HUM to cover vernissage of Venice Biennale 2019

The HUM team is incredibly excited to attend the opening week of the Venice Biennale from 7 - 12th May 2019, enabling us to bring live, exclusive coverage of the opening of the New Zealand pavilion and other New Zealand projects in Venice.

In 2017, HUM created a specific section on its website dedicated to Aotearoa creatives in Venice, and we will continue to use it this year, with an updated section for our 2019 coverage, alongside our newsletter and social media platforms.

We’re looking forward to seeing the New Zealand pavilion and Dane Mitchell’s project, Post hoc. Having interviewed the Commissioner for the exhibition, Dame Jenny Gibbs (which you can read here), we’ve been lucky to have insight into the planning and selection of Mitchell’s work.

“Dane Mitchell’s work was chosen because it’s a very intriguing, very technically sophisticated project. The artist also has a track record of delivering but we also knew it would challenge the Venice authorities. They’ve not had anybody using multiple sites like this and needing the bandwidth for transmitting. There’ll be an app for people to access the transmission. And there’ll be a small post at each site with a sign on it, which will tell you what’s happening.”

Contemporary HUM aims to cover not only the New Zealand pavilion at the Biennale, but other New Zealand artists participating in collateral events of the Biennale. Notably, this year’s Personal Structures exhibition at the Palazzo Bembo includes NZ sculptor Virginia King.

Each day we’ll be posting short blogs covering the vernissage, as well as live updates throughout the week on our social media channels. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more, and check out our future blogs right here on this page!

May 8, 2019
Day #1 - Venice Vernissage

The Contemporary HUM team made its way from Paris, London and Lisbon to attend the 58th Venice Biennale opening. This marks the first time that the three of us are in the same place and we are looking forward to covering and experiencing this major event as a team!

At the Marco Polo airport, we are greeted by remnants of Simon Denny's project Secret Power, covering the floor and walls of the international arrival lounge. Originally installed for the New Zealand presentation at the 2015 Biennale and then recommissioned by the airport as a more long-lasting installation, the upside down images are of the Marciana Library where the national pavilion was located, in San Marco square.

We have the pleasure of starting our week with a visit to the New Zealand Pavilion where we interview Dane Mitchell about his project Post hoc. It is fascinating to get an in-depth insight into the thinking and production behind this two-year long project. Through an organic and handmade process, and with the help of three researchers and partner organisations, Dane told us how he compiled a list of over 3 million words categorised in 260 lists of such defunct or vanished things as: dead languages, extinct plants, abandoned airports...

Partner institutions include the Italian Institute of Marine Science (which previously occupied the Palazzina Canonica hosting the New Zealand pavilion this year) or the Art Loss Register in the UK who track stolen artworks and antiquities and who provided a list of 40,000 stolen artworks (that reads for about 8 days!).

"I think of the list of lists as a kind of poem, they reflect my own research interest (...) and allow the audience to think about what it might mean for something to be gone, and what goneness might be. Some of these things might not appear to be gone and yet in one way we can think of them as forces of absences or sorts of absences."

Dane points out that despite things disappearing, such as discontinued fragrances, prohibited aroma molecules and closed glass factories, the planetary mass doesn't change. He tells us of the lists he loves most: subduction zones, planetary occultations or lost lunar samples - Nixon gifted rocks brought back from space to organisations and nations, and those went missing - suggesting the idea that "something is momentarily vanished and then back."

Dane showed us the tapered anechoic chamber used to transmit the list of disappeared items out to the 7 tree stealth towers installed in the gardens of the pavilion and throughout the city. This chamber, as well as the stealth towers and Amy, the Amazon-produced automated voice application used in Post hoc, are all pre-existing forms in the world, but are somewhat modified by the artist for this project for various practical, aesthetic and artistic reasons. The anechoic chamber produced in Verona for example, has an added viewing window which, while breaking the seal of sound absorption, is also a poetic framing of the "transmission travelling over an illusion of an infinite horizon."

We also discussed the singular viewpoint that this unavoidably incomplete list presents, and whether it was a concern of the project to find what other sets of knowledge were missing. This opened a conversation on the knowledge economy and how certain countries, such as the United States, dominate the internet or other English-speaking research sources. 

