal reflection of the death of a young man called Ashes who McQueen met in 2002. The tender footage of the young man on a small boat in the Caribbean is contrasted against new footage showing his grave and reburial on the reverse of the screen, alongside audio of a friend describing his death. The looping of the boat footage and the film as a whole, combined with the large poster of a film-still to take away, are effective means of McQueen immortalising Ashes, in a move reminiscent of his stamp work Queen and Country.
Against powerful works such as these and other stand outs such as: Chantal Akerman’s multi-screen film work, Now 2015; Antje Echmann and Harun Farocki’s collaboration across fifteen cities, Labour in a Single Shot, 2011-14; Taryn Simon’s Paperwork and the Will of the Captial, 2015, which explores the significance of floral arrangements at historically momentous agreements; and Tiffany Chung’s display that mixes multiple beautifully detailed works on paper with distressing facts about the Syrian conflict, Syria Deeply Day 1387: Dec 31-2014- Numbers of Casulties and Refugees, 2015, I keep returning to the beauty and simplicity of Ernesto Ballestero’s Indoor Flights, 2014. For the duration of the Biennale Ballestero is constructing and flying model aeroplanes that glide in contemplative elegance. Whilst there is always a place for the big issues and monumental works, sometimes it is the smaller gestures that remain with us.
Published on 23 August 2015