Visiting the Venice Biennale for the very first time, in the final week of Arte Viva Arte, during November last year, was an exceptional experience. Though rather late in the day, this brief backward glance takes a highly selective look at just 3 of the artists and artworks from the 120 in the Arsenale, and the many pavillions at the Giardini. Ignoring the lacklustre acres of ethnographic textiles that dominated the Arsenale, I noted instead the frequent focus upon migration, diaspora and environmental crisis that was highlighted in so much of the work, in the main stadiums and in the many independent pavillions dotted across the city.
Pierre Huyghe’s large screen-based work upstairs in the Louis Vuitton shop; A Journey that Wasn’t (2005) retraces the artists’ expedition to Antarctica searching for a new island formed by melting polar ice caps inhabited by an albino penguin. This curious, well-paced work fused incongruous elements to foreground a sense of dis-ease.
Hew Locke presented work within the true highlight of the entire Biennale – The Diaspora Pavilion, and his work was no exception within this fine, provocative and topical exhibition. Locke’s work ‘On the Tethys Sea’ consisted of a number of small (toy-sized) boats suspended from the ceiling at eye-height, loaded with intended and unintended cargoes, and loaded too with a myriad of meanings. As the catalogue entry states: ‘A ship is a symbolic object, a vessel of the soul, a means of escape of both safety and danger. All seas are physically linked with each other. People have flowed like water across the globe, seeking a better life or fleeing an intolerable one’.
Hajra Waheed, a Canadian who grew up in the guarded areas of the Saudi national oil company, presented exquisite multiples of photographic images, sometimes added to with drawing, sometimes not. These quiet specimens echoed feelings about archives and about surveillance, whilst referencing the disappearance of 166 presumed pilgrims from Kolkata on the Hajj route in 2011. Part of a multidisciplinary corpus; Sea Change, she describes her work as ‘a visual novel that stitches together a story about the missing and the missed’.
Overall, the many video works that used watery motifs to examine environmental crisis and forced migration were powerful and apposite, and demonstrated that artists’ concerns were of the now whilst curators concerns were….not. I’m so glad I finally made it to the Biennale, and look forward to 2019.