The artist Sonia Boyce has been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale – the first black woman to do so. Her work will fill the UK pavilion from May until November next year. Boyce is one of the leading artists of the British Black Arts Movement and studied at Stourbridge College in the 1980s – via the Guardian

Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists. Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

Black oil rushes through the streets of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem engulfing the city. Suddenly the town explodes, erupting in fire and smoke in the opening sequence of In Vitro (2019) by Danish-Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour, co-directed with Søren Lind, and curated by Nat Muller for the Danish Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale.

Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

The black and white, two-channel, Arabic language film is set in the aftermath of this eco-disaster, in a dystopian, sci-fi world. Time is discussed between the characters Dunia, an elderly women who is hospitalised and Alia, “a clone” that visits her. The first words are spoken by Dunia: “Each morning I wake up to the Underground’s sound of rumbling”. This experience evokes a sense of entombment as both characters live in an underground bunker, which protects and represses them. They are both scientists; Alia was created “Underground” to act as the predecessor to Dunia, the leading scientist whose objective is to reform Bethlehem.

In Vitro’s epistemological meaning is “in the glass” and is contemporarily defined as a biological process, restricted to a laboratory. Alia, a product of experimentation describes how she can feel the “fire burning on her face”, in a particularly haunting moment. This is because Alia holds the collective trauma of the those who were killed in the plague, symbolised by the black oil that Dunia’s world succumbed to. Her recollections are a painful archive to delve into, as the individual traumas of those who perished are re-lived. In the film, Dunia remarks to Alia, “We will be archived for someone else to make sense of”, suggesting a possible output of the scientific organisation who cloned Alia; to use the clones as memory vessels and activists, though this is never articulated. Many parts of the film are left for us to assume or guess, leaving black holes in the narrative, which often shifts in time across the two-channel film installation.

The film invites thoughts on nostalgia and asks if we can or should resign ourselves from the past. There are two distinct perspectives: Dunia, who longs for a resurgence of her beloved home, as she advises Alia that she should be respectful of memories, such as their shared peaceful memory of harvesting olive trees. Alia, on the other hand, wants to focus on the world that is being reformed – to create her own sense of self, away from the memories that have been implanted inside her. There is a back and forth between the characters; an attempt at understanding why these memories are important to retain and share, which Alia refers to as “fairy tales”. Dunia quickly comments, “Nations are made on fairytales” as facts are “too sterile”, pertaining to the formation of history and identity, demonstrating generational shifts between these perspectives.

Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind. In Vitro, 2-channel black and white film. 27 mins 44 secs, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

A pivotal moment in the film is when Alia is shown alone in an underground room with a large, black, foreboding object or “void”. This object enables Alia to reconnect to past memories, suggesting that she is torn between what she truly wants amidst this huge pressure and responsibility. In another room across from the film, which is reachable by a passing decorative tiled corridor, comprised of 500 tiles made in Nablus in the northern West Bank, there is a large black sculpture, titled Monument for Lost Time (2019).This oval-shaped object reaches the full height of the ceiling, dwarfing visitors and mirrors the sculpture we see in the film. Reflecting on painful memories is a human reflex. Dunia, is a maternal character which is present in how she speaks to Alia. It becomes clear that Dunia lost her daughter in the eco-disaster, perhaps why she believes memories are the most precious thing to possess. Curator, Nat Muller describes the “void” or “repository of memories” as a “hollow vessel, a reminder of loss that can no longer be defined, but only be sensed achingly like a phantom limb.”

Accompanying the sculpture there is a soundscape by Mons Niklas Schak, which plays synthesised sirens and the cracks of old industrial buildings akin to the soundtrack in the film that he composed, invoking a sense of disaster. I see a visitor have their photo taken, reaching out to touch the void – comically re-enacting a moment from the film, which somehow demonstrates the quality of this work to communicate a complex narrative in a modest 27-minutes. Heirloom, the title of this exhibition, suggests that memories are property, that are passed down generations. The tiles, which have been added to this pavilion as an intervention are an example of a traditional Palestinian craft, subtly indicating that we cannot move forward without addressing the past, or in Dunia’s words: “The past never was, it only is.”


Laura O’Leary is a writer and curator, based between Derby and Birmingham, UK. Laura’s research trip to the Venice Biennale was made possible with a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from Art Fund.


