A beach opera under the sign of the Apocalypse, the winner of the Golden Lion at the 58th Venice Art Biennale, the Lithuanian Pavilion, once again underlines the outstanding role of the performative in contemporary art – the attempt of a reclassification.
I. ACT_PRELUDE – JOAN JONAS
In the middle of the night, just before eleven. Campo San Lorenzo, only sparsely lit, hums like a beehive. The otherwise little frequented square in front of the modernistic looking early baroque brick facade is a stage. Now, one evening before the official first tour of the 58th Venice Biennale, it is gathering an illustrious crowd of art-hungry people of all ages. The portals of the long profaned church of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Laurentius are still closed. Thus the assembly on the flight of stairs patiently and cheerfully waits for what may come. Does it have any idea that the performance Moving Off the Land II by Joan Jonas, now eighty-three years old, was a special Venice highlight before this Biennale even opened?
There is a lot to be said for it. The exceptional artist herself will perform for two hours on an improvised stage, supported only by a laptop musician and a performer. That has cult status. And this is celebrated as in the great times of the Serenissima: what has money and names sits in the first rows; the patron of the evening Francesca von Habsburg, Maja Hoffmann together with man and entourage.
With the 56th Biennale by Okwui Enwezor, Venice had finally entered the post-performative age on a grand foot. That was 2015, and Joan Jonas, the uncrowned queen of performative video installations, exhibited in the American Pavilion. If one wants to open up a field of tension in performance art, she already then occupied its sensually concrete pole. Now more than ever in 2019, while the conceptual-intellectual antithesis was marked both times by the Basel artist Christoph Büchel: in 2015 with the Icelandic pavilion The Mosque in the profanated church Santa Maria della Misericordia, in 2019 with the project BARCA NOSTRA, the soul seller at the Arsenale-Mole in the context of Ralph Rugoff’s main exhibition who sank in April 2015 with hundreds of migrants and was later rescued. But hardly anyone had an idea of this on Jonas’s evening. The little old lady, with snow-white hair, bent, in a white coat and occasionally reinforced with black glasses, acted live in her proven video sets, shoving discs and groping herself in front of underwater landscapes, reading text fragments from Emily Dickinson to Hermann Melville and painting fish with long brushes, bravely, for an hour and a half, a celebration of maritime extravagance. All this had nothing to do with the peculiar church space. Where, for example, was the projection via columns and thermal windows into the vaulted ceiling? Why doesn’t the grandiose processional portal open sometime? Moving Off the Land II has been developing for three years now and obviously ignores every one of its performance venues. Drop-down performance could be called this in reference to architecture. However, the celebratory mood could not be affected.
II. ACT_ OUR BOAT – CHRISTOPH BÜCHEL
The themes of migration and environmental destruction, the appeal for consideration for others and nature, set the pace for the Biennale. The title of Ralph Rugoff’s main exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, which was eavesdropped on by an alleged Chinese swearword, could be interpreted as a pious wish as well as a reminder, a vessel into which everything that understood itself to be socially and politically relevant and set its vanishing point could fit. Where artistic positions adopted this maxim, the proximity to performative forms of expression, action, collaboration and participation was inevitable; the president of the Biennale entitled his greeting „The Visitor as a Partner“.
Live acts in the opening week, such as Joan Jonas‘ or Perforated’s Baskin Itziar Okariz‘ performance in the Spanish Pavilion, and not least Natascha Süder Happelmann’s appearance at the opening of her anchor center in the German Pavilion, underscored the artistic-political concern through her physical presence. In contrast to the consensual paradigm of corporeality and participation, Christoph Büchel’s BARCA NOSTRA appears to be a scandal. In the original sense of the word. It is a pitfall, a trap, an annoyance – an artifact in which performance and monument cross without merging into one of these moments. The wreck on the quay of the Arsenale calls upon the hundreds who drowned with it, their absent bodies, their unlived lives, and with them the story of the failure of European refugee policy. Büchel’s monument forces us to ask questions, to reconstruct a process whose monstrosity sheds a bright light on the madness of our days. This includes the fact that, despite its monstrous dimensions, it was initially overlooked by most Biennial visitors. Most of them strolled by rather indifferently, or enjoyed their espresso in the café opposite. The rusty barge on the quay wall looks like a picturesque relic of the former naval port.
