Small Talk: Art and the Weather at the 58th Venice Biennale

View of the Lithuania pavilion Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019, at the 58th Venice Biennale.

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Odd weather we’ve been having lately, no? So said some of the national pavilions at the 58th Venice Biennale. Japan, Canada, Lithuania, Kiribati, the Philippines, France, the Nordic countries, and others brought artworks to Venice that reflect on ecological crises. But many of these conversations about the weather reveal more about the etiquette of the Biennale than they do about climate change and its sociopolitical implications. Weather is the most polite of conversation topics, and in that it’s akin to the word “interesting,” which is often used to avoid more pointed and honest critique, and is the key term in the bland title of the Biennale’s main exhibition, “May You Live in Interesting Times.” National committees rarely rally behind polemical projects, especially in today’s divisive atmosphere. The landscape has tended to be a somewhat innocuous subject for the last few centuries. Now a more charged genre, it is still presented in mostly polite ways at the Biennale.

Norway, Finland, and Sweden each put forth one artist’s or collective’s work in the Nordic pavilion’s “Weather Report: Forecasting the Future.” Finnish duo nabbteeri’s installation Dead henge (2019) is a space in the pavilion’s backyard blocked off from humans and reserved for birds and lizards who live in the Giardini. The duo highlight our fierce tendency to separate ourselves from nonhuman animals. Norwegian artist Ane Graff’s States of Inflammation (2019) represents melting icebergs with three glass structures filled with elegant assemblages of unhealthy materials like lead, meat glue, and acrylamide from instant coffee. We are surrounded by toxins, and they impact our bodies and environment: a message that is neither specific nor controversial, delivered in perplexingly gorgeous form.

Like the city of Venice, the Republic of Kiribati, located in the central Pacific, may be erased in this century due to rising sea levels. In the Kiribati pavilion, artists Kaeka Michael Betero and Daniela Danica Tepes have constructed a living room, where footage of rising water plays on screens placed behind window panes, giving the impression that the home is being subsumed. Scenes of dancing islanders play on a television set. A camera resting on a cabinet captures visitors’ movements and uses them to animate a digital model of another islander on a projection above the TV. The setup invites viewers to join the islanders in dance, which feels strange at this moment of crisis. But it also conveys the importance of preserving and disseminating the Kiribati people’s culture as their land disappears.

It’s hard to square the urgent threat to Kiribati with Laure Prouvost’s optimistic take on flooding in France’s pavilion. She celebrates water as a force capable of dissolving personal and national boundaries. That might sound nice in France, but not in a nation whose population could literally drown. Visitors enter through the pavilion’s unfinished basement along the stinky canal, where Prouvost is supposedly digging a tunnel through its dirt floor to the nearby Britain pavilion: a fantasy of a Brexit escape route for Remainers. A pile of dirt inside the basement stands as testimony to her efforts. On the ground floor, visitors are greeted by a beautiful re-creations of the garbage polluting Venice’s canals: a glass, turquoise floor is littered with debris including HDMI cables, cell phones, and cigarettes. Like Graff’s work, Prouvost’s installation aestheticizing pollution risks romanticizing it.

Both the Japan pavilion and Joan Jonas’s “Moving off the Land” (an exhibition in the collateral program at Ocean Space, a new venue in the Church of San Lorenzo) reflect on the consequences of consuming fish. Carved into the Japan pavilion’s drywall is a narrative text piece by anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura that amalgamates tsunami myths from places across Asia, focusing on Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands in the East China Sea. Ishikara’s text anchors thematically related works by artist Motoyuki Shitamichi, composer Taro Yasuno, and architect Fuminori Nousaku. The first time a man ate a fish, Ishikura’s story goes, the fish cried out for help. The man didn’t listen, and the sea responded with a tsunami. Joan Jonas’s video installation Moving off the Land II (2019) mourns a time when cod were “so abundant, you could almost walk the sea on their backs,” as an old saying quoted in the video goes; cognizant of overconsumption, she no longer eats fish. Her beautiful renditions of the sea are clearly born of reverence and draw on footage and research from her years spent visiting aquariums around the world and in residency in Jamaica. Both Jonas’s and Ishikura’s appeals to omnivores are more poetic than preachy, but pointed nonetheless.

The pavilions of Canada and the Philippines consider climate change at a societal scale, rather than in terms of individual consumption. Filipino artist Mark Justiniani’s installation Arkipelago takes up the lighthouse as both a remnant of Spanish colonial rule and a symbol of protective, controlling surveillance. Justiniani shows lighthouses inverted: visitors walk over plexiglass structures, “islands” within the pavilion, lined with mirrors that create the effect of deep, dark recesses the size and shape of lighthouses. The work is meant to invert colonial attitudes of conquest by filling them with darkness and depth, stand-ins for the deep sea’s powerful unknowability and resistance to conquering. Inuit artist collective Isuma’s video installation One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019) re-creates an instance of an Inuit family being ordered to move off their land to harsher climates in the North—part of a process of colonization and dispossession that continued in Canada through the 1960s. Piugattuk was manipulated by false bribes, “paid” with a bible rather than the vital resources promised to him and necessary for his family’s survival. Later, in court, the federal government defended their actions by claiming the Inuit contributed to overpopulation and overhunting in Quebec, even though the Inuit subsistence economy is far more sustainable than the industrialized lifestyle of the Québécois. Silakut is Isuma’s livestream of interviews chronicling Indigenous resistance to Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation’s current construction of a railroad through the Inuit community. The work highlights the twinned environmental and humanitarian impacts of corporate greed. Unlike many of the climate-oriented works, though, it can be viewed without flying to Venice: the videos are available online at www.isuma.tv.

Rising waters make everyone vulnerable, but in viciously unequal ways. This is reflected in the varying degrees of urgency and sensitivity with which the climate conversation plays out across pavilions. Lithuania’s pavilion, winner of this year’s Golden Lion, begins to address this inequality with an opera set on an indoor beach. The performers play citizens of a relatively wealthy northern country reaping the short-term benefits of a warmer globe with a day of leisure, while also, as conveyed in the songs, dealing with the guilt that accompanies this privilege. The Biennale’s jet-setting viewers are no strangers to this uneasy complicity, and here the performers commiserate with, rather than challenge, them. It’s all too easy to abdicate personal responsibility, as the Lithuanian beachgoers do, framing climate change as an inevitable result of extractive economic activity. This keeps us from recognizing the greed and shortsightedness usually attributed to corporate and colonial entities in ourselves. Like most art about climate change in Venice, Lithuania’s pavilion offers polite talk about strange weather these days rather than direct charges to change habits. Better to take after Joan Jonas, whose deep reverence for the sea impacts her diet; or the artists of Isuma, who consider carbon footprints by making their work accessible online; or nabbteeri, who reclaim space that the art world has built up and give it back to animals.