We'll be publishing the full interview in coming weeks on HUM.

Parco delle Rimembranze at Sant'Elena in Venice with one of Dane Mitchell's pine trees installed on-site. Video: Contemporary HUM.

Parco delle Rimembranze at Sant'Elena in Venice with one of Dane Mitchell's pine trees installed on-site. Video: Contemporary HUM.

Stay tuned for further news and updates about the Biennale vernissage, tomorrow, with the official opening of the New Zealand Pavilion and other events in the floating city.



Dane Mitchell, Zara Stanhope and Chris Sharp at the press preview of Post hoc, 8th May 2019. Photo: HUM. 

Dane Mitchell, Zara Stanhope and Chris Sharp at the press preview of Post hoc, 8th May 2019. Photo: HUM. 

May 9, 2019
Day #2 - Giardini and Post hoc opening

We started off visiting the Giardini of the Venice Biennale, which hosts 29 national pavilions as well as one part of the curated exhibition May You Live In Interesting Times by the Biennale curator, Ralph Rugoff. Outside the central pavilion, we were enveloped by a mist created by artist Lara Favaretto, which set a mysterious tone.

Amongst the 40 selected artists, Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan echoed some themes brought up during our conversation with Dane Mitchell yesterday. Strachan’s piece The Encyclopaedia of Invisibility (white) (2018) is a compendium of words missing from traditional encyclopaedic volumes, redressing the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a ‘tool of imperial conquest, one that appropriates and condenses knowledge as a means of signalling cultural domination’. 

Favourites so far of the national pavilions include the Australian Pavilion featuring Angelica Mesiti's Assembly; the Nordic Pavilion, Weather Report: Forecasting Future, which featured four different artist tackling climate change and growing environmental awareness; artists Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys' animated mannequins for the Belgian Pavilion Mondo Cane, which proved to be one of the more popular exhibitions.

As well as the huge scope of work included, the audiences attending the Biennale opening week always add to the spectacle. 

After our afternoon visit to the Giardini, we made our way to the Palazzina Canonica for the opening celebrations of Post hoc. It was great to see large numbers of the New Zealand art community under the same roof, celebrating over two years of hard work. Karl Johnstone, Kaihautū of NZ at Venice 2019, opened the proceedings, followed by speeches from Michael Moynahan, Chair of the New Zealand Arts Council, Dame Jenny Gibbs, Commissioner of NZ at Venice 2019, and Dane Mitchell. 

‘It‘s my hope that when you listen or tune in, you might somehow reflect on the incredible weight of material knowledge, and material itself, that is below this present moment' - Dane Mitchell

The night was a great opportunity for everyone from New Zealand and beyond to catch up. Attendees included artists, curators, patrons, gallerists and collectors: Nina Tonga, Natasha Conland, Anthony Byrt, Leigh Melville, Sue Sinclair, Jim and Mary Barr, Greg Burke, Danae Mossman, Sarah Hopkinson, Anne Noble, Ann Shelton, Simon Rees, David Cross, and many more. 

HUM will be going back to hear additional thoughts from the curators, Zara Stanhope and Chris Sharp, and we’ll be sharing those later. Stay tuned!

May 10, 2019
Day #3 - Arsenale round-up & Venetian Blind opening

Following the opening of the New Zealand Pavilion last night, we went back to talk to Lead Curator Zara Stanhope and Project Curator Chris Sharp about their involvement in Post hoc. Zara and Chris have an intimate knowledge of Dane Mitchell’s practice as they have worked alongside him since the beginning of this project two years ago, as well as having worked with him previously. 

We talked with Zara on how Post hoc does not only operate within the Biennale framework, but also extends its reach to local residents and the general public alike who might not view the trees as art but rather as infrastructure. 

'We have this engineered anechoic chamber here and also these very lumpen stealth tower trees, three of which you’ve seen around the Marine Institute here and four more placed around Venice. So in a sense, Post hoc is a project which is like a network over and amongst the city. It is not just here in this Pavilion but really radiates out across Venice.'

