Glasgow-based artist Graham Fagen is representing Scotland at the 56th Venice Biennial, the seventh time a Scottish pavilion has featured as part the Biennale’s official Collatarel events.
Curated by Hospitalfied Arts and filling four rooms in the Palazzo Fontana, a venue never before featured in the Biennale which backs on to the Grand Canal, the exhibition has been over a year in the making. It features sculptural work in bronze – including in the first room, Rope Tree, cast from lengths of rope – neon and ceramic, as well as works on paper and, in the final room, a four-screen audio-visual installation
Working with members of the Scottish Ensemble, the composer Sally Beamish, producer Adrian Sherwood and reggae musicians Skip Macdonald and Ghetto Priest, Fagen has revisited an earlier work revolving around the 1792 Robert Burns poem, The Slave’s Lament. In doing so, he has created a sonic meditation on culture and meaning that incorporates Scottish folk, classical music and reggae.
How important is Venice to this work and what kind of relationship do you have with the city?
This is the fourth time I’ve exhibited in Venice; I’ve only ever been when I’ve exhibited there. Part of the experience this time was looking at spaces to exhibit in, and doing that gave me the time to consider Venice more broadly. There were things I was becoming more aware of even though I knew about them and I’d seen them before – things like the blackamoor door handles you get and the shops full of blackamoor ornaments holding up lights and other stuff. That got me thinking about my piece The Slave’s Lament [a version of the Robert Burns’ poem, originally made in 2005]. It made me realise how it was important to think about that work again in relation to the place of Venice but also in relation to the forum that is the Venice Biennale; that sense of, through visual art, all these countries bringing their thinking and their ideas to share with the rest of the world.
What role has the venue, Palazzo Fontana, played in shaping the work?
There’s four rooms in the palazzo we’ve got and there’s essentially a new piece of work been made for each room, plus there’s also a neon work been made for the entrance area. The point where things became more serious and considered in the whole project was when I went out to Venice with Hospitalfield and Creative Scotland at the beginning of last April to pick a venue. That’s when the responsibility and enormity of the project began to be realised, but also the privilege and the opportunity. One of the advantages about going there to pick the venue are that the seeds of thought, and ideas and possibility are considered and thought about during that process of choosing a place.
You first interpreted Robert Burns’ The Slave’s Lament ten years ago when you recorded it with reggae singer Ghetto Priest and Adrian Sherwood and you’ve worked with them again for the Venice show. What’s changed this time?
Recently I came across another Burns’ song, Arvo Pärt’s version of My Heart’s In The Highlands, which has classic Tartan, biscuit tin, clichéd lyrics. But the sonics that Part put around it completely changed my understanding and my interpretation of the possibilities of the meaning in the lyrics. He’s Estonian, and so I became intrigued about not only his formal process but also the fact that someone from another culture could take what in theory is my culture, and could interpret it in such a way that it could change the meaning for me.
When I originally arranged The Slave’s Lament with Adrian Sherwood and Skip Macdonald, the idea was to do the song; it was to do with the question I was interested in at the time, which was what could the relevance, or meaning of this lament from 1792, be today? This time, I was interested in what Pärt was able to achieve with his musical composition, that sonic space for a lyric to be among and to be part of. So I understood it in quite a spacial, sculptural sense and I became really intrigued by that, and that’s what made me approach the Scottish Ensemble and then Sally Beamish the composer. And there isn’t a song with a beginning, middle and end this time; this version is endless. And so I’ve been understanding it as some kind of formal, sonic landscape.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of people to create the work for Venice, but there are also works on paper that are very much just you and the materials. How important are those different processes?
I think both approaches are of equal importance. The works that are more only me, they have a process to them as well. In essence it’s no different to the process I go through to create a bronze tree, to create the neons, to make the audio-visual work. The approaches feel very close – maybe because it’s all from my head! The process can influence what the final shape and form of the thing is, both for the drawings and for the audio-visual work; different characters bringing in their own specialisms might move it one way or another, lots of water on the Indian ink would make the colour go further than I would have thought it would. So each part has creative space and creative room to help determine where it might end up going. So I don’t have complete and utter control over how it will turn out in the end; that journey through the process is really important.
The show starts with a neon sign above the entrance and culminates with the four-screen audio-visual piece in the fourth room. Is their a formal link between each room, a route for the viewer to follow?
As I was thinking through the four rooms and the entrance and what work should go there, it wasn’t so much that all the rooms should link. I guess my early thought was that if there was sound in the final rooms, it would be interesting if the sound was something you were aware of when you arrived in the first room, but you didn’t get to see the roots of that sound until you got to the last room. And maybe once you experience that, on your way back out that experience in the final room might guide or experience the way you look at the work going out. But that’s not written in stone or a rule about how you view the exhibition; it’s just another possibility.
The 56th Venice Biennale, 9 May – 22 November 2015; previews 6-8 May. www.labiennale.org
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