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The 57th Venice Biennale: A Group Review

Past & Present: The Singapore Pavilion

by Bianca Schor

Zai Kuning, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, 2017, at the Singapore Pavilion in the Arsenale.

Photograph courtesy of National Arts Council.

When discussing a potential group review of the Venice Biennale, I realised I felt uncomfortable giving my opinion on works which I knew little about, and which seemed to rely heavily on the written interpretations provided for the visitors. Having just finished the course 'Bodies of Knowledge in the Early Modern Netherlands' at the Courtauld, one artwork deeply resonated with the type of questions I had been thinking about this year. The Singapore pavilion, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, by Zai Kuning, explores the past and present traces of the Srivijayan Empire in the form of a life-size ship and a series of contemporary photographic portraits of dancers of mak young - a pre-Islamic dance-drama harking back to the empire. The wall panel explains:

The Srivijavan Empire was established in the 7th century by the first Malay king, Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa. Srivijaya was once a powerful hegemon that stretched across what is Southeast Asia today: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The national frame of the pavilion is readily superseded by a shared historical identity, which spans a wide geographical area.

It was said that the king led a fleet of 20,000 soldiers to perform a sacred pilgrimage, Siddhayatra, with the objective of acquiring supernatural power by establishing a route for the expansion of Buddhism. These expeditions also allowed the empire to gain control of the maritime trade, from the 9th – 12th centuries. However, with the passing of time, this history has been largely forgotten.

This historical frame materialises in the skeleton of the ship, suspended in the air, as if fished out from deep waters: its tail is missing, and stacks of books and stones from the Southeast Asian seabed hang below it, as remnants of a lost history and knowledge. Made following traditional techniques in rattan, an old-world climbing palm, beeswax, and red strings, the wreck displays engineering and craftsmanship skills, another type of knowledge increasingly marginalised today, including in contemporary art. The installation also perfectly fits into the Arsenale, hanging from the wooden beams of the ceiling, as a reminder of the ship-building production that used to take place on-site, and of Venice’s glorious maritime past.

The large ship and the pictures of Malay dancers, the living repositories of an endangered traditional opera, emphasise the weight of the past, but also its fragile survival in today’s memories; it brings to light types of knowledge that tend to be forgotten over time; and it questions our responsibility in transmitting knowledge and digging golden nuggets out of history. Like Zai Kuning’s artwork proves, the results can be beautiful and poetic as well as useful in building a fuller sense of our collective identity.

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by Alice Valdes-Forain

Lorenzo Quinn, Support, 2017. Photograph courtesy of Halcyon Gallery.

The 57th International Art Exhibition VIVA ARTE VIVA, curated by Christine Macel, Chief Curator at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, offers a journey "with artists, by artists and for artists” and pays particularly well-deserved attention to environmental issues. At the Central Pavilion of the Arsenale, the Curator’s exhibition displays Michel Blazy’s old sneakers turned into flower pots. Purposely weak, ephemeral and evolving, the artwork questions recycling, waste, and the global influence of our consumption on nature. Blazy confronts invading nature with mundane manufactured objects of mass consumption to demonstrate that nature is stronger and will always take its rights back.

A short film by Marie Voignier features a former Safari organizer as he smugly recalls stories of killing elephants and antelopes in Africa for the pleasure of wealthy tourists. By filming the man's hand as he flicks through the photo album of his proud clients with their trophies, Voignier frees the individual of guilt by making a universal remark against this violent practice.

Close to Voignier’s documentary, a fixed-shot video by Shimabuku shows macaques jumping on a pile of crushed ice in a desert, touching and eating some of it. In the 1970s, snow monkeys were brought from Japan to a Texas ranch as exotic curiosities; in Do snow monkeys remember snow mountains? the artist brought ice to the uprooted monkeys to see if they remembered their native mountains. By then, they were used to eating cactus and their population was growing. The footage raises underlying questions: do the monkeys adapt to new environments faster than human beings do? Are we going to adapt to nature rather than trying to dominate it? This is all the more relevant when displayed in a ‘Floating City’ built upon wooden stakes hammered into the ground.

The bi-yearly event is also to be experienced by strolling around the city, where pavilions are disseminated. For the duration of the Biennale, Lorenzo Quinn has attached an independent and imposing installation to a hotel in front of the Rialto food market, by the Grand Canal. Amidst traditional Venetian palaces and gondolas, it is impossible to miss the two monumental white hands made of a polyurethane foam covered by a resin emerging from the water, seemingly engulfing the palace. It seems to be supporting it to prevent its collapse, emphasizing the weakness of Venice’s edifices. Owing to the fact that the power of creation and destruction lies in our hands, Support raises awareness of climate change, in a city threatened by rising sea levels.

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Finding Peace in the Venice Biennale

by Lizzie Lockard

Polys Peslikas, Cyprus Pavilion, Venice. Photo: Stelios Kallinikou.

Slightly apart from the Arsenale exhibition venue of the Biennale, the Cyprus Pavilion is tucked away in the maze of Venetian passageways. This pavilion provides a welcome respite from the heat, humidity, and the masses of tourists that flood the city in the summer months. The space itself, with its partially exposed brick walls and industrial feel, contrasts and complements the swirling colours utilised by the featured artist, Polys Peslikas. The pavilion starts with a monochrome, teal painting that explores various shades before evolving into the other works, which display a wider array of colours, encapsulating the pavilion’s theme of the future of colour. Peslikas’ experience of working with dance choreographers clearly shows itself in the movement of his paintings as well as his unique vision for the fusion of colours that recall a kaleidoscope with light refracting off the various hues as if seeing through a window. He teases the viewer with glimpses of what might be the shoulder and chest of a man in a buttoned-down shirt, only for the image to melt away into something else just as the image begins to solidify in your mind. This shifting and swirling of the colours embodies Peslikas’ goal: colour ‘[dissolving] into the rhythm and rhyme of tonalities and textures.’ He wanted the works to not present a clear-cut image but rather something that is fluid, something not defined by the constructs of today’s society.

While most of the tourists are more interested in seeing the city of Venice itself, there are plenty who make their way to the various pavilions of the Biennale. Yet, the Cyprus Pavilion seems to have slipped under the radar of most of the attendees, probably due in part to the fact that it is separate from the main exhibition spaces. Across from the Arsenale exhibition space, there is also an exhibition by Wong Cheng Pou entitled ‘A Bonsai of My Dream,’ that creates an atmosphere of calm through soothing hues of green and sculptures of quirky figures. If you are heading to Venice to take in the sites and the Biennale, make sure to stop at some of the smaller pavilions and exhibitions like Cyprus and the Wong Cheng Pou exhibition, they are well worth the visit. The Biennale ends 26 November so there is still plenty of time to plan a trip.

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