Like the majority of sculptural works at the Biennale, Cathy Wilke’s figurines, objects and pictures in the British Pavilion, for example, Halil Altindere’s Neverland scenery (2019) in the Arsenale Garden, or Leonor Antunes‘ installations in the Portuguese Pavilion, which a Piano Nobile of the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin plays, the ship – also owed to the Performativen Wende – also appears like a prop from a film set, like the remains of an action. Cynical? Yes, if the ship were considered more than just what it is, a shabby barge, a coffin for the nameless who died with it, a memorial to human failure. In the exhibition he deliberately lacks any reference to his story, the name of the artist who put the seller of souls back in the centre of attention. Büchel’s performative conceptualism also forbids declaring the punt a work of art. Some may enjoy the patina, the majestically towering bow, or the seemingly unstable condition of the colossus weighing tons, 21 meters long, 17 meters wide. But every observer remains silent in front of the rectangular welding holes through which the corpses were salvaged after the ship had been lifted for many months. And where did the four huge cracks in the ship’s side come from? How could the massive steel structure on which the ship rests be so brutally bent in the front part? We don’t get an answer to these questions on site. We are dependent on the short text in the catalogue, the press release, information from the Internet and questions from the project team.
One after the other. On 18 April 2015, a Portuguese container freighter collided with the refugee ship 190 km off Lampedusa in an attempt to help the overcrowded boat that had previously been radioed by SOS. The former fishing cutter, bought by Syrian tugboats and set sail from a beach near Tripoli, was designed for a crew of fifteen. According to various testimonies, 700 to 950 people were now on board from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Eritrea and Bangladesh. Due to improper maneuvers by captain and helmsman, both survived and were later sentenced to 18 and 5 years imprisonment, the overloaded ship capsized after a mass panic. The nameless fishing cutter, only „Blessed by Allah“ to be deciphered on the ship’s side, tore everyone down. Only 28 survive. 27 bodies were recovered from the sea.
The misfortune made the headlines. Shortly before, in October 2014, Mare Nostrum, the Italian-owned company that rescues boat fugitives, had been replaced by Operation Triton under the European Border Agency Frontex. Triton was significantly less financially equipped, should first secure the borders. The rescue of castaways came in second place. The operations were therefore limited from the outset to a radius of action of 30 nautical miles off the Italian coast. NGOs and shipowners‘ associations quickly warned of an imminent increase in the deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean. In fact, 1,200 people died in several accidents in the third week of April 2015 alone. However, the shipwreck of the fishing barge consecrated in the name of Allah was to be the most serious shipwreck in the Mediterranean since the end of the Second World War.
The horror did not end there. At first the rescue of the ship was considered superfluous, the victims remained nameless, public and relatives in the unknown. While the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced a salvage, the Italian public prosecutor considered it irrelevant and too costly for the criminal investigations. A first salvage attempt from a depth of 370 metres failed – hence the four cracks in the side walls – and the second was successful at the end of June 2016.
The wreck then reached the NATO naval base at Melilli near Augusta in Sicily, where hundreds of experts and volunteers were involved in identifying at least some of the victims. While the process of informing the relatives and burying the victims was completed in 2017 – the ship was lifted at a cost of 23 million euros – the fate of the ship remained controversial. Various interest groups complained about the sovereignty of interpretation. The political rights and votes in the Italian government demanded a quick disposal of the miserable barge. The Prime Minister announced that the wreck should be sent to Brussels as a memorial. Europe must take responsibility for the „scandal of migration“. In contrast, various initiatives from Milan to Palermo called for the wreck to be placed as a memorial in public space, above all the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015, founded shortly after the ship was transferred, which wants to place it in the centre of Augustas in a „garden of remembrance“. But the dispute prevented the ship from leaving its location on the military grounds.
