BY SOPHIE LAWSON
At the beginning of May I took at short trip to Venice to visit the postponed 59th Venice Biennale. I have compiled a short list of my Biennale highlights from a drizzly day trudging around the fabulous pavilions in the Giardini and a day of glorious sunshine spent in the blacked-out warehouse spaces of the Arsenale!
Simone Leigh, Sovereignty
This Biennale has been celebrated for a number of firsts: most notably that the vast proportion of exhibiting artists are female. The American pavilion presents Sovereignty by Simone Leigh, it is the first time that the pavilion has been occupied by a Black woman artist, and for it she was awarded Golden Lion for the Best Participant in the International Exhibition. The exhibition consists of a series of large scale bronze and ceramic sculptures and a black and white film shot on 8 and 16 mm made with Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. The exhibition explores themes of Black femme subjectivity, self determination and independence. The experience of being in the space is quiet and thought-provoking, the work is subtle but effective and very beautiful to look at.
Zineb Sedira, Les rêves n’ont pas de titre / Dreams have no titles
Possibly my favourite pavilion to visit was the French pavilion where Zineb Sedira presented Dreams have no titles. Another first, Zineb is the first female Algerian French painter to represent France at the Venice Biennale, and in her brilliant space she created a series of film sets – all based on films about the Algerian War that were banned in France. Despite a poignant and timely message about censorship during times of war and both wilful and enforced ignorance, the exhibition was a completely joyful and immersive experience. A film made by the artist, curator and the Swiss and British representatives drives home a message of solidarity.
She was awarded a special mention in the opening awards ceremony:
In recognition of and gratitude for the long standing exchange of ideas and solidarity as the idea of of building communities in the diaspora. For looking at complex history of cinema beyond the west and the multiple histories of resistance in her work.
Sonia Boyce, Feeling Her Way
The Golden Lion for Best National Participation, the exhibition’s main prize, was awarded to Great Britain’s Sonia Boyce for Feeling Her Way. The installation brings together video works featuring five Black female musicians Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth MBE, Sofia Jernberg, Tanita Tikaram and composer Errollyn Wallen CBE, who were invited to improvise, interact and play with their voices. The videos play simultaneously in a series of spaces – the noise is sometimes cacophonous and clashing, but sometimes harmonious. Feeling Her Way will be presented at Turner Contemporary, Margate in 2023.
In the main avenue of the Giardini, noticeably empty, is the Russian Pavilion. Many participating exhibitions were themed around totalitarianism and authoritarianism, environmentalism, violence, self-governance, the eradication of culture and minimisation of indigenous people, whitewashing and propaganda. Many of these took on a new and unintentional meaning following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In acknowledgement of this, the main courtyard space in the Giardini nestled between the American and Danish pavilions has been renamed Piazza Ucrainia in solidarity. Dana Kosmina has erected a monument in the centre of the square packed tightly with sandbags. This has become common practice to protect public art from shelling in Ukraine, and it serves as a reminder of the efforts being made to preserve their culture even through wartime. There are also posters with photographs, drawings, prints and illustrations being made by artists in Ukraine. These are continually being layered over with new work, combining a tradition of wartime and resistance art with our technological age – the global, unfiltered access we have to images and art from around the world thanks to print journalism and social media.
This short video provides a snapshot into the strange and often surreal experience of being in Venice during the Biennale!
David Cass, Where Once the Waters
A stone’s throw from the Arsenale Gallery Artist David Cass’s exhibition Where Once The Waters addresses beautifully the problem of rising sea levels. It comprises two installation walls. The first is a wall of 365 hand painted vintage tins – all found objects such as tobacco tins that would once have been reused and recycled within the home but now in our 21st century consumer experience have been replaced with single use plastics. He paints a horizon line on each tin and the whole together create a snapshot of a year at sea. In the centre of the wall is a matchbox with an original illustration on it – that of Venice when it was an industrial city on the water with plumes of polluting smoke billowing out of chimneys. While David Cass is concerned about rising sea levels all over the world, Venice is one of the places where it is most immediately visible and potentially devastating. The second wall is a mosaic of letters that have been part of an ongoing project since 2019. He invited people to write to him with their date and place of birth, and he has responded, on vintage paper, with the exact amount the sea has risen in that place over their lifetime. The hope is that this personalisation can help demystify complex science, or average global figures which aren’t specific to a place or a person’s experience.
Alberta Whittle, deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory
Alberta Whittle’s effecting installation in film, sculpture and tapestry asks its audience to slow down and consider both historic legacies and contemporary expressions of racism, colonialism and migration. She made her tapestry in conjunction with the Dovecot Studios – and while we have delighted before in seeing their works in progress at their studio space and often remark on the beauty of the backs of the tapestries – Alberta Whittle has braided, shelled and beaded hers making a focus of the back as much as the front. Whittle currently has prints on display in Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art as part of the Recent Acquisitions exhibition and the full presentation will return to Scotland and be exhibited with other works by Alberta at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, opening in spring 2023.
The luxury of amnesia is a really potent idea in my practice. For so long there was this complete reluctance and avoidance in discussing Scotland’s role within slavery and within plantation economies. There’s this sense that racism and police brutality is an English problem or an American problem, something that isn’t happening on these shores. There are ways in which the luxury of amnesia has been nurtured by Governments, by the stories we tell ourselves, by ways we find to avoid our own complicity with our own privilege – and it’s interesting to think about the conversations that are still missing.
There’s a numbness that can happen when you just see names and that endless footage of George Floyd being murdered. I wanted to find a way to think about these ideas without re-traumatising myself or re-traumatising the audience, and I think there are other ways to do that – and that led me to really return to love. I wanted there to be that place for love in the work because it ends at such a place of sorrow when I think about the endless list of names that are growing.