“Our Ship” in the Venice biennale 2019

Christoph Büchel, Barca Nostra, the ship in which hundreds of migrants died
Barca Nostra (Our Ship) by Christoph Büchel and tourists using a golf buggy

In the hot August sun it is difficult to walk down the Arsenal. It is very hot and humid, so there are golf buggies available. This would normally, be a welcome mode of travel around the old shipyard. But confronted with the failed attempt to reach the shores of Italy, that is Barca Nostra, it seems little perverse.

The ship was involved in a tragedy at sea in April 2015 off the coast of Libya. After sending out a distress call, it crashed into a Portuguese container ship who answered the call. It took only minutes to sink, taking the migrants trapped in its hold to the bottom of the sea. Only 28 people survived. Almost 1000 people, including children, lost their lives in an attempt to reach Italy and seek asylum. This ship is a grave.

The freedom of movement and modes of travel are in sharp contrast here. We flew to Venice freely, and could take a gulf buggy to see this symbol of the non-welcome people. Their desperate attempt to reach Italy on a overcrowded fishing ship and their failure.

Stephen Pritchard criticises the appropriation of this ship, “Our” ship, by the swiss artist. In the same time as we alienate the migrants and all people outside the EU and US, we appropriate their suffering, turning it into a spectacle and a commodity to be consumed by the biennale audience.

 Venice’s history is entwined with the sea, with moving people and goods across it. In the Naval Museum situated in the proximity of the Arsenal there are artefacts and stories from this rich past. Some of the most touching are small paintings commissioned by mariners who have survived tragedies at sea, given to the church of Carmine of Torre Del Greco (Naples) as tokens. These little, often not very well painted images are a reminder that there have always been risks associated with sea travel. They often bear the inscription “V.F.G.A.” , which stands for “I made a vow and received grace.” The feeling of the votive offerings is genuine. The intensity of the fear is still vivid. It is a private act of gratitude for prayers answered and not a spectacle. This is why I can place myself in their position, there is no distance. Do we empathise with Barca “Nostra” or is it just morbid curiosity?

One of my favourite exhibits in the biennale is a video by Ed Atkins, almost an advert for sandwiches made of a variety of items. This sums up the issue very well. We seem to have acquired a taste for dead migrants in our sandwich.

a still from Old Food by Ed Atkins

Bibliography

HIGGINS CHARLOTTE, 2019. Boat in which hundreds of migrants died displayed at Venice Biennale. The Guardian, May 07

KINGSLEY PATRICK, 2016. Italian navy recovers ship that sank with over 800 people on board. The Guardian, June 29

MIGLIERINI JULIAN, 2016. Migrant tragedy: Anatomy of a shipwreck [viewed August 24 2019]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36278529

PRITCHARD STEPHEN, 2019. “Our Boat”: Zombie Art Biennale Turns Venice Into The Island of the Living Dead [viewed August, 21, 2019]. Available from: http://colouringinculture.org/blog/ourboat

“Our Ship” in the Venice biennale 2019

Re-engagement with socialist histories

This summer the curatorial collective WHW from Croatia are exhibiting in the State of Concept gallery in Athens with the show I’LL OPEN THE DOOR STRAIGHT, DEAD STRAIGHT INTO THE FIRE. The concept of “partizanka”- a female communist fighter during the WW2 in the countries of Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, is examined by contemporary  female artists from these regions. According to the curatorial statement, the exhibition “ starts from the figure of women partisans in intertwined histories of Yugoslav and Greek anti-fascist struggle and postwar constellation of Cold War. It situates these histories in relation to various liberation and anti-colonial struggles, and a contemporary line of feminist demands for total social alternative. “ (WHW 2019) Members of this collective have just been appointed as art directors for the Kunsthalle in Vienna.
The return to this subject, at this time, is fascinating. 

