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We are delighted to be able to bring you the reflections of our friends John Wiseman and Fay Chomley as they discuss the diverse array of climate change and environmentally focused art works that formed part of the 2015 Venice Art Biennale. 

Wrong Way Time: Climate Change, Ecology and Art at the Venice Biennale


By John Wiseman, Fay Chomley
December 18, 2015

Photo: John Wiseman. Artist: Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time, 2015
The rising tides, abandoned warehouses and crumbling palaces of Venice – always a strong reminder of the risks of ecological and political hubris – provided an appropriately melancholy setting for the diverse array of climate change and environmentally focused works on display at the 2015 Venice Art Biennale[1].
The most provocative and powerful of these works however were those whose gaze rose above the familiar environmental iconography of drowning cities and burning forests to the broader challenge posed by 2015 Biennale curator, Okwui Enwezor. ‘How can the current disquiet of our time be properly grasped, made comprehensible, examined, and articulated?’ Though the Biennale has now closed, many artworks and national pavilions can still be seen and explored online here.

In writing these reflections in Paris in the days following the November 13 terrorist attacks, Enwezor’s analysis seems particularly relevant and sharp.
 
“One hundred years after the first shots of the First World War were fired in 1914, and seventy-­‐five years after the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the global landscape again lies shattered and in disarray, scarred by violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium, secessionist politics and a humanitarian catastrophe on the high seas, deserts, and borderlands, as immigrants, refugees, and desperate peoples seek refuge in seemingly calmer and prosperous lands. Everywhere one turns new crisis, uncertainty, and deepening insecurity across all regions of the world seem to leap into view.”
 
The 2015 Venice Biennale did include many works which directly addressed the challenges and consequences of climate change. Visitors to the Tuvalu Pavilion, for example found themselves traversing a flooded gallery – as curator Thomas Berghuis noted “a sinking pavilion by a sinking nation in a sinking city.”
Vincent J. F. Huang, Crossing the Tide, Tuvalu Pavilion, 2015
(below) Vincent J F Huang, Black Swan, 2015
The Azerbaijani Pavilion, Via Vitale also brought together a range of ecologically themed works with the explicit curatorial aim of motivating the visitor to “reflect on our own integral roles in both the disruption and preservation of the ecology, asking us to confront the potential dangers of ignoring the messages that their works convey, while simultaneously suggesting creative tools and ideas for securing ‘all the world’s futures.”
 
Here, beneath the crystal chandeliers of the Palazzo Ca’ Garzoni we found Sayyora Muin’s solemn gathering of women, Listen to the silence of the lost sea, the grim beauty of Chris Jordan’s sea bird carcasses, poisoned by their diet of plastic refuse; and Stephanie Quayle’s bewildered ceramic monkeys perched on a precarious Jenga like structure of wooden beams. Via Vitale also included an Idea Laboratory exploring innovative, scientifically informed solutions to the most urgent ecological challenges. 
Sayyora Muin, Listen to the silence of the lost sea, 2011
Stephanie Quayle, Jenga, 2015
Chris Jordan, Midway: Message from the Gyre, 2009
International Dialogue for Environmental Action, 2015
Sayyora Muin, Listen to the silence of the lost sea, 2011. Stephanie Quayle, Jenga, 2015. Chris Jordan, Midway: Message from the Gyre, 2009. International Dialogue for Environmental Action, 2015
 
In the South Korean Pavilion, Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho invited us to visit Venice in some future time in which “the city that we used to know, along with the other glories of past civilization, no longer exists. The only visible vestige of the Giardini’s rich history is the Korean Pavilion—the last national pavilion to have been established within the garden.... The site no longer serves as a place for art. The pavilion is now a laboratory for archaeological investigation of the past civilization.”
 
(Click for Video) Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, The Ways of Folding Space & Flying, 2015. HD film installation, 10minutes, 30 seconds. © the Artists.