Christoph Büchel had already gathered relevant experience with Italian authorities in the year of the ship catastrophe at the Biennale with the Icelandic pavilion The Mosque (cf. kunstforum, vol. 233 / 234, p. 76 ff, p. 542). Among other things, the art event provided the Islamic communities with a prayer room in the historical centre of a secular church. This form of subversive affirmation as a cooperative and collaborative project should now also succeed with the ship. After Büchel was invited to the Biennale, long and tenacious negotiations began with stakeholders and authorities to secure the contractual release of the ship for the project BARCA NOSTRA under the flag of art, its transport to Venice and the subsequent return to the new owner, the municipality of Augusta.
BARCA NOSTRA is thus once again a piece of hussar in which various interest groups, from local representatives to the government and the military, were obliged to reach a consensus that could hardly have been reached by any other means. This narrative-performative side of facilitating the project crosses the meaning of the wreck as a mere monument and emphasizes it over the well-intentioned and much-needed of this biennial.
III. ACT_CHOREOGRAPHED AUDIENCE
These included, above all, those who had written Zeitgenossenschaft to the banners, but who could not formally catch up with the claim and thus compensated for the gap by taking their audience by the hand or „choreographing“ them. That’s what the artist Renate Lorenz, who played Pauline Boudry in the Swiss Pavilion, put it. But if one thing in art is autonomous, it is the audience. It cannot be choreographed. In the Swiss Pavilion, a bar without beer, a disco without a DJ. Techno dances in the 1990s style were performed on a big screen, and the audience was quickly taken out again. With their video Swinguerra (2019), Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca demonstrated in the Brazilian Pavilion how transsexuality and gender issues can be brought to the video screen through contemporary dance.
The efforts to keep the audience on the square showed some grotesque features. In Neïl Beloufa’s Global Agreement (2018 – 2019), they had to rely on a fitness machine to initiate a video talk. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster constructed a box, Endodrome (2019), which could be seen from the outside and in which, after a long waiting period, five test persons each experienced a fifteen-minute visceral space trip on uncomfortable chairs.
Among the choreographies of a very special kind are the long queues in front of the pavilions for the opening weekend up to one hour, for example the English, French and last but not least in the Lithuanian pavilion. Not only did they raise the expectations of the public, they also automatically extend the duration of the exhibitions – after all, people had waited so long. Last but not least, they nourished the illusion of the organizers, the visitors are now intensively engaged with the art on show. The Canadian Pavilion, in which the video documentaries of the ISUMA collective led by Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn were shown, stood out from the crowd. They lent a voice to the precarious life of the indigenous population and were presented on several video screens with various subtitles. Long waiting times were thus avoided from the outset.
Tel Aviv artist Aya Ben Ron with Field Hospital X (FHX) in the Israeli Pavilion focused on waiting itself. The visitor pulled a number right at the entrance and wasted his time in comfortable blue and white seats watching an instruction video. The audience mutated into patients. First led into a soundproof cell, they were supposed to scream. The patient freed in such a way, a reassured, breastfeeding patient in the original sense of the word, was then taken to the first floor, where he met again in one of the nine recliners for further treatment. But instead of an anamnesis, another video on the screen on the armchair awaited him. Here the artist talks about the trauma of abuse by her father. The narrative style and subsequent expert opinions create a touching setting. But the participative prelude may not fit and the visitors left the event with the unpleasant feeling that something had been foisted on them.
Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-2018) was a similar experience, completely different in media terms. Over a hundred microphones hanging from the ceiling are converted into loudspeakers. Speakers recite poems by politically persecuted poets from the 7th century to the present day. Their manuscripts are stuck on pointed steel rods in the dimmed light of a hall in the arsenals. But the visitors merely became participants in an oppressive cacophony, in which they could not intervene, could not really grasp any of the texts. Against the artist’s intention, the poets fell silent again.