I was primary school age in socialist Yugoslavia. I remember a little event connected to women partisans. A book was offered in class about Female partisans – heros from the Second World War. It made an impression on me. I was a girl, and this was obviously a proof that you can be a hero and a girl, almost a manual on how to become one…. I immediately ordered a copy of the book. My father was furious! He raged against the trickery of selling expensive books at school! To naive children who are captive audience, sent there to learn! We have obviously been pressurised into buying this stuff nobody wants to buy…Still, he paid for it,  but I did not enjoy the book after that. This was in the late 80es, the economic crisis was biting in Yugoslavia, and the ideas of partisans were going stale. My mother has kept the book. Re engagement with this part of history, after years of neglect is interesting.

In 2017, I visited MG+ in Ljubljana and saw the exhibition The Heritage of 1989 / Case Study: The Second Yugoslav Documents, this was a re-enactment of one of the last large Yugoslavian exhibitions- Yugoslav Documents ’89 in Sarajevo in 1989. The exhibition in Slovenia surprised me. It showed clear re engagement with the cultural heritage of Yugoslavia. Similar exhibitions have happened in Belgrade and Zagreb. 

Much written about exhibition was staged in in MoMA in New York in 2018 on the socialist architecture in Yugoslavia called Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980.

There are several movements happening here. There is a reflection by the artists and curators from the region on the historical events that took place in the last years of the century.

There is a re-evaluation of the nationalistic narratives that emerged at that time in the Balkans. These nationalistic tendencies have spread wider, and are now common place in Europe with the populist right gaining followers and power.

There is a reconsideration of the socialist ideas and values that were the base for post war Yugoslavia, and were present in the wider region during the Second World War.

The memory of socialist Yugoslavia is present and growing. There is also an attempt to find a common ground with artists from the wider region, in particular calling on the leftist movements in Greece and Turkey. The term Yugonostaliga or Yu nostalgia is widely in use in the social media and is a subject and a title of an excellent article written for the Art Monthly by Jasmine Tumbas in April 2019.

The exhibition in New York examined the socialist values of equality and tolerance that were promoted in Yugoslavia, specifically through architecture.

Ćirić astutely questions the timing of this. She takes a modular kiosk K67 designed by Sasa J. Machtig, as a symbol for “socialist ideas, beliefs and values and their consequent fragmentation “.( Ćirić 2018, p.46) It was acquired by MoMA in 1970 but only exhibited inside the museum in 2018.

Saša Janez Mächtig K67 kiosk

Despite the fact that activist art is a buzz word at this moment, “It seems that mainstream institutions only recognize activist potential once it has been rendered impotent.”( Ćirić 2018, p.46) The title of the exhibition seems to confirm this statement- Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980.

Bibliography

BADOVINAC ZDENKA and PIŠKUR BOJANA, 2017. The Heritage of 1989. Case Study: The Second Yugoslav Documents Exhibition [viewed 10/08/ 2019]. Available from: http://www.mg-lj.si/en/exhibitions/1997/the-second-yugoslav-documents-exhibition/

ĆIRIĆ MAJA, 2018. ‘Comrades’ & ‘Gentlmen’-Contemporary Forms of Activism in the Balkans (The case of Belgrade). The Large Glass, journal of contemporary art, culture and theory, (25/26), 43-47

MOMA, K67 Kiosk [viewed 10/08/ 2019]. Available from: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/273535

TUMBAS JASMINA, 2019. Yugonostalgia, Art Monthly, (425), 6-10

WHW, 2019. “I’ll open the door straight, dead straight into the fire” Exhibition [viewed 10 August 2019]. Available from: https://stateofconcept.org/exhibition/ill-open-the-door-straight-dead-straight-into-the-fire/

Re-engagement with socialist histories

10,148,451 Tania BRUGUERA

“The work’s title is an ever-increasing figure: the number of people who migrated from one country to another last year added to the number of migrant deaths recorded so far this year – to indicate the sheer scale of mass migration and the risks involved.“(TATE Modern 2019)

10,148,541 in the Turbine Hall

Tania Bruguera is a Cuban artist who engages the audience to take an active part in her work.