Contemporary HUM interviews Zara Stanhope, Lead Curator of Post hoc, 2019. Photo: Contemporary HUM.

Contemporary HUM interviews Zara Stanhope, Lead Curator of Post hoc, 2019. Photo: Contemporary HUM.

Chris described the anechoic chamber as:

'a metaphor, to a certain extent, for the entire project, in that it is trying to present or contain this vast loss, these 3 million words, these over 250 lists and these seven months of speech, of utterances. At the same time, in the box is this uncontainable thing so it’s almost like this speech is deliberately a false sense of containment, which is the core of the project.'

HUM will be publishing our full conversations with Zara, Chris and other key figures involved in NZ at Venice 2019 in the coming weeks.

Next, we headed on to the Arsenale to visit Ralph Rugoff's curated exhibition and several other national pavilions. A specific decision of this year's curator was to include the same artists in both curated sections of the Giardini and Arsenale, which offered a deeper understanding of the selected artist's work. Despite the long queues and big crowds, the Arsenale didn’t feel crammed which was testament to Rugoff’s strong curatorial eye. 

One of our highlights was seeing the Ghana pavilion marking the first time the country has participated in a Venice Biennale. The pavilion itself was designed by architect Sir David Adjaye, and featured a number of artists such as John Akomfrah, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, El Anatsui and Ghana’s first professional female photographer, Felicia Abban. The pavilion was particularly poignant with the death of its curator Okwui Enwezor earlier this year. 

Another standout was the Ukrainian pavilion; the project consisted of flying a cargo aircraft over Venice which contained a digital directory of all living Ukrainian artists who wanted to participate.

After the Arsenale shut for the day, we headed over to the opening of Venetian Blind, a multi-disciplinary project co-curated by David Cross and Cameron Bishop at Palazzo Bembo. Over the course of the Biennale, six groups of post-grad students and academics from Deakin University in Australia will travel to Venice where they will be handed a provocation relating to the city's history, and respond through site-specific actions in the public space. The groups can choose any form of presentation, the only requirement being that they document it in the gallery space at Palazzo Bembo.

May 11, 2019
Day #4 - National pavilions and Virginia King at Palazzo Bembo

We visited one of the more unusual locations chosen by Dane Mitchell to install the Post hoc tree stealth towers: the main hospital of Venice, Ospedale Civile di Venezia. Originally built as the seat of the Confraternity of San Marco in 1260, it is now a very liminal space between life and death, between church and hospital. It feels nothing like the conventional white wall, clinical spaces you might expect in a hospital and yet most people here are local patients or visiting families, definitely not tourists or Biennale attendees.

Unlike the three artificial trees installed in the gardens of the New Zealand Pavilion, this one and the three others installed throughout Venice, do no emit Mitchell's list of disappeared things through speakers but rather require viewers to connect to the Post hoc network with their handheld device in order to listen or download the audio component of 260 lists. This makes for quite a different experience compared to the 'speaking trees' but in the context of the Biennale where time and attention are scarce resources, it offers an alternative and convenient way of engaging with the work, in your own time, and encourages further curiosity and interaction with the static objects foreignly placed in these public spaces.

Before heading back to the Giardini to see more national pavilions, we stop by Scotland's pavilion, one of many collateral events in the city. There, Turner-Prize winner Charlotte Prodger presents SaF05, a powerful video work that contrasts personal and intimate narratives with a nearly military-style delivery, and prosaic visuals. Unfiltered and uncensored thoughts are recounted, layered with technical information organising the speaker/artist's emotional memories.

Highlights of the Giardini's national pavilions today included the French Pavilion (which, with its 2h of queue to get in, is a Golden Lion contender). Laure Prouvost's humorous, inclusive and performative film installation directly addresses us as the audience, inviting us on a ride from Paris to Venice to consider who we are and what it means to represent one's country at the Biennale, in a playful and exuberant way. Next door, at the British Pavilion, the mood is more subdued with Cathy Wilkes’s exhibition and her floor-bound sculptures. Although it also relates to the body, the pastel and grey tones of her work presented in sparse galleries offers a subtler approach.

