Multispecies Entanglements at the Venice Biennale
As humans, we have complex relationships with our environments and the nonhuman others with which we share our lives: bacteria, animals, plants, landscapes, soils. We live as part of an ecosystem, sustained by and sustaining countless other entities. But for centuries, and with ever-increasing ferocity, we have tried to cut ourselves off from the delicate web of relations that constitute life on this planet, picturing ourselves above rather than embedded in these essential cycles.
However, recent scholarship – both reflecting and driving wider developments such as the mobilisation of the environmental movement, health and diet trends, and emerging disruptive scientific tropes around genetics and microorganisms – has begun to suggest alternative narratives around the separation of the human and nonhuman.
Donna Haraway for instance, in her illuminating writing on the multidirectional relationships between humans and animals, talks of the constant “dance of relating” between species which is a prerequisite for existence. She asks us to look beyond the “Great Divide”, to find the “rich multiplicities and topologies of a heterogeneously and nonteleologically connected world”. It’s easy to forget how entirely this way of thinking goes against the grain – of capitalism, of post-Enlightenment philosophy, of politics, of religion, of eating habits, and of international legal frameworks.
In an era of ecological crisis, the relationships between humans and the nonhuman entities that make up our environment are becoming increasingly strained and are increasingly scrutinised. As in all crises, some are choosing to ignore the interconnectivity of existences with even greater willfulness than ever.
But some are arguing that living with environmental breakdown should make us more aware of our (direct, bodily) connection with others. Daisy Hildyard, for instance, argues that we all have a ‘second body’, an ever-present version of ourselves that is physically implicated in others on a global scale, beyond the specificities of our lived experiences. She emphasises the biologically porous and multiplicitous nature of our bodies, while also demonstrating how our cultural, social and economic choices impact others.
These alternative modes of thinking – ecological, open, more-than-human, entangled – can be found as a narrative strand running through many pavilions at the Venice Biennale this year, suggesting that international artists and curators, at least, are aware of the dangers of environmental breakdown and keen to move away from the dominant philosophies that are at the root of so many problems.
The well-deserved winner of this year’s Golden Lion, Sun & Sea (Marina) at the Lithuania Pavilion is described by curator Lucia Pietroiusti as “an ecological work at its very core”, and the pavilion’s accompanying publication features a commissioned essay by Daisy Hildyard. Sun & Sea (Marina) is an opera-performance, created collaboratively by artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė. Viewed from a gallery above, the performers lie on an imported beach, singing about their personal and environmental concerns. These range from the trivial – “Can you rub my shoulders? They’re burning.” – to the angst-filled – “One doesn’t know what to expect…Even snow in summer wouldn’t surprise me!”.
There’s an ecological tragicomedy playing out on the sand. It’s somehow funny to watch people singing in their swimsuits and sunglasses. And yet the libretto cuts to the core of the tragic consequences our disconnection from other species:
– I cried so much when I learned that corals will be gone.
And together with the Great Barrier Reef the fish would go extinct –
From sharks to the smallest fry.
– I cried so much when I learned bees are massively falling from the sky,
And with them all the world’s plant life will die.
– I cried so much when I understood that I am mortal,
That my body will one day get old and wither.
These crises, we come to understand, sneak up on us while we’re distracted by other things. And yet the other things – filling the car with gas, eating imported bananas, going on holiday – have also themselves contributed to this systemic crisis.
In the Giardini, the Nordic Pavilion explores similar concerns, bringing together three artists whose practices share a notion of environmental awareness and openness to “multispecies entanglements”. The exhibition voices “a call for egalitarian coexistence between humans and nonhumans”, according to curator Leevi Haapala.
Work by Ane Graff draws attention to the toxins in our daily environments, and their destructive effects on the microbes in our bodies, positioning the microbiome as a fundamental element of human existence and identity. Her work recalls recent developments in biology that look beyond the genome and genetic lineage as key influences, recalling Donna Haraway’s delight in the fact that around 90% of the cells in our body do not contain DNA that is recognised as human. Ingela Ihrman’s giant seaweed models also reflect on the physical, bodily connection between humans and other species; a huge coral-like structure recalls blood vessels or the brain, for instance, whilst velvety kelp is reminiscent of human skin.