“she calls her work performance acts — Arte de conducta refuses to consider the audience as spectators. Instead, it approaches them as citizens. ‘I would like a museum in the not-so-new twenty-first century’, Bruguera explained, ‘that abandons the idea of looking for the idea of activation … one where art entails actual social transformation, instead of merely providing highly speculative strategies for bringing about such transformations.’45 This is political art, Bruguera argues, as opposed to art that uses images to create politics. “ (Schwartz, 2012, p.225)

The exhibition was part of the Hyndai commission in the Turbine Hall from 2nd of October to 24th of February 2019.

It consisted of three parts. A heat sensitive floor, the visitors take their shoes off, walk/sit on it. Warmth and human touch are the interactive trigger. The more people touch,  the more visible the image becomes. It is an image of a young refugee called Yousef. His is a successful story, having escaped Syria in 2011, he is now in the UK studying biomedical science and is participating in the society.

To identify an individual case of a refugee , whose image to use and with relevance to the local community , Bruguera established Tate Neighbors – organisation of people from the same postcode as Tate Modern SE1. Thus introducing a dialogue beteween an international organisation -Tate Modern and the local community. The idea of local response to a global situation is at the heart of this installation on many levels. Yousef was suggested by the community activist Natalie Bell, as a case where local support had a positive effect on an individual life. He was supported by SE1 United, a charity run by Bell.

This is symbolically re-enacted by revealing his image by touch- using the audiences warmth.

There is an ambiguity in this work as well, the participation is not only in the solution. It can be read as if all of us- the participants are also creating the problem. We are supporting this situation. The global is not detached from the local in both directions.

The second part, is a low but consistently present sound, in the space of the Turbine Hall.  This is something that can almost be ignored, it is not too disruptive. Although it is persistent and creates an almost industrial feeling, a buzz of a machine.

The third part is a separate room where an eucalyptus oil is released in the air, causing tears, this space is called Enforced Empathy.  The name suggests that the empathy does not happen enough, and there is a need to enforce it. As you enter you get a stamp on your arm with a number. This brings to mind concentration camps and processing people as numbers.

I was stamped with a number

This number is the increasing number -the title of the work. This also brings to mind Agamben and the idea that all citizens are reduced to bare life in the current society.

Tania Bruguera, 10,148,451 February 2019, Turbine Hall TATE Modern



SCHWARTZ STEPHANIE 2012, Tania Bruguera: Between Histories
Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2012), pp. 215-232

BRUGUERA, ‘Arts, Havana’, Artforum, vol. 48, no. 10, Summer 2010, p. 299. (Emphasis in the original.)

TATE Modern 2019, Experience a community-driven response to the global migration crisis URL https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/hyundai-commission-tania-bruguera


10,148,451 Tania BRUGUERA

Leviathan – Zvyagintsev film 2014 and Hobbes

This is a story of a connection to the land, injustice and the nature of sovereign power. It is a very effective portrayal of a Hobbesian world in the far Russian North.

Andrey Zvyagintsev quotes the story of Job, from the bible, and Hobbes’s Leviathan beautifully in this film. He captures the spirit of Hobbs’s Leviathan in contemporary context. The feeling we are left with is sober and disillusioned.

The beautiful landscape carries the traces of abandoned architecture and machinery, left from the previous Leviathan. A particular importance is placed on the remains of an old church. This is where the youth of the village gather in the evenings. This exploration of the remains of former power reaches the highest point in the scene with the whale skeleton on the beach.

Here is a dead Leviathan, the previous sovereign power dead on the beach. This is the tipping point of the film. And it is balanced beautifully with the scene of the live whale, just before the new Leviathan exerts its own power in practise.

whale in the sea scene

The film ends with a scene in a new church, the sovereign power is alive and well. It is practised in the same way as Hobbes describes- the absolute sovereign power commands the resources and the lives of its subjects as it sees fit. The subjects are in a state of bare life in regards to the sovereign power.