Towards the end of the day, we head to the opening of Personal Structures where New Zealand sculptor Virginia King is exhibiting a few rooms down the corridor from the Venetian Blind project we visited yesterday. King tells us how the invitation to participate in this biennial collateral event came through and what an opportunity it was for her (despite it being a very expensive undertaking as each artist pays for their space in the gallery, freight, install etc) to attend and participate in the Biennale frenzy for the first time. Virginia's practice is concerned with endangered sea life and the vulnerability of our environment. Her sculptural works, made by laser-cutting sustainable plywood and stainless steel, reference natural forms, micro-organisms and foraminifera.

May 12, 2019
Day #5 - Biennale wrap up

Having visited the two major venues of the Biennale in previous days, today we made our way to the larger public exhibitions located throughout the city. 

We started off the morning by meeting long-time HUM supporters Mary and Jim Barr at the Luc Tuymans exhibition La Pelle, located at Palazzo Grassi. Curated by Caroline Bourgeois in collaboration with the artist, this is a large solo show, with paintings from the past 30 years, as well as a site specific work by Tuymans, located on the ground floor of the Palazzo.

Tuymans’s pastel, softened works oscillate between references of pop culture, such as the reality show Big Brother and the Disney studio, to depictions of atrocities from the Holocaust and Chernobyl disaster. This large exhibition offers an almost tense viewing to the audience, who are left unsure of how to approach the next work, pending either an unsettled or nostalgic experience.

Tuymans incorporates the entire Palazzo into his exhibition by including a large scale mosaic on the ground floor of the venue. The work references a German forced-labor camp, Schwarzheide, where prisoners would often write clandestine notes and tear them in strips, later to be reassembled so the full message could be passed.

Our highlight today was seeing Joan Jonas' show at Ocean Space, which was particularly resonant after the announcement was made that Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė at the Lithuanian Pavilion won the Golden Lion with their operatic performance and indoor beach installation, warning of climate change. Choosing a topic that is not only pertinent to the city of Venice itself, but to all countries around the world, including New Zealand, renowned artist Joan Jonas places climate change at the center of her collateral exhibition during this year’s Biennale. Moving Off the Land II is the result of three years of research in which Jonas has studied aquariums around the world, specifically off the coast of Jamaica, and is made up of a collection of video works projected into custom-built booths, expressive ink drawings of fish, stingrays and other sea creatures hanging throughout the space, mirrors leaning up against the walls, and handwritten copies of ocean-themed poems spaced around the site. 

The multi-disciplinary exhibition is right at home in Ocean Space, an impressively-sized historic building, previously the Church of San Lorenzo, which has undergone extensive renovations to become a modern center for ocean advocacy and, at the time of visiting, was complemented by a live discussion 'Oceans in Transformation - Overfishing by Territorial Agency'. 

In many of her video works either Jonas, her dog or students she has enlisted the help from playfully interact with various marine animals and the ocean itself: in Moving Off the Land II Jonas appears in front of a projection of a super-sized crayfish, appearing to mimic it’s movements and stroke it’s hard shell. 

We managed to catch a few more national pavilions around the city today (Taiwan, Montenegro, where we bumped into former Director of Christchurch Art Gallery Jenny Harper, Portugal, Bulgaria) but are saving the pavilion of Lithuania for tomorrow morning as there were queues to get in today. We also visited the site-specific installation Elsewhen by Philippe Parreno at Louis Vuitton Foundation and the Luogo e Segni exhibition at Punta della Dogana, but we didn't have much to report on those.

After a final-night spritz and cicchetti (nibbles), we headed over to the very far west point of Venice, where the last one of Dane Mitchell's tree stealth towers is located, at IUAV, the University of Venice. It's a lovely, quiet part of town, far from the tourist zones, and the tower is installed in the external garden of the main university building. Unfortunately we couldn't connect to the voice recording but we were pleased to find the final tree and in this way, complete our experience of Post hoc at the 58th Venice Biennale.

This is our last post, as we'll be heading to our various homes tomorrow, but stay tuned for our upcoming long-form essays and interviews over the duration of the Biennale!

Click here to read our coverage of the opening week of Viva Arte Viva, The 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 8 - 15 May 2017.