Another milestone: my first trip to Venice. Before this summer I had never made it to the Biennale, and so, for many reasons, I was delighted to be awarded an Engine Bursary from New Art West Midlands which covered costs of accommodation as well as entrance tickets to the Giardini and Arsenale.
We had four days to explore and get lost amongst the winding, cobbled and often disorientating streets of Venice. I had been warned that there was a lot to see but nothing actually prepared me for the scale and spectacle of it all.
Of course you’re only ever going to get that ‘first time’ feeling once, and for me this trip was an intense but glorious experience. Quickly I had to accept that there was no way I was going to get to see everything and so instead I decided to try to focus on the things that I knew I really wanted to see, as well as leaving some space for unknown and chance encounters.
Whilst exploring I confess to feeling wearied at times by the fast pace, and was self-conscious of my occasionally passive staring, but equally, I felt deeply moved by some of the works and the spaces for engagement, contemplation and reflection that they afforded me. And of course there were times when the pavilions and locations of installations themselves were as interesting as anything that might be going on in and around then.
Some of my personal highlights:
Germany’s Faust by Anne Imhof was entirely unsettling and I don’t think the vertigo it gave me subsided at all. In stark contrast, Austria’s Brigitte Kowanz’s architectural works with light and mirrors were beautiful and Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures were in some ways light-hearted, encouraging visitors to get (literally) inside and grab hold of props for a minute, enough time to pause for reflection and pose for a photograph.
I spent a long time in the Finnish pavilion, and really enjoyed the collaboration between artists Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinenpiece. Their video projections, objects and animatronics called upon shared interests in comedy, to contemplate Finnish national identity.
France’s Studio Venezia, which saw the pavilion transformed into a recording studio and performance area generated mixed responses from people I’ve chatted to since. Inspired by the radical educational principles of Black Mountain College, and an overwhelming desire to create a space for experimentation, Xavier Vailhan’s work featured floor-to-ceiling wood panelling and a soundproofed interior. It was designed to provide a space for music of all genres to be performed and experienced by audiences. Equally, revealing some of the mechanics of the recording studio itself created a durational and immersive environment within which visitors are complicit to what they see and hear; visual and sonic collaborations. It was designed to give musicians free reign as to what they produced when working in the space, and to breakdown hierarchies (perceived or otherwise) between professional and amateur musicians.
In the Arsenale, I was transfixed by Kader Attia’s installation, Narrative Vibrations (2017) which explored music and the human voice of and within North African and Middle Eastern cultures. The work led you down a corridor along which hung an array of historical source material comprising photographs, drawings, medical illustrations and publications exploring sound, electronics and acoustic theory. Amongst this ephemera are LPs and tape cassettes featuring the voices of famous female singers Warda Al-Jazairia and Umm Kulthum – their voices significant musically and politically, notably they were both ‘outspoken’.
In the middle of one of these collections was a first edition: an English translation of Treatise of Acoustics by E.F.F. Chladni, the German musician and composer whose experiments and observations with sound and vibrations profoundly influenced the development of the scientific field of acoustics. A number of his diagrams had been reproduced in the next space: a darkened room containing a series of sound sculptures and circular metal trays containing dried, loose couscous encased by clear glass domes. They sat atop speakers where intermittent bursts of female singing could be heard. The vibrations from the human voice caused the grain to move, forming patterns that echo those of the diagrams.
Jesse Jones’ Tremble Tremble was also a highlight. I had to sit and watch it twice. Its title is taken from a women’s movement protest in Italy, from the 1970s, which called for wages for housework. It was orchestrated by the feminist academic Silvia Federici, whose book on the patriarchal appropriation of women’s bodies in order to fuel the capitalist system with workers and soldiers has had a major influence on Jones’ work.
Throughout the piece actor Olwen Fouéré is projected onto giant screens, her body highlighted against a largely black background. Sometimes she appeared to float in the space itself and other times was peering into the space, giant and staring. The space itself was dark and dramatic, comprising a bench, two projected film works and two transparent, giant curtains printed with outstretched, beckoning hands and arms. These are pulled along giant tracks suspended from the ceiling at various times during the work in order to demarcate the beginning and end of various ‘acts’, the rasping sound of their opening and closing adding further drama to this piece.
There’s nothing quite like a trip with others to be challenged (in a good way), to really think about personal research and enquiry and to unearth some of the ongoing values that underpin our practice. In my work I return again and again to people and place; to hosting and engagement; and increasingly to the visceral, transformative power of music.
Thank you again to Engine for their continuing commitment to providing invaluable opportunities for artists and curators within the region. This opportunity was, for me, both a way of spending time alone and with peers, really looking and really thinking.
Alongside various freelance work Kate Self is currently Producer for Radar: Loughborough University’s contemporary art programme, commissioning artists to engage with academic research. Her current programme (re)composition is exploring the relationships between music and place alongside academics from Geography and artists Sam Belinfante, Evan Ifekoya, Rebecca Lee and Xana. In January Kate joins Capsule as Executive Producer.