Uprising Art is happy to share with you a series of interviews dedicated to the Bahamian Pavilion in the 55th Venice Biennale, we reported from last May 28-June 1st.
Focusing on the presence of Caribbean contemporary artists in this major international event, we interviewed the Cuban Pavilion, the Bahamian Pavilion, and the Instituto Italo-Latino Americano Pavilion.
Read Robert Hobbs, the co-curator of the exhibition Polar Eclipse by Tavares Strachan for the first participation ever of the Bahamas to the biennale.
How did you get involved in curating the first Bahamian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale?
The co-curator Jean Crutchfield and I have had a connexion with the artist that goes back to 2005 when he was still a graduate student at Yale. Tavares Strachan was introduced to me by a New York art dealer that was really interested in his work. We also got excited about it and especially about the project he had created, while he was still a student. This piece was a 4.5 tons block of subarctic ice that he had Fedex to his elementary school in The Bahamas. Tavares then had MIT scientists build a glace case and use solar energy to keep it cold. They were also able to help that the block of ice did not sublimate so the block of is still there eight years later. You know what happens to ice cubes when they are not used within six months they turn to a gaz. We were completely bulled over with this work.
Then in 2011, we did a show in New York, Jean and I, which was called Tavares Strachan Seen / Unseen. This was a 20,000-square-foot overview of Strachan’s work from 2003–2011, at an undisclosed New York location. We are preparing a book on that that will be released at the autumn. It was natural to go from that to this show in the Biennale. That is all work from 2013.
Tell us more about Polar Eclipse.
What Tavares does in this show is playing on the idea of North Pole in its relationship to the Bahamas. He looks back to the original discovery of North Pole but with this idea that it is actually impossible to discover the North Pole because it is constantly shifting. Indeed, it is on an ice cap that is about 3 to 4 meters, perpetually deriving, so by the time you put a flag down, you already moved maybe of 6 to 8 miles away from the point you marked. The North Pole is a conceptual idea.
Tavares is dealing with the past with a kind of historical re-enactment of the 1909 polar expedition of Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson. Robert Peary is not recognized as the explorer, and the relationship between both is complicated to establish.
The present is also at the centre of the exhibition. We went to the North Pole in April where Tavares collected some ice. He exhibits it here – Me and You (North Pole Ice and Cloned North Pole Ice) – together with cloned ice that Yale scientists realized by taking the composition of the real North Pole Ice and cloning it. There is a dry sense of humour in the show.
He also arranged to bring forty children from the Bahamas to Venice. They came forty days and nights referring to the anniversary of independence that the country is celebrating this year. The children were taught an Inuit song about entering the wilderness, preparing for the provisions’ quests. The video was shot in this same space in Venice. This was a nice trip for them. The music that you hear in the Pavilion immerses the viewer.
So Polar Eclipse is past with Perry and Henson; near present with Tavares Strachan trip to the North Pole; and also about future with the children and how they deal with the changes that are going to happen – like climate change, for instance.
For you who have been working with Tavares Strachan since a long time, how do you feel about showing only new works in this Pavilion?
Terribly excited. It is incredible to have been able to put all this together this year. It is quite a phenomenal task and this required a lot of work.
What is good in Polar Eclipse is that the sum is greater than the individual parts. One piece relates to another, and together forms the overall exhibition. There is a lot of reciprocity between one part and the other.
And there is continuity in these new pieces regarding to what he did previously, and especially considering his 4.5 ton block of ice?
Well, The Distance Between What We Have And What We Want plays on a kind of identity between two different places. And it is very much about the elementary school of Tavares, about learning and a sort of art pedagogy.
This continues that idea but does it in the realm of place and identification. The whole idea is up for grabs from the very first moment when you enter the show. Because you are used to the sun light, and you enter this first room where you are confronted with the neon. It takes a moment to adjust to the dark room. With such sentences as “I Belong Here”, “You Belong Here”, “We Belong Here”, the identity is exploded and imploded. And what is here? Identity is not firmly established. It is up for grabs.
This all questions become a scene for the show and constantly ask: what is? With the children here vs. the Bahamas; Henson and Peary here vs. the North Pole; and between Henson being here and not here because you see him and no longer see him, he appears and disappears, both in the Pyrex glass and the circulatory system… You also see him both right side up and upside down.
This idea of how we look at things, interpret them and engage with them is hence essential?
Yes, it is. For instance, it is very interesting with the three drawings of the animals that are slated for extinction, the owl, the walrus and the bear, that you see a global image. Of course there are individual elements that form this global image but you do not really focus on them. The concept idea transcends all of this. It is a fascinating interplay.
I believe one of the core statements of the exhibition is about the impossibility of ever achieving the place where the North Pole is. One is always searching and retreating.
This re-enactment of the North Pole discovery may seem quite unusual for a Bahamian…
In a global world, that is very different from an international world, all boundaries are open and permeable. What happens in the North Pole affects what happens in the Bahamas. It affects what happens in Venice. And Venice is another island like the Bahamas are.
Could you give us more insight on Tavares Strachan’s commitment to engage schools and schoolchildren in his practice?
He is interested in pedagogy.
The I belong here piece, for instance, was exhibited in another version in a school in North Carolina, USA. Students had classes about it. In the USA, where children often have a multiethnic background this was a way to question and think about what their identity is. Are they black, red, yellow, white, American, international? Who exactly are they?
Those are questions that we all have to answer. Yet, the beauty of it is it should never be answered fully and completely: it should be open ended.
I think it is really unique for an artist to be really interested in teaching and sharing the information, and that is also part of the real beauty of Tavares Strachan’s practice.
Venice, Italy – May 29, 2013
By Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credits : Robert Hobbs, during the inauguration of the Pavilion © Uprising Art