This summer, the Bahamas will celebrate its 40th year as an independent commonwealth while also presenting its first pavilion in the Venice Biennale. Tavares Strachan, who was born in Nassau, Bahamas, and lives in New York, will represent his homeland by way of the North Pole with an exhibition titled "Polar Eclipse" in the Arsenale.
The 14-channel video that is the main component in "Polar Eclipse" is made up of footage from Strachan's recent trip to the Arctic, in which he retraced the steps of Robert Peary and Matthew Henson. In 1909, Peary and Henson completed the first successful expedition to the North Pole. However, questions linger regarding some details of their journey, specifically if Henson did in fact arrive before Peary (who was possibly suffering from frostbitten toes), and which of the two men planted the American flag.
According to deputy curator Stamatina Gregory, who spoke to A.i.A. on the phone earlier this week, how histories are conceived and adapted over time is a major theme in Strachan's exhibition, as is the capacity to recall and understand events. (Gregory previously worked with Strachan on a 2009 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, presenting remnants and documentation of rockets built from natural materials found in the Bahamas that Strachan launched in Nassau.)
In this sense, the Peary-Henson narrative is ripe subject matter for Strachan's ongoing inquiries into ideas of migration and exploration, history and mythology. Henson, an African American, may have been the first person to reach the North Pole, and now Strachan may well be the first Bahamian to do the same—or, at least, the parallel makes a satisfying pronouncement that fits neatly into a retelling of the tale.
Photographic and collage works related to the expedition will also be on view in the pavilion. Featured in the entryway is "Here and Now," a series of neon sculptures that spell out phrases like "I Belong Here," "You Belong Here" and "We Belong Here." They bring to mind the broader social and emotional dynamics of location and affiliation in a postcolonial moment, and the particular construction of place and community at the Biennale.
Along with Gregory, the pavilion is co-curated by husband-and-wife pair Robert Hobbs and Jean Crutchfield. Hobbs and Crutchfield organized Strachan's 2011 project Seen/Unseen. This supposed retrospective was not open to the public and its location was kept a secret. Documentation, in the form of a website and catalogue, has been promised.
Strachan is known for projects that use means of scientific investigation and international exchange to artistic ends. For The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (2006), he shipped a block of ice weighing 4.5 tons (the size of a large elephant) from Alaska to Nassau, where it was displayed in a glass box and kept frozen using solar power. He has undergone cosmonaut training at a Russian facility and established an Aerospace and Sea Exploration Center in the Bahamas.
The Bahamas is one of 10 Biennale first-timers, along with Angola, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Holy See, the Ivory Coast, the Republic of Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay and Tuvalu.
The Venice Biennial runs June 1-Nov. 24. The Bahamas celebrates its 40th independence day on July 10.