Curated by Nat Muller, a postgraduate researcher at Birmingham City University, Larissa Sansour’s exhibition Heirloom is now showing at the Venice Biennale. The project is reviewed by Laura O’Leary and is on show at the Danish Pavilion at the Giardini until 24 November 2019.

Jesse Jones, Tremble Tremble (2017) production image. Photo Ros Kavanagh.

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.


Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017 at German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and German Pavilion 2017. Photo: © Nadine Fraczkowski

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’.

Narrative Vibrations (2017), Kader Attia. Photo: Italo Rondinella, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

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 (2017) production image. Photo Ros Kavanagh.

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.

Kate Self reflects on the Engine visit to the Venice Biennale back in September.

Work by John Waters. Photograph by Vicky Roden

Venice is what the world would look like if art was the universal number one export. It’s oddly unnerving to see a city so accommodating to artists and so willing to be used as an extension of the canvas – in the everyday wall-side shrines, the extraordinary architecture and also in the playful interventions such as Lorenzo Quinn’s Support, rising from the canal and echoing the similar masonic bodge-jobs that keep the city’s buildings standing.

Hew Locke, On The Tethis Sea. Photograph by Vicky Roden

It should then be no surprise that the scattering of Pavillions across the city seemed to succeed or fail dependant on how they used their relationship with Venice and the buildings who were hosting them. In some, the works were completely overshadowed by the sumptuous environment they were presented in. However, the Diaspora Pavilion had no such trouble. The exhibition worked with the surroundings to the benefit of both. Hew Locke’s On The Tethis Sea, a flotilla of ostentatious model boats suspended in mid air, contrasted wonderfully against the stark walls of the buildings ground floor. The more domestic spaces were elegantly utilised including an excellent presentation of Yinka Shonibare’s British Library.

The most perfect example of the symbiosis between project and place had to be the Scottish Pavillion and Rachel Maclean’s Spite Your Face. A large-scale projection in the proportions of a smartphone video, this was a modern version of the Pinocchio fable complete with the juxtaposition of obscene luxury and abject poverty. Characters were literally gilded and jewelled while others fashioned Venetian carnival masks from battered baseball caps. The single screen in an otherwise sparse and dark church was an extraordinary experience, with the film endlessly looping and Pic’s rise and fall assiduously assured.

This was my first time at the Biennale and my first time in Venice, and the reviews and photographs in no way prepared me for the experience. Pictures don’t show the tiny fish and tendrils of plan-tlife that swarm around the wrists of Quinn’s work. A write up cannot prepare you for the sudden submersion in the contemporary art playground that is the Giardini. An absolute art theme park, the national Pavilions were a feast of often exceptional works but it was South Korea which particularly stood out.

South Korea Pavilion, Giardini. Photograph by Vicky Roden

At once poignant, tender and crass we are drawn into the South Korea Pavilion with neon signage promising peep shows, orgasms and pole dances. There’s a joyfulness in the work (including a version of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ executed in lavatory paper and pepto bismol) but it’s the handling of a found archive detailing the life of ‘Mr K.’ which was most entrancing. Following one man who lived through Japanese annexation, the Korean War and the subsequent north/south division it highlights the effect global events have had on individual lives and futures. The acquisition of the archive itself, bought in a probate sale following the death of the protagonist’s wife, makes it particularly bittersweet. That which we dedicate our lives to preserving is not necessarily considered important enough to retain by the next generation.

Lee Mingwe, The Mending Project, Arsenale. Photograph by Vicky Roden

The Arsenale was another exhausting cultural submersion – possibly as a reaction to this, one of my favourite works was simple and immensely touching, together with having a deeply human connection. Following the 9/11 tragedy Lee Mingwei coped with the immediate horror of the impact of losing many friends and colleagues by mechanically mending the pile of clothes which he’d been ‘planning to get around to’. The Mending Project invites the audience to bring in their broken textiles to be mended in gaudy silk thread while sharing a conversation with the artist or his assistant, and seeks to find positive connections from the ashes of a terrible experience while serving as a memorial to those the artist lost on the day.

Work by John Waters. Photograph by Vicky Roden

My final word has to go to John Waters and his series of signs encouraging us to ‘Study Art’. Executed in classic 1950s style in the shape of brushes and palettes we are invited to study for a variety of reasons including ‘Fun or Fame’, ‘Pride or Power’, ‘Breeding or Bounty’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Prestige or Spite’. Dotted around for the audience to encounter, it relates back to a similar sign Waters saw inviting students to study art ‘for profit or hobby’. The subversion of this into reasons which can be all too painfully accurate for many attendees is peculiarly satisfying.

