By ANNA TALLEY, May 2019
In 2019, environmentally-focused artwork has reached a fever pitch. This is more than evident at the 58th Biennale di Venezia, where even the fair’s venue is being reclaimed by the sea. Pieces that emphasize the difficulties facing the natural world can be found across pavilions, making it clear that the concern of a looming climate catastrophe is one which crosses national boundaries. Artists took a variety of approaches to the issue, and the ability to survey these different methods together at the Biennale provides an understanding of how artists are engaging with the environment materially and conceptually across the globe. The question then becomes: what approach, or combination thereof, is actually effective in reaching an audience not only on an aesthetic level but a psychological one—truly warning of the hypothesized environmental apocalypse?
Dane Mitchell’s Post-Hoc at the New Zealand pavilion takes a quantitative approach, presenting viewers with simple facts of extinction in the Anthropocene. Artificial trees are placed throughout Venice which read out on speakers a seemingly endless list of vanishing species. In the empty library at the Palazzina Canonica, a printer sits atop a tall table, cataloging each name onto a roll of paper that cascades to the floor. As the Biennale continues, the room will slowly fill up with paper, populating the library with written phantoms of living things. Mitchell uses the machine as a substitute for nature, and its plastic form and impersonal indexing emphasizes that the artificial, the abstracted concept of a thing, is a poor substitute for the real.
Also taking the angle of artifice, Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef, which is included in both the Arsenale and the Giardini’s main pavilions, is a rebuilding of dying organisms. From afar, the pieces look like biological specimens, but like Post-Hoc, nature here is an illusion. Human hands and human work stand in for the years of organic processes that are required to cultivate a reef. The brightly colored threads are mere substitutes for coral’s natural jewel tones, and whereas this “coral” can continue to grow the addition of human intervention, the real reef is dying at the hands of the same creator.
Veins Aligned, included in the main exhibition at the Arsenale, is Otobong Nkanga’s abstracted approach to pollution. A twenty-six meter long sculpture of glass and marble weaves down the center of the gallery, slowly turning from a light jade color to a foggy eddy of red and black. It is a microcosm of polluted rivers and a simulacrum of the human body, representing the invading toxicity of the landscape and of ourselves.
Winner of the Golden Lion, Lithuania’s Sun & Sea (Marina) is a musical performance piece. Theater director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė have brought the beach inside and populated it with seaside loungers which expound on our negligence towards the planet via opera. Solemn music contrasts the colorful beach towels and luminous white sand—an apt metaphor for our glaring inaction in the face of dire consequences. The piece reveals how it is the lethargy of us all that has led to the problems facing our environment and that we are performing our lives, as usual, every day under conditions which are becoming gradually less normal.
On a larger scale, Melissa McGill’s performance piece, Red Regatta, employs the help of 250 local collaborators to call attention to the effects of climate change within Venice. Dozens of traditional Venetian vela al terzo boats with hand-painted sails in shades of crimson, representing the emotional charge of red as well as a warning, race around the lagoon, their mass movement a powerful representation of our collective responsibility. Having lived in Venice herself, Red Regatta draws strongly on McGill’s personal connection to the city and her relationships with its inhabitants, but the project both stresses the specificity of the problem of climate change as well as its grander scope. Looking towards tradition, Red Regatta emphasizes the historical connection man has with nature, and how fragile that connection has become. The boats are controlled by wind, sea, and man, a delicate constellation of forces now thrown out of balance.
Turning away from collectivity and to the individual is Vasily Klyukin’s In Dante Veritas, a satellite exhibition in the Arsenale Nord which reinterprets Dante’s Inferno. The multi-media installation features 32 pieces of sculpture, including four monumental horsemen of the apocalypse reinvented to represent today’s plights: overpopulation, misinformation, pollution, and extermination of resources. With thick fog, a dramatic soundscape, and swathes of black plastic lining the walls, In Dante Veritas makes no qualms about its theatricality—but this is its strength. Far from the abstracted conceptuality of much of the artwork at the Biennale, In Dante Veritas is readily accessible to a wide audience because of its experiential nature and familiar references. Rather than being explicitly about the environment, the sculptures, which represent human sins and vices reworked from well-known classical tropes, emphasize the psychological reasons behind our actions (or inaction.) Most importantly, the exhibition encourages an individual, interior experience. Klyukin intends for visitors to “be alone and to think alone” as they weave their way through the space, encountering gluttony, wrath, and lust. “I don’t want to judge people,” says Klyukin, “I want my sculptures to reflect people.”
Reckoning with the most urgent issue of our time in Venice, a place where climate change is not abstracted but visible in every sinking marble step, compounds the tragedy these artworks all seek to portray. Whichever artistic medium or method affects audiences, it is perhaps the specificity of the Biennale’s location itself that most viscerally betrays the fact that while we have not yet changed our nature, we have changed nature itself. WM
Anna Talley is a researcher, writer, and designer based in NYC. She holds a BFA in Art and Design History from the Pratt Institute and, in late 2019, will be attending the V&A/Royal College of Art in London to begin her MA in Design History and Material Culture. She has worked in the curatorial departments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and will soon be joining The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Anna comes from a studio background in graphic design and is interested in cross-disciplinary contemporary art and design practices.view all articles from this author