In the Australian pavilion Fiona Hall’s dark, mysterious ‘cabinet of curiosities’, Wrong Way Time provokes an even broader and more complex set of responses to the many ways in which, as she notes “the realities of terrorism, war, climate change, environmental pillage, and economic turmoil have become part of our daily consciousness.”
Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time, 2015, Venice Biennale 

Inverso Mundus, the most recent multichannel video from the Russian, AES+F group, inspired by the macabre imagery of the medieval carnival and the 16th Century genre of ‘World Upside Down’ engravings, observes the ‘minefield of sadness, badness and madness’ of Wrong Way Time through another kind of lens. Inverso Mundus reimagines 21st century ‘civilisation’ as a glittering, surreal, ‘end times’ world where the roles of corporate executive, worker, beggar, worker and thief are interchangeable and mutant animals and fish sail above the skyscrapers – a world “where chimeras are pets and the Apocalypse entertainment.”
(Click for Video) AES+F, Inverso Mundus 7-­‐channel HD video installation, 2015

Many of the Chinese artists exhibiting in Venice were also inspired by dreams and nightmares of ecological dystopia and collapse. In Highway to Hell: A Gift from China, Jiang Heng reflects on the consequences for China and the world of an endlessly accelerating project of economic modernization and rampant consumerism.
Jiang Heng, Highway to Hell: A Gift from China, 2015 
(right) Installation detail, Highway to Hell: A Gift from China
Cao Fei’s La Town combines stop motion video, plastic figurines, horror movie and film noir imagery to visualize the tragic fate of a town overwhelmed and frozen in time by some unspecified climatic disaster.
(Click for Video) Cao Fei, La Town, 2014, Video, 41 minutes 58 seconds

Humanistic Nature and Society (Shan Shui – Mountain and Water) curated by Wong Shun Kit assembles a variety of photographic, visual arts, architectural and multi media responses to the evolving relationship in Chinese society and culture between the perceptions and experience of tradition and modernity, humanity and nature; ecology and development.
Shichen XIE (1488–unknown), Plank Paths in Shu Area (detail). Ink on paper, Ming Dynasty.
Right: Jiuliang Wang, Beijing Besieged by Waste 12 (detail), 2009. Photograph.
In his decision to locate a daily reading from Marx’s Das Capital at the heart of the Giardina Giardia pavilion, Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor demonstrated clear intent to provoke analysis and debate about the central, complex, contradictory role of finance capital and corporate power in driving and creating ‘All the World’s Futures’.

Enwezor’s explicit reference in his curatorial introduction to Paul Klee’s backward looking angel also says much about the ways in which the 2015 Biennale reflected the attempt to make sense of the political, cultural and ecological consequences of the storm of progress and modernity which continues to swirl around us.

 
“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet....a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Image: Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920

The Iranian pavilion, located in a crumbling ship-building factory rather than a glittering palazzo, addressed these questions about the relationship between past and present; history and progress with considerable power. The Pavillion also housed a companion exhibition The Great Game which referenced the legacy and the consequences of the 19th century colonial conflict over the resources and culture of Central Asia and the Middle East.
Shamsia Hassani, Darulaman Palace Dreaming Grafitti, Digital print, 2015
This exhibition of artists from Iran and neighbouring countries, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Kurdistan juxtaposed striking works suchas Santhosh’s reworking of triumphalist equestrian public sculpture, female Iraniangraffiti artist Shamsia Hassani’s reworking of the imagery of Afghanisatan’s Darulaman Palace; and Farideh Laishai’s hypnotic, dystopian reinterpretation of Alice in Wonderland: Dear, Dear, How Queer Everything is Today.
 
 
TV Santhosh, Effigies of Turbulent Yesterdays, 2010, Fiberglass and LED monitors
Farideh Laishai, Dear, Dear, How Queer Everything is Today (from Rabbit in Wonderland 2010) Paint and animation.
We have been completing these reflections while staying in Paris, a few streets from the Bataclan concert hall and the cafes attacked on November 13. Floral tributes, candles and poems still cover the pavements. At this time also the Paris Climate Summit has just concluded, highlighting yet again the scale and speed of action required to prevent catastrophic climate change.

These events – all unfolding against the backdrop of the latest images of floods in Chennai floods, Syrian barrel bombs, refugees and razor wire are a further reminder of the continuing challenge of making sense of the complex relationship between progress and modernity; hope and despair in these ‘wrong way times’. It is clear that many of the artists who contributed works to the 2015 Venice Biennale are also wrestling with these challenges – and are making a significant contribution to addressing the 2015 Biennale curator’s central question: “How can the current disquiet of our time be properly grasped, made comprehensible, examined, and articulated?”
 
 
 
[1]  In addition to the Biennale web site http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/ the Google Cultural Institute Venice Biennale site provides comprehensive links to works at the 2015 Biennale including many of the works referred to in this article. https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/la-­‐biennale-­‐di-­‐venezia
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