Awesome in the most literal sense of the word, completely overwhelming and utterly inspiring, Venice and the Biennale have already had a noticeable effect on my own practice. It may have been my first time there, but I’ll be damned disappointed with myself if it’s the last.

Artist Vicky Roden shares her experiences of visiting the Venice Biennale. Her trip was supported by an Engine Bursary.

Susan Pui San Lok at the Diaspora Pavilion. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin reports from the 57th Venice International Art Biennale, with a focus on the Diaspora Pavilion curated by David A Bailey MBE. Her visit was funded by an Engine bursary.


Susan Pui San Lok at the Diaspora Pavilion. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

During September, I was selected for the opportunity to attend the 57th Venice Biennale, alongside other artists and curators based around the West Midlands. I was the only applicant accepted that is still undertaking undergraduate studies, which invoked simultaneous pride and immense imposter syndrome.

My main draw to the Biennale, aside from its obvious significance in the fine art world, was the inclusion of the first ever Diaspora Pavilion, conceptualised and curated by Midlands based curator David A Bailey.

The Biennale has come under scrutiny in more recent years for its arguably outdated structure regarding nationality and nationalism. The Diaspora Pavilion entirely questions the organisation of artwork into countries of origin (which is again debatable within the main Biennale event, as an artist does not have to be from a country in order to represent it). The Diaspora Pavilion instead celebrates and discusses the constant merging and shifting definitions of nationality; and gives a platform to the people whose nationality or ethnic identity does not fit concisely into one category (a celebration of people of mixed descent is how I read the Pavilion, which as someone who is mixed, I took to be an incredibly exciting thing).

Walking into the gallery, we were met by a wall of gold tinsel – the work ‘Untitled (Pavilion)’ (2017) by Susan Pui San Lok – which immediately evoked the fear of whether an interactive-looking artwork is actually interactive, and whether the viewer is actually entitled to interact with it. After watching other people wade through it, and pensively observing – once the leap is made into the work, the resulting feeling is incredibly disorienting, and also incredibly beautiful. When reading the accompanying programme notes to the exhibition, ideas of immersiveness, dream-space and ‘a theatre within a theatre’ are discussed in relation to the work. However, what stuck out for me was the incredibly unpretentious nature of the piece. The simplicity and aversion to take itself too seriously – a feature I felt was slightly too prominent in some of the other, larger scale works in the Biennale.

Barbara Walker, Transcended, at the Diaspora Pavilion. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

Other works in the Pavilion that caught my eye, included Barbara Walker’s drawing installation, ‘Transcended’ (2017), depicting soldiers from the Commonwealth, who fought in the First World War. However, due to the fact they were West Indian and not British, the roles they were actually permitted to undertake were the menial, manual tasks assisting the British soldiers. I first saw Walker’s work at mac birmingham, wherein a large part of the exhibition was the artist’s systematic removal of the drawings through the show’s duration; leaving smudged clouds of blurred charcoal. Seeing Walker’s work at the Biennale, and myself hailing from Birmingham, there was a certain sense of pride. The Diaspora Pavilion as a whole felt thoroughly curated. Aside from the placement of a couple of sculptures, that felt almost as though they were an afterthought, the space (a beautifully old Venetian building, the sort you would expect a live-in museum about the city’s history to be exhibited at) was entirely encapsulated by the distinct work of these diasporic artists. It was a beautiful sight to see said old Venetian house filled with the bright, clashing fabrics of Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s installation ‘The British Library’ – an ode to immigrants to the UK and the contributions they have made.

Jordi Coloner at the Spanish Pavilion, Giardini. Photograph by Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin

Outside of the Diaspora Pavilion, the work that made a significant impact on me was Jordi Coloner’s ‘Únete! Join us!’ representing Spain. An immersive “installation of installations”, the Spanish Pavilion at the Giardini depicted a utopian, borderless landscape, in the form of a socially functioning, community-based series of projects. Again, for me the entire lack of self-importance, or least the self-awareness present meant this work was encapsulating and highly engaging.

This time, the invitation to sit on the wooden, sports stadium-like stands was clear at the entrance of the work, and so no reluctance to sit and watch the work was had. Instead, a way of exhibiting video work in a way I have never seen before – moving around the space, crouching on one wooden stand and then on to another, with the overall space creating the piece once each screen has been seen.

