- Tuvalu Pavilion, The Arsenale, Venice Biennale 2015
On the Thello to Venice, the slower, lower carbon way of travelling where you get to experience how the Schengen “no passport” zone is suspended on the train and some people get taken from their carriage never to return, I was reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. This was partly in preparation with my planned interview with the Taiwanese artist Vincent JF Huang, representing the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu, but I was glad and stimulated to finally be reading Klein’s examination of the links between capitalism and climate change.
I wanted to interview Vincent JF Huang in my own search for artistic and political answers to how artists can, or should, respond to these times of crisis. He has represented Tuvalu at both the Venice Biennale and the annual UNFCCC climate change negotiations, a first as far as I’m aware, and I was curious to know more; my own experience of climate change negotiations has been, and is likely to remain, on the outside.
So on the second day of the previews I made my way to the Tuvalu pavilion, entitled Crossing the Tide. The pavilion, halfway down the Arsenale, is a dark, misty, water-filled room bridged by walkways of the type used in Venice when the city floods; the pools of water are a crystal turquoise to match the waters of Tuvalu itself, and in one corner a projected aurora comes and goes in the fog. It is a welcome relief after the heaviness and clamour of much of the work in the Arsenale; at the same time, with its vision of a water-based future, the pavilion hearkens back to the last time carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are now, 3 million years ago, when sea covered much of low-lying areas such as Florida.
Dr Thomas Berghuis, curator of the pavilion and also Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the Guggenheim in New York tells me how he has worked with Vincent to develop a concept based on the Book of Zhuangzi, a 3rd century BC Daoist text describing the harmony between humans and nature. Previous to this, Huang’s work has been characterised by a dark humour – a robot that shakes your hand and then kicks you in the leg (Hello, Nice to Meet You (2005)), suicidal penguins hanging from the Millennium Bridge (Suicide Penguins 2010), an oil derrick decapitating a sea turtle at the 2013 Biennale – but Berghuis has worked with Huang to develop a gentler, subtler approach, saying “it’s not always about hitting hard with what you say.” It’s interesting to speculate on the dialogue/dialectic between these two men, Berghuis researching and taking on the reality of climate change – “consciously being aware of it on a daily basis is something I didn’t do before I was working on this project, and now I do” – while encouraging Huang into a way of working more in keeping with art world norms.
Next I speak to Vincent, an energetic, cheerful man in his 40s, radiating a good humour that I suspect is habitual rather than just the relief and elation of launching the pavilion. First I ask him about the ideas behind his work and he tells me how, while doing his MA in Aberdeen, he met many collectors who worked in the oil industry. “It made me start thinking about our energy system and how our global system operates…I found something wrong… I find it is about capitalism.” Huang started focusing his work on climate change in 2005 and became interested in Tuvalu after seeing a speech by Ian Fry, the nation’s chief climate change negotiator, at the failed UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009.
Taiwan, itself excluded from UN negotiations because of the “One China” policy, is the only country to have an embassy in Tuvalu, and Huang was able to arrange a visit in 2010. “Because the sea level is rising all the land is salty, so the local coconut trees fall down. This had a great impact on me.” Huang has represented Tuvalu not only at the Biennale in 2013 and 2015 but also at the UN’s COP18 climate change negotiations in Doha in 2012, where he organised a press conference of animal delegates, and COP19 in Warsaw in 2013, where he did a performance about greenwashing – the practice of high-carbon corporations claiming green credentials by, for example sponsoring UN climate change negotiations. He will represent Tuvalu again in Paris this winter at COP21, the negotiations which are widely seen as the last chance to negotiate a meaningful post-Kyoto agreement on lowering global carbon emission and which are sponsored by, among others, Renault, EDF and Air France.
Huang notes that Tuvalu is being seen as what Klein calls a “sacrifice zone”, pointing out that the country’s carbon emissions are very low due to their non-industrialised way of life, but that they are set to pay a heavy price for industrialisation in other parts of the world. “The Earth is the mother system, and the human economic system is a subsystem. The mother system is resource-limited but the subsystem is always consuming everything. Modern civilisation is like the aurora – it looks beautiful but also like an illusion, and it represents such a short time in the history of the Earth. Is our modern civilisation really bringing us a better tomorrow or are we together going to unknown disaster?” says Huang. In its doomed attempt to compete with the strong sunlight coming through the side of the pavilion, the aurora also echoes the futility of attempts to respond to climate change only with technofixes: “natural light is always more powerful than artificial light.”
I ask him a question close to my heart, about whether he thinks that the purpose of art is primarily to have a positive effect on the world. “I think I just am still artist, I focus on art…I would like to make it more powerful – art is not only for exhibition, art can contribute nowadays, we facing a lot of crisis, not only climate change. I’m starting to think the most important thing is what I can do for Tuvalu.” He sees the pavilion not as an end in itself but as an act of transnational solidarity and catalyst for further action, with plans for a crowdfunded social sculpture project to stabilise Tuvalu’s coastline by planting mangrove trees. The pavilion is also built using only local materials, which will be recycled or reused at the end of the Biennale, and has no paper handouts.
The tension between prioritising making art that is successful as art and art that has a specific effect in the world is one that many artists have grappled with. Clearly there is no need to sacrifice aesthetic quality – see for example Secret Power, Simon Denny’s New Zealnd Pavilion about state surveillance – but there can be conflict between making aesthetic effectiveness your prime aim and trying to get across a particular bit of information or have a particular effect; a fair amount of the work in this year’s Biennale falls on the wrong side of this ridge, tending towards the didactic at the expense of being anything you’d want to actually look at. This is absolutely not the case with Crossing the Tide, a mysterious and enchanting space; my only caveat is that it’s so inviting that viewers may completely miss what it is showing us, the likely fate of a small nation if global carbon emissions don’t start reducing by the end of this decade.
In June in London I take part in a different kind of creative response to climate change, a hackathon involving artists, activists, coders and gamers run by the Laboratory of the Insurrectionary Imagination to develop the Climate Games, an adventure game in which teams aim to disrupt the corporate influence on COP21, for example by targeting the huge number of lobbyists who will attend. We talk about the disadvantages small countries such as Tuvalu face; countries can send as many delegates as they can afford, but some countries can only afford to send three delegates; with up to 30 meetings taking place at once, they are seriously hampered in the negotiations.
We also talk about a narrative framework for the games; the theme of “We Are Nature Defending Itself” echoes some of Huang’s earlier works such as the polar bear eating President Obama’s head (Nemesis, 2010) as well as the oneness between humans and nature described in the book of Zhuangzi.
John Jordan, one of the initiators of the Laboratory of the Insurrectionary Imagination, trained as an artist but made the decision many years ago to focus on creative political action rather than making political art in the art world, seeing representative rather than transformational art as inherently limited. The Lab of the Insurrectionary Imagination suggest another approach – use your resources as an artist to make political action accessible and desirable.
Bertolt Brecht famously said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Art with political intent can operate on many levels – poetry, myth, beauty, the embodiment of other possibilities – and needs to do so in order to be effective; information on its own is usually insufficient. Tuvalu’s “sinking pavilion representing a sinking nation in a sinking city” is a way of bringing the fate of small nations at the hands of the powerful into the wider consciousness; the Climate Games is a way of directly holding the powerful to account and disrupting their activities. The title of the 2015 Venice Biennale is All The World’s Futures and, as Thomas Berghuis points out, “all the world’s futures will be affected by this issue”.