There are parallels with the story of Michael Kohlhaas, a story by
 Heinrich von Kleist (based on a true 16th-century story of Hans Kohlhase) published in 1810 . The behaviour of the powerful and the auto-mechanic’s uncompromising search for justice are very similar. Yet , “Zvyagintsev resorts to a different and, in his words, “more terrifying” ending: a vision of the slow destruction of the protagonist and of everyone who was dear to him, by power. ” ( Vassilieva , 2018)

“”The sovereign power … is as great, as possibly men can be imagined to make it. And though of so unlimited a Power, men may fancy many evil consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour, are much worse. “(Hobbes 1996,p.144-145)

Hobbes lived through a civil war, he had a first hand experience of this perpetual war of every man against his neighbour.

HOBBES THOMAS, 1996. Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
VASSILIEVA JULIA, 2018. Russian Leviathan: Power, Landscape, Memory. FILM CRITICISM volume 42(issue 1)

Leviathan – Zvyagintsev film 2014 and Hobbes

“the past as part of the present”

Examining the past is a way to understand the present, Mieke Bal proposes understanding “the past as part of the present” (Bal, 1999). Culture is a worldview, it is a collection of values, knowledge and artefacts, whose re-examining and questioning is in fact re-examining of our current value systems.  Artworks and texts are building blocks, setting up a world view. “ What does the work, as work, set up? Towering up within itself, the work opens up a world and keeps it abidingly in force.” (Heidegger 1993,p.169)

These concepts were the starting point for a project  I am currently working on. The idea is to re-read parts of a classical text – Ovid’s Metamorphoses in contemporary context and create visual art works to communicate this re-reading. I will document the development of this practise based research here. As the work on this started last October, I will briefly include the variations, so far, in this blog post.

In the first instance I chose four myths: Actaeon, Aglauros, Medusa and Arachne. They all have strong visual aspect – they are concerned with seeing, hiding (control of seeing), creating visuals and control/destruction of visuals. They are also concerned with loss of voice about the seen or experienced event.

My first sketches, created sometime in October, are of Actaeon.

The outside material of the first sketch was to be fragile, half-transparent brittle skin broken where the stag is emerging. The second one is opposite, he is imprisoned in a animal, his voice can not be heard as human.

Actaeon was a hunter who one day got separated from his hunting party. He unwittingly stumbled upon the goddess Diana and her band of huntresses enjoying a bath in a clear pool in the forest. Diana, offended and to prevent him boasting about this, sprayed him with some water that turned him into a stag. Seeing is taken as an offence, as penetrating as touch. Diana gives the reason of this punishment as “Now you may tell the story of seeing Diana naked – If storytelling is in your power!” (Ovid 3. 192). He is then hunted down by his own dogs and dismembered.

Not surprisingly the most common part of the myth represented in visual art, is the scene where Actaeon stumbles upon the bathing party.

This forms an erotic reading of the myth. Titian is the most influential example of this reading. Titian was aware of his audience, the paintings were intended for consumption by powerful men. The Poesie paintings were created for the Spanish king Philip II. Diana’s band read in this way can be encountered in early modern literature, specifically referencing lesbian community.

The nymphs are interchangeable, this is something that I have always found in renaissance art representing Diana. They are amorphous mass of female (often just) bodies. Titian groups the paintings of this cycle in conceptual pairs. Actaeon pairs with Calisto.

Diana and the nymphs are, in both of these paintings, a mass of pink interchangeable bodies. In the Calisto painting, the story of Actaeon is visually referenced as well. On the column in the background, there is a relief representing the Actaeon story. Both stories are of silencing and censorship.  

The way I read the myth of Actaeon is political. The goddess of hunt-Diana turned Actaeon into prey and his own dogs dismembered him. This transformation is primarily in status. It is in and of itself – dehumanisation. From a prince and a hunter Actaeon is transformed into prey-stag, someone who’s humanity is stripped off and whose death is irrelevant. In fact he has become food.