The spectrum of work seen throughout my few days in Venice, especially from a curatorial perspective, was highly insightful. Both pavilions featuring incredibly sleek and expensive work with high production value – as well as the smaller, lower key works, that provided interesting discussion points. I found travelling with the Engine team to attend my first Biennale, to be a hugely useful and engaging experience – being able to attend and interact with the work, and more importantly to be able to discuss and share ideas, and crucially, with those within the sector I hope to pursue after studies. Gaining an insight in to the practical and administrative aspects of art exhibitions was a major highlight of visiting the Biennale.


Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin reports from the 57th Venice International Art Biennale, with a focus on the Diaspora Pavilion curated by David A Bailey MBE. Her visit was funded by an Engine bursary.

New Art West Midlands / Engine visit to Venice Biennale. Sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn. Image by Alex Billingham

Artist and curator Alex Billingham offers up his personal reflections on the Venice Biennale.


New Art West Midlands / Engine visit to Venice Biennale. Sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn. Image by Alex Billingham


Egg gods/
David Oooooo yerh/
Water sports/
Finland! /
Nose masturbation/
Bum caravans/
Archives /
Thread /
Animatronic Penguins … STOP My head hurts!

This September New Art West Midlands very kindly let me come to the Venice Biennale with them. It was my first time out of the country in ten years and what a way to start. Monarch kindly deferred financial collapse by a week to get us out and back.

It was wonderful to be with such brilliantly friendly people full of ideas and mixed interpretations of the work. It was refreshing to see how others approached viewing work.

The most influential lesson I ever got was when my elderly teacher took away my rubber. She said I had to learn from my mistakes. This has guided my approach to how I make and view art.

You only ever get one first impression of a piece, make the most of it. I never take information about art until after I’ve experienced it in the raw. Great work doesn’t rely on writing to be readable.

On to the damn ART already.

Where to start? SCOTLAND!

Possibly because of its isolation from the main bulk of work but I suspect because of the commitment both of scale and effort involved in it the Scottish Pavilion stands out as one of the most interesting pieces. A 20-foot vertical screen dominates a blacked-out church. Mirroring the themes in the piece the beauty and scale of the setting only becomes apparent once your eyes have adjusted. It’s a gloriously textured piece looping back in on itself elegantly melding Facebook symbols, myths and modern morality.

Battle of the titans: Arsenale vs. Giardini

These two monstrous beasts are of very different flavours.

Welcome to Giardini land, how may I help you today?

Initially it has the feel of being a Disney Land for people who like to say they’re in the arts but beneath the theme park layout and selfie advertising there’s a wonderland of work replete with jabberwockies and trolls.

Russia was disturbing and disappointing, played as a send up of the country’s military heritage. But neither vicious or damming enough to be real it felt much more like a display of Soviet might and total control.

Canada’s Geoffrey Farmer, however, was brave, daring and playful and by far and away my favourite piece (I returned 3 times). I was lucky enough to come upon it from the back entrance via England as you walk through the door to a shattered and gutted pavilion open to the skies. Strewn with playful wreckage using water to react to the presence of visitors, culminating in a ravaged fountain at its heart.

Guan Xiao, David, 2013, three-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 4 minutes 43 seconds. In “Viva Arte Viva” in the Arsenale.

How Bloody Big is the Arsenale?

This was no tourist playpen but a fully formed gauntlet of art gladiators stretching on into a parallel dimension where a giant kitten was terrorising art critics to get to the biggest balls of twine in the multiverse – just me there? Sorry.

A complete clusterf**k cacophony of cultural Kunst. Ok so I had a beast of a cold starting as I went through the belly of this beast so I kinda experienced it in a somewhat dreamlike state. While there were pieces which succeeded and others that failed, for me it was the experience which stuck with me, a million myriad ideas jostling for dominance of my attention constantly trying out do one another.

D. A. V. I. D. by Guan Xiao was probably the piece we most bonded over as a group, a prince charming nestled half behind warehoused vulvas.

Spain must take the prize for most fully realised idea – a dystopian nightmare laboratory – and China for worst pavilion, reading like a garbled mess presented by half-arsed 2nd year student. At least the Venetian pavilion had the grace to honestly be an advert for the Tourist Board.

