Last week I flew to Europe for the opening of the Venice Biennial. On the way, I stopped by the Kunstmuseum Bern to see “Elemental Gestures,” a survey featuring projects by the anti-disciplinarian Terry Fox (1943-2008). Years ago while he lived in San Francisco, I worked with this creator of such enigmatic installations as the Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Cats, and sonic events, in which he would thrum long piano wires strung across a floor. Fox opened my eyes to seeing magic in simple everyday phenomena. The most interesting pieces among the Bern exhibition’s videotapes were the ones intended as works (rather than documentation). These were shown individually on monitors along with suites of photographs that documented his ethereal actions, which were accompanied by their related sounds. The show refreshed my understanding of how Fox probed the mental and physical limits of his mythic life. The bar was now set high, as I moved on to Venice. I knew that Fox’s equal would be Teiching Hseih’s works from 1980-81 featured in “Doing Time” at the Palazzo delle Prigioni, the site of the Taiwan pavilion. Fox and Teiching both worked with formidable conscience, unbending commitment, and intense endurance.
Arriving before the official press preview, I headed for the Palazzo Querini Stampalia Museum to see my former student Hadassa Goldvicht’s The House of Life (2013-2017). Blurring the boundaries between life, death, and myth, her poignant installation portrayed Venice as a transmogrifying city, as elder communities are fading away. That night I had dinner with my old friend Luca, a professor of history of political geography. In other words, he investigates the causes and effects of migration. He put me in the right frame of mind for art created today.
I made it deep inside “Viva Arte Viva” at the Giardini’s Italian pavilion, as hoards sprinted through the press preview. Off on one side of the building, I encountered a calm outdoor garden, where a host invited me to sit in the one chair. She ceremoniously removed a small rock beautifully wrapped in twine, so that I could sit facing a lush ivy-covered wall. In this quiet meditative space carefully orchestrated by Lee Mingwei, I became aware of the sound of chirping crickets. In fact, the artist vocalized the chirps himself. After several minutes my host returned and graciously handed me a sealed envelope of handmade paper, instructing me to open upon seeing something of beauty. I left refreshed by my respite in what could be defined as a sound installation or a work of social practice.
My next oasis was Sung Hwan Kim’s installation, on the other side of the Italian Pavilion. In the dark space, I sat on a bench with my back against a curious accordion-like folded construction. I watched his video projection unfold as sequences of choreographed actions carried out by young actors. Race and gender did not seem to matter. I remained for a good ten minutes, as others streamed by. Art needs time, and crowded openings are not conducive to getting at the heart of work.
Moving in and out of national pavilions, I headed over to Australia to see Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition “My Horizon” (2017). Looking at her beautifully composed two photo series, Body Remembers and Passage, and her two new video works, Vigil and The White Ghosts Sailed In, I was taken by how Moffatt navigates between fiction and history, as she adapts the tropes of cinema. In her loose narratives in the photo series, here largely set in an abandoned crumbling wasteland in the Australian outback, I encountered a James Dean-like tough holding an aboriginal child. He might have been protecting the child or about to sell it. Through his and Moffat’s own appearance in the photographs, I appreciated how she asks, what is history and whose history is it?
Darting through the pouring rain I headed over to the Arsenale, which was stuffed to the gills with work and mobbed with people. I walked towards the back and entered Lisa Reihana’s exhibition Emissaries in the long New Zealand pavilion. I sat on a bench and watched her panoramic video, Pursuit of Venus [infected], (2015-17), of a landscape slowly scroll by. Reihana based her work on the well-known French wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique of 1804-05, which referenced the 18th century Pacific voyages of the British navigator James Cook. A caricature of local vegetation, Reihana laboriously harnessed filmic and animation technologies to recast the scenic wallpaper from a Pacific rather than a European perspective. Within the panoramic landscape of cartoon-like foliage and trees, she placed lively groups of people. British soldiers outfitted in their red uniforms manipulated riffles, made journal entries, strung up and thrashed a Maori man, or put pencil to paper to draw one. Small groups of men and women danced and sang. I suddenly realized that one group of women in grass skirts dancing in a circle were Balinese. Other ironic touches included an Easter Island sculpture in one location and a Pacific North Coast totem in another. The artist was referencing the broad swath of Cook’s Pacific voyages. An equally rich soundscape by James Pinker wove together live sounds of the performances, with the winding of the clock that accompanied Cook’s voyages, and rare recordings of the indigenous instruments that Cook collected. Reihana created a visual and sonic world that loops, where time is cyclical according to Ta-Va, the Pacific theory of time and space.
Happy to have an umbrella, I headed out in the rain. Leaving the ticketed Arsenale area, I entered a garden where I listened to Hassan Khan’s perfectly situated work, Composition for a Public Park (2013-17). I caught as much as I could of the music he composed of brass and string instruments, hand clapping, multitrack computer software, and text. The music floated around me and suspended any sense of time I had. Later I read that Khan deservedly received the Silver Lion prize, which is awarded to a young artist.
Walking further, I entered the tiny space inside a shed where I saw Zhou Tao’s video installation, The Worldly Cave (Fan Dong) (2017). This Guangdong artist addressed the unfortunate industrial plunder of rural lands that happens everywhere. He quietly showed the irony of how devastated areas become Disneyland-like leisure sites where ordinary citizens snap selfies.
Wishing I had more time, on my last day I caught several pavilions outside the Giardini. Iraq’s Archaic was set in an exquisite old library in the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti. Carefully installed in display cases and within the beautifully carved wooden shelves, the curators presented work from the 1950s, in which artists adapted modernism to non-western traditions. This provided a foundation for the work of eloquent younger Iraqi artists and a video by Mexico-based Francis Alÿs, who recently visited the war-torn land.
Running out of time, I raced over to Nigeria’s exhibition “How About Now?” in the Scholetta di Tiraoro e Battioro, site of the old guild of craftsmen who once fabricated the gold wires and golden leaves that adorned buildings. The Nigerian choreographer Qudus Onikeku impressed me with his performance video, We Almost Forgot (2016). Across Venice in the Santa Maria della Pieta, site of the Zimbabwe pavilion, I caught Dana Whabira’s eloquent but difficult to photograph minimal installation, Black Sunlight (2017). On the other side of the same building, I entered Mongolia’s “Lost in Tngri” exhibition, where Bolortuvshin Jargalsaikkhan’s video Nomad Spirit Project at the Tovkhon Monastery (2016) addressed his remote homeland being destroyed as it is raped of natural resources.
On the plane as I headed home, I thought about the artists whose work I saw. Most look beyond their horizon, whether they travel or not. I am grateful that each has given me access to new ways of seeing the world.
Barbara London is a writer and curator. She is the author of Video/Art, the First Fifty Years, a book that Phaidon will release January 2020. She is the curator of "Seeing Sound," an exhibition that Independent Curators International (ICI) will circulate starting mid-2020. She lectures internationally.