I have since developed new sketches for an installation to include video on all four walls of the space, with a possible VR option. They deal with dehumanisation in contemporary context.

The way to communicate effectively, the political aspect of this myth is going the be my primary concern.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BAL MIEKE, 1999. Quoting Caravaggio- Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

HEIDEGGER MARTIN, 1993 Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger. 
 Routledge

OVID, 2004. Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation London: Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

“the past as part of the present”

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

I first read it sometime in the final year of my BA. Inspiring, subtly politicial, very sceptical collection of myths, that for me expressed the state of the disillusioned world around me at the time. Rereading it almost 20 years from then, I can see subtle layers of meaning, through the poem, that complicates my initial experience of it. What it means for me now is not the same as what it meant for me then. As I read more of the theory surrounding it, it becomes clear that at different historical times it was read radically different. Although it has never stoped fascinating artists and writers since the moment it was conceived, the meanings have shifted wildly. In the Middle Ages, for example, there was an attempt to read it as a somehow methaphore for Christian values.

The popularity of the poem continued and expanded in the renessance. The influence of the person commissioning the art work can not be overestimated. It poses questions of the role of power, the use of art to make some practices acceptable, to find a justification. The loves of Jove by Correggio were commisiond by Federico Gonzaga, “The circumstances of the commission are somewhat shadowy. It is quite possible, however, that this series may have been intended to pay sexual complement to Federico’s liaison with Isabella Boschetti – the mortal girl, as it were, to whom he could play amorous Jupiter.” (Barkan, p.194-5)  The court of nobleman would often include humanist intellectuals, equally employed to create cultural meaning, cultural lineage and justification for the family to remain in power.

The poem itself questions the stability of power, it explores fluidity and change. This fluidity is also explored in meaning of events, by changing points of view.

Ovid introduces a story, then comes back to the same story from another point of view reassessing,  changing the meaning sometimes more than once. A great example, also explored in visual art in the Rensseance, is the story of Europa. This story is introduced early in the poem. It is a story of awakening female sexuality and crossing the unknown, triumphantly arriving at the foreign coast. She was taken away from Asia by Jupiter transformed in a bull, over the sea, landing on the Greek coast.  Then we come back to it again and see it differently through Arachne as she weaves it in her tapistery, giving us more critical view – abuse of power by Jove.

 
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This story is the subject  of Titian’s Rape of Europa, this painting is part of his  Poesie  painted for Philip II of Spain. Series of paintings at the height of Titian’s practise, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Velasquez quotes this painting in his Story of Arachne. Elegantly mirroring the structure of the poem itself.

8EB7C66C-C565-4B0B-B552-B26306187B09.jpeg

I find this poem very inspiring. I will work with material from this poem in the future.

 

Bibliography

BARKAN LEONARD, 1990. The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism. New Edition ed. Yale University Press

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Continuing the malangan inspired project

 

Building on the last post, I have now finished parts of the sculpture. The woman sitting on a chair is cast in resin and bronze, and I have carved some of the panels.

I have thoughts of creating transparent cages in different materials, as a further developement of this theme. Transparent fabric is very interesting as a medium it resambles skin and can be embroidered. Wire is another material that can be very interesting in achieving transparent enclosed spaces. Some beautiful examples of this include sculptures made out of chicken mesh. Also some theatre costumes, more specifically the costume for the Minotaur in the Harrison Birtwistle reworking of the myth for the Royal Opera in 2008.

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The lighting is very interesting in the above image and in the show itself. With the use of lighting the mask can become opaque or transparent. This is very sophisticated use of transparency, symbolically sometimes the man dominates and sometime the beast.

I may incorporate a light, inside the enclosed space of the wooden panels, to make the sitting woman more visible. This will bring her into focus.

The changeability of meaning in the Minotaur mask is extremely inspiring for me as well. I have started working on a practice based research that is concerned with change.

Continuing the malangan inspired project