Geoffrey Farmer, A way out of the mirror, 2017. Installation view at the Canada Pavilion for the 57th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, 2017. © Geoffrey Farmer, Courtesy of the artist. (Francesco Barasciutti)

Beyond The Thunderdom … Erm Venicdome?

A thousand thoughts fled through my mind as I raced up to Manchester for a performance the next day. Egg gods of Finland, upended trucks next to caravans with bumholes.

Curators struggling with performance. There’s still no resolved answer for me but it’s finally permeating into the landscape of these beasts. The bizarre way many of the pavilions used English as the primary language frankly shocked me. A hangover from colonialism is one of the running themes in the Arsenale. Research was presented as work sometimes so lazily that it made me question why it was in an art setting at all, at other times it was beautifully handled and worked over. This was the year of the archivist at the Giardini.

Mainly it was the more delicate and subtle works that stuck with me. Israel’s mouldy empty room hiding a great nebulous cloud, the music box desperately screeching away in a corner, the assistant endlessly nattering away while repairing clothing.

But mostly it was the bravery of Canada. Childishly totalling their pavilion to make a joyous piece of work.

Thank you, New Art West Midlands and the people, on the trip it was fantastic!


Our second report from the New Art West Midlands / Engine visit to Venice. Artist and curator Alex Billingham reflects on the trip.

Rachel Maclean, Spite Your Face, 2017, digital video (still). Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Scotland + Venice

In the first of a series of reports from 57th Venice International Art Biennale, artist Thomas Kilby reports on his moving image highlights. 

Rachel Maclean, Spite Your Face, 2017, digital video (still). Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Scotland + Venice


I was very fortunate to attend the 2017 Venice Biennale with the Engine team from New Art West Midlands and New Art Gallery Walsall earlier in the year. I was interested to see what current practices look like in artists’ moving image. In this article I will highlight some of the more interesting work that I found there.

The Scottish Pavilion was showing the work of Rachel Maclean, ‘Spite your Face’ a new video work projected in portrait format, which dominated the space of Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the Church of St Catherine. Reminiscent of Tacita Dean’s 2011 35mm film ‘Film,’ shown inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, here Maclean’s work interacts with the space. Dimly lit to the left of the towering projection is a classical female sculpture, which during the video becomes a goddess type character. Maclean seems to be interested in the very format of filmic space, the works world shifts on its axis, as Pic, the protagonist, falls horizontally and vertically, down and out into a second reality. The world moves around him to unveil a new land where he can become who he desires.

Fairytale myths and futuristic dystopian worlds have been an ongoing thematic trait in Maclean’s work; engaging with popular culture adverts, such as perfume, has been established in her film ‘Germs’ (2013,) but here Maclean develops this concept alongside votive offerings, Venetian masks, and a radical colour palette of blue and gold, to create a work that fits inside its setting, and talks of contemporary issues. Pic enters a Faustian pact to make his wishes come true. He is gifted ‘Truth’ the new perfume that magically heals his credit card induced capitalistic self-harm slashes. After an awkward phallic-nose rape scene, we learn ‘all that glitters in not gold.’ There is no set start or end to the work it is a filmic loop. Pic will continue to fall from grace and be reborn.

Whilst pushing my way through the long drag of the Arsenale, which encounters curated topics such as climate change and tradition within contemporary art, the work of Guan Xiao was a welcome hilarious relief.  ‘David’ (2013) is a music video for Michelangelo’s high art sculpture of the beautiful young man. Its format is a three-part HD video installation, the work lists the ways in which society interacts with David and reproduces him. The hook, or chorus, of the song keeps insisting ‘we just don’t know how to see him.’

Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth-maker who fell to earth), 2017 installation view
Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Simon Vogel

Samson Young represents Hong Kong this year with his filmic installation ‘Songs for Disaster Relief’’. There are three sections to the work, the most interesting being the second, which you enter through a velvet curtain that hangs a foot or two off of the floor, you enter into Lynchian living room-type environment with two monitors, representing fire places, with sofas and a coffee table in front. One monitor shows a CGI kilted figure on a chroma green backdrop rolling around; the other shows a drummer boy breakdancing over a purple screen. The soundtrack mixes a cover of Band Aid’s ‘Do they know its Christmas,’ with occasional trumpeting sounds, reminiscent of David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. Dislocation is the pervading theme of the work. We hear the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions Choir sing ‘We Are The World’ in a hushed whisper. All of this is familiar but rendered through a foreign frame, as Young says, an ‘out-of-timeness’.

