From Hito Steyerl's manic motion capture studio to a Fitzcarraldo-inspired opera performance filmed in Haiti, this year's Biennale embraces new technologies in order to paint a picture of a world in flux
Entering the German Pavilion, visitors are immediately met by a steep flight of rickety stairs. Ascending them to the very top of the building, you find yourself with a view out to the water, obscured only by the leafy treetops brushing against the curved windows. This year’s presentation brings together multiple artists across the newly vertical layout, a structure made possible through the recycling of last year’s German contribution to the Architecture Biennale.
News clippings on African refugees in Germany are displayed upstairs in Tobias Zielony’s “The Citizen”, while Hito Steyerl explores the circulation of labour and information in a very different way, down another flight of stairs in a subterranean ‘Motion Capture Studio’. Illuminated by criss-crossing blue lights, reclining chairs face towards a slanted screen, across which “The Factory of the Sun” plays, a new film work by Steyerl. Imagining an interface between the physical and virtual world, a fictional computer game plays out, where characters convert their movements to light and fight against a sinister attack of Deutsche bank drones.
Complete with bleeps, loading bars and endless buffering symbols, Steyerl embodies the pervasiveness of our onscreen vernacular of flashing signs and symbols into the realities of the world around us. “I smashed a Deutschebank window, but the rubble was melted down and turned into fibre optic artwork,” one character bemoans. This darkly humorous thread runs through the piece, deftly moving from a mock message from the sponsor that reads only, “Stupid information about the brand”, complete with a ‘Skip ad >’ button, to harder comments on the deaths of protestors, and the lack of accountability from corporations today. Manic, politically charged and utterly compelling.
Complete with bleeps, loading bars and endless buffering symbols, Steyerl embodies the pervasiveness of flashing signs and symbols into the realities of the world around us.
Hong Kong Pavilion
To step into the Hong Kong Pavilion feels almost like stepping into a shimmering, underground pool of water, hidden deep within a cavern. Out of the glaring Venice sun, a darkened room is drenched in soft white light forms, emitted from a series of suspended projectors and diffused across small, carefully placed mirrors. Projectors are now commonplace in galleries, but here they are creatively reconsidered, positioned unexpectedly and pushed to new potential.
Technical simplicity is key in ‘The Infinite Nothing’, an exhibition by Tsang Kin Wah that takes a philosophical approach to the meaning and futility of life. Collaging together an array of religious symbolisms, pop culture references and allegories, snippets are projected from all angles, as Kin Wah manipulates text to bring the whitewashed space to life
The architecture of the Nordic Pavilion is immediately striking, all cast concrete beams and a riot of natural light. Designed by Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn in 1962, the entire building is cast in a mixture of white cement, sand and crushed marble, adding to the intensity of the light inside. Fehn’s design comes to the fore this year, fully animated in tandem with Camille Norment’s site-specific, multi-sensory installation.
Titled ‘Rapture’, a series of performances and sound pieces explore the disruptive potential of sound in sensory experience. In particular, the relationship between the body and music is questioned, redefining our own sense of self through the construction of her sonic environment.
A haphazardly constructed series of cramped wooden workshops make up the Latvian Pavilion. After the swooping grandeur and cavernous, high-ceilinged spaces typical of many other pavilions in the Biennale, this dimly lit, kaleidoscopic complex of buildings immediately stands out. ‘Armpit’ is an installation by Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis, inspired by a closed community of ‘garage elves’, who spend their leisure time tinkering in home workshops built in 1970s and 80s Soviet Latvia.
Chunky computer monitors are placed throughout the space, showing video stories of these hobbyist engineers and mechanics. Upstairs, a series of large-scale screens are installed on a sawed, chopped and nailed-together rotating platform, whirring and clicking around each viewer. The promise of new technology is here integrated with the physicality of the personal, vernacular architecture that houses it, screens nestled within roughly cut wood and exposed electrical circuits. Together, they are at once archaic and escapist, rooted in a distinct historical past whilst looking firmly to an ever-shifting future; mechanics become alchemy, and the screen a portal to disrupted materiality.
The promise of new technology is here integrated with the physicality of the personal, vernacular architecture that houses it.
Large-scale, curved screens encase the Korean Pavilion in Venice, giving it the appearance of a sci-fi pod landed fresh from a future dimension. It feels a million miles away from the other pavilions located nearby in the Giardini, turned inside-out while others hide their treasures away behind their walls. ‘The Ways of Folding Space & Flying’ is the site-specific work of artist duo Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho.
Presenting a dramatic narrative of an archaeological quest into human civilization, visions of the future are interweaved, as an avatar-actress wanders in a space age, clinical pod. Playing across multi-channel screens, she peers out and tears at the screen, recalling at turns the trapped protagonist of Ex Machina, while also celebrating the human desire to surpass the physical structures and perceived barriers that bind us.
Poland’s pavilion was on the lips of many during the opening week of the Biennale. Selected through a contest for the official representation in Venice, artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska and curator Magdalena Moskalewicz undertook a major research journey into the village of Cazale, Haiti. The descendants of Polish soldiers who fought for the independence of Haiti in the early 1800s still remain here, united with their ancestors by a shared historical identity. The project directs this local community in a full-scale opera performance of Polish opera Halka, filmed and played in its entirety in Venice across a large-scale, curved screen.
While inspired by the mad plan of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo to construct an opera house in the Amazon, the piece is not without its criticism of colonialism. Questioning the notion of a fixed national identity in the 21st century, it connects geographically and culturally distinct communities through a newly collaborative, multi-media process. Powerfully absorbing, there were already rumours flying around Venice that it would be making a future transfer to The Tanks at the Tate Modern. Watch this space.
The pavilions are on show until 22nd November 2015, as part of the 56th Venice Biennale.