Artist duo nabbteeri offer a deeply ecological way of working, enmeshing their installation with the specificities of space and place. Ethnographies of a homespun spinelessness cult and other neighbourly relations is informed by a close reading of the Nordic Pavilion’s architecture; while its glass walls and the trees growing inside it might make it seem open to the natural world, nabbteeri noted that many surfaces in the space were encrusted with pigeon spikes, intended to discourage bird life from entering the space. Their installation incorporates these spikes, as well as sprigs of foliage from around the Giardini, while sandbags are a hint at Venice’s precarious ecological positioning.
Suggesting the centrality of ecological concerns to many artists from Nordic countries, collective creation and collaboration is also the name of the game at the Finland Pavilion, where the Miracle Workers Collective present their inaugural project, A Greater Miracle of Perception. Writers, choreographers, artists, cinematographers and curators have come together to transform the Finnish Alvar Aalto Pavilion into a cohesive exploration of community and the natural world.
In particular, works in the pavilion draw on notions and experiences of indigeneity and indigenous modes of knowledge; for instance, Outi Pieski’s Ovdavazzit – Forewalkers (2019) brings together Sami traditional crafts with contemporary art, and reflects on how the ancestral ecological knowledge of the Arctic peoples is increasingly being recognised as a crucial source for understanding Arctic biodiversity and its conservation. Like Haraway’s ecofeminist notions, these modes of thinking cut against the grain of conventional Western philosophy and politics; but we are beginning to become aware that these alternative narratives may be essential for our survival.
The Japan Pavilion also echoes the theme of ecological collaboration, while making use of the pavilion’s architectural specificities. To produce the exhibition Cosmo-Eggs, curator Hiroyuki Hattori has brought together four artists working in different specialities: an artist, composer, anthropologist and architect. The installation attempts to explore how and in what places we can survive in a fast-changing world.
001 Installation view - Photo by ArchiBIMIng Projected images from Motoyuki Shitamichi’s Tsunami Boulder, balloon and recorder flutes; part of Taro Yasuno’s COMPOSITION FOR COSMO-EGGS “Singing Bird Generator”, Toshiaki Ishikura’s Cosmo-Eggs engraved on the wall, Spatial interaction designed by Fuminori Nosaku
002 View of Piloti - Photo by ArchiBIMIng Balloon designed by Fuminori Nousaku, part of Taro Yasuno’s COMPOSITION FOR COSMO-EGGS “Singing Bird Generator”
003 Detail of the installation - Photo by ArchiBIMIng Left: part of Taro Yasuno’s COMPOSITION FOR COSMO-EGGS “Singing Bird Generator”, Right: Toshiaki Ishikura’s Cosmo-Eggs engraved on the wall
004 From Tsunami Boulder, Motoyuki Shitamichi, 2015-
Focused around the idea of ‘Tsunami Boulders’ – large rocks washed ashore from beneath the ocean after a natural disaster such as an earthquake – the pavilion considers ‘ecologies of co-existence’ between human beings and the natural world. Using multiple approaches and media, including sound, spatiality, projected images, archival techniques and words, Cosmo-Eggs offers an open exploration of how humans map themselves onto the natural world; for instance by assigning emotional or cosmic significance to a rock, or through myths in which humans and animals can speak to one another. At the same time, the exhibition notes, spaces made sacred by humans can also be used by nonhumans without any such connotations; many of the ‘tsunami boulders’ have become habitats for plants and animals. The power of Cosmo-Eggs is that it allows these dissonances to sit with the viewer, refusing to falsely resolve the complex and contradictory relationships between the human and nonhuman worlds.
The installation also features sounds reminiscent of bird song, which are played through recorders hanging from the ceiling of the space, blown by the building’s central ‘lungs’ – a giant orange inflatable column on which visitors are encouraged to recline, pushing more air through the musical instruments. The Zombie Music is automated and played mechanically; the clacking noises of the electronically activated recorder keys add a discordant note in the space, hinting at the frequent disconnection between human respect for the natural world and human technologies.
Collaboration; multiplicity; respectful co-habitation. These are the modes of ecological thinking, making and curating developed for the Venice Biennale this year among a select handful of nations. Dotted across the Giardini and the wider city are reminders that we are entangled in the existences of other species; that our actions have widespread ecological effects; and that the ecosystem offers us modes of working that are antithetical to the anthropocentric narratives by which we have traditionally organised our worlds.