Whilst exploring the Giardini, a secluded garden with house-like museums, I found the unassuming pavilion of Finland. They were showing the collaborative work of Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen, titled ‘The Aalto Natives’. It took the form of ‘an installation with video and animatronic sculpture’. The first thing that strikes you is the huge egg-like figure with a projector strapped to its head, opposite this is a smaller cardboard box with eyes, also with a projector attached. They have a dialogue with the video work projected in the far corner. The work is a hilarious mix of drawn stop frame animation, HD video and complex CGI, its story follows a god and his son coming back to the Finland they created centuries ago. The humour in the absurd satire catches your focus to look at larger issues of religion and bureaucracy.

Installation view of Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen’s ‘The Aalto Natives, 2017’ at the 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy Frame Contemporary Art Finland.

Søren Engsted’s video ‘Levitation’ 2017, shown within the Central Pavilion inside the Giardini, takes the form of a performative talk, with Engsted seated on an Indian levitation chair. Floating in midair Engsted tells the audience several facts and anecdotes around the theme of flying. Whilst viewing this video you are seated on a chair made from molded concrete, heightening your own feeling of corporeality.

Overall there can be teased out some common themes to the moving image work at this year’s Biennale. Humour is always a thread that attracts me to a work, and as I found out for most of my other colleagues on the trip too. The work felt light, welcoming and generous. Especially in a context like Venice, where you are bombarded with work, pieces that require time and reflection. These moving image works were a way of engaging with the viewer, to trick you, into looking harder at the layers behind. Lucky that I like to be tricked.

In the first of a series of reports from 57th Venice International Art Biennale, artist Tom Kilby reports on his highlights. Tom was one of the artists selected for an Engine bursary to attend the Biennale along with the New Art West Midlands and Engine teams.

This BBC documentary follows three artists as they prepared to show their work in the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice earlier this year. The programme includes our very own Birmingham-based Barbara Walker, as well as a fitting and moving tribute to Khadija Saye.

Cody Choi, Venetian Rhapsody – The Power of Bluff, 2016-17. Neon, LED, Steel, Canvas, PVC. 1243x1033x111cm. Day installation view at the Korean Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Riccardo Tosetto. Courtesy of the Artist

Four artists and visual arts producers based in Birmingham and the Black Country have been awarded our 57th Venice Biennale bursaries following an open call. These bursaries are supported through Engine, our artist and curator development programme.

The selection panel were particularly impressed by strong applications from Kate Self, a creative producer and visual arts educator, and artists Thomas Kilby, Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin and Vicky Roden. Roden showed work in the 2015 edition of the New Art West Midlands exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

Kate, Thomas, Rohanie and Vicky will travel to Venice with the Engine/New Art West Midlands team in late September. Each will produce a report of their experiences in Venice which will be available to read on our editorial pages.

Four artists and visual arts producers based in Birmingham and the Black Country have been awarded our 57th Venice Biennale bursaries following an open call.

We are offering four West Midlands artists or curators the opportunity to visit the 57th Venice Biennale with the Engine/New Art West Midlands team.

Cody Choi, Venetian Rhapsody – The Power of Bluff, 2016-17. Neon, LED, Steel, Canvas, PVC. 1243x1033x111cm. Day installation view at the Korean Pavilion, 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Photo by Riccardo Tosetto. Courtesy of the Artist

We will provide accommodation in Venice and a 48 hour pass to visit the Biennale. Flights must be organised and paid for by the applicant and we will not be providing subsistence costs.

We will fly out on the morning of Tuesday 26 September and will return on Friday 29 September. The accommodation will be covered on the 26, 27 and 28 September.

Please apply for this opportunity by sending an outline of no more than 500 words about why you would like to participate and what benefit this would be to your practice. Please send a CV including your full address and a website link if you have one. Applications should be sent by 11am on Monday 17 July as a single PDF to

Any artist or curator living in the West Midlands can apply.  Preference will be given to applicants who have not visited the Venice Biennale before.

Successful applicants will be asked to write a short report on the visit and some content may be shared on the New Art West Midlands website.

We are offering four West Midlands artists or curators the opportunity to visit the 57th Venice Biennale with the Engine/New Art West Midlands team. Deadline 11am, 17 July 2017.