IV. ACT_A CHAMBER PLAY – NUJOOM ALGHANEM
In contrast, the pavilion of the United Arab Emirates showed how impressively poetry, performance and video can come together. There, the 26-minute 2-channel video installation Passage (2019) by Dubai-born Nujoom Alghanem will be shown. Hardly known beyond the Arab world, the fifty-six-year-old film director and poet is highly esteemed in her home country. She places a huge wall diagonally into the room in her black box. Two video films coordinated in the picture are each projected onto a wall with the same soundtrack. When the visitor settles down, he experiences only one side of the story at a time, unless he alternates from time to time with the other. Surely this can also be understood as a manipulative intervention in the economy of attention. But its content was covered. Of course, Alghanem also deals with the buzz themes of migration, existential need and identity. But she presents them with the Syrian actress Amal Hawijeh in such a forceful and unagitated way in the solo chamber play that we follow the portrayal, the images and the texts spellbound. The artist separates the narrative levels in a broken manner and lets them run into each other: While on the one side the „reality“ of the actress Amal Hawijeh is shown, she prepares herself for a performance in the theatre, puts on make-up, practices her role, the other tells a „fiction“, the search of a stranger in a signal yellow raincoat and suitcase for shelter and protection in a landscape of ruins until she desperately finds shelter and redemption in the turbulent sea. For both film sets, she deliberately chose ruinous corners of the arsenals and the empty pavilion hall, giving the work a site-specific quality that brought the events on the projection screens even closer to the viewer. Only in the final sequence does the location change from Venice to the artist’s hometown Dubai. This is breathtaking: she shows the actress close up in despair in the water, until a diver comes next to her for help. The camera slowly moves away from the action and lets a film crew gather around a swimming pool. As the camera climbs further, attached to a drone, it becomes clear that the pool is on a skyscraper in a suburb of the desert metropolis. It climbs further and further until, on the horizon, the center of the city looms lofty and threateningly out of a cloud of sand and dust.
V. ACT_FINALE – A BEACH OPERA FROM LITHUANIA
The Golden Lion for the Vilnius Women’s Collective from Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, a filmmaker and theatre director, Vaiva Grainytė, a dramaturge, and the artist and musician Lina Lapelytė surprised many. But if one had followed the development of the past years towards the performative, this was hardly surprising. The Golden Lion for Christoph Schlingensief’s German Pavilion made the start in 2011. This was followed by a lion for the performative interventions of Tino Sehgal in 2013, in 2015 the work of Joan Jonas was given special mentions, and finally Anne Imhof received a Golden Lion for her performance in the German Pavilion in 2017. Even before the award was announced on Saturday of the opening week, the audience crowded in front of the former warehouse of the Venetian military at the Canal de Galeazze in northern Castello to attend the choral opera performance for 13 voices Sun & Sea (Marina). Those who imagined themselves here in a theatrical performance should be absolutely right, even if the setting made it possible, despite a separation of performers, to linger and stroll around and return. The three artists found an ideal place for this. The warehouse has a spacious wood-covered gallery from which one could comfortably observe the events on the ground floor as if from an airplane or with God’s eye. What you could see and hear there delighted your eyes and ears. A good two dozen performers, including trained singers, mimed casually and for eight hours without interruption an illustrious beach party, lay on blankets, rubbed themselves with sun cream, children dug in the sand or played ball. There was nothing to be heard of their chatter, not to guess a story about the banality of the Tableau Vivant for the time being. But in the background a minimalistic sound backdrop, reminiscent of Steve Reich, came out of the loudspeakers and was recorded at regular intervals by a vocal soloist in order to perform a seemingly harmless, but all the more macabre song on closer listening. The songs built up an uncanny threat scenario. Is the distant rumble a volcanic eruption, a plane crash, or just a speedboat that spookily endangers the idyll shown? As an antithesis to Anne Imhof’s introverted analysis of the state of affairs of the European middle class society in 2015, the Lithuanian trio succeeded in creating a valid tableau for a general situation in which a longing for happiness successfully suppresses the possibility of global devastation. A strong contribution that rightly received the Golden Lion.
First Published in Kunstforum international Band 261, Köln Juni 2019