Four Young Artists on Workshopping Art for the Biennale
Barbara Casavecchia interviews the four finalists of Venice’s new College Arte programme
Barbara Casavecchia interviews the four finalists of Venice’s new College Arte programme
Since its inception in 1895, the Venice Biennale has sought to cast this historic city in a new light. With a new educational turn that will expand its research-related activities, it has now announced the creation of a new International Centre for Research on the Contemporary Arts at the Arsenale, where the biennial’s rich historic archives will finally be reunited under a single roof. The project is supported by a €170-million grant from the Italian Ministry of Culture. This year’s Biennale Arte responded by launching the Biennale College, an educational workshop for emerging artists under 30, already promoted by its Cinema, Dance, Music and Theatre sister branches. Selected via open call, the 12 initial participants spent ten days in Venice last autumn, discussing their work with curator Cecilia Alemani and artistic organizer Marta Papini, among others, as well as visiting local museums and galleries. The four finalists, chosen by Alemani, were offered further tutoring in January and awarded €25,000 each to realize their works, which will be included in the main section of the Venice Biennale.
Barbara Casavecchia: Was this your first time in Venice?
Simnikiwe Buhlungu: No, but the first in a long time. It’s a place where accessing things and places can be more convoluted, but ultimately, my experience of Venice wasn’t so dissimilar to that in other parts of Europe – even Amsterdam, where I live. It was like any experience of coming to a place that is very different, and where that difference is made evident to you.
BC: How was the Biennale College?
SB: For me, the prospect of the workshop was much more tangible and enticing – especially for the possibility of exchange it offered – than the idea of the Venice Biennale itself. Even so, I didn’t expect it to be so immersive: it encompassed architecture, old art, parcels of Venice and its cultural sphere; it wasn’t a fully contemporary conversation. Over time, the participants in the College also became important as a support system.
BC: What work will you show at the Venice Biennale?
SB: It’s going to be a sound installation titled Conver-something (2022). I know sound installations ask a lot from the audience, but it’s what I thought was necessary. Most of the materials I work with are specific to my context, so it was important to consider what would make sense in Venice. Being in a Western, and specifically European context – which dictates so much of the discourse around visual art, and silences so many narratives that do not come from the same corner of the world – requires a lot of negotiation when you come to it with your own epistemological references from ‘home’. But whose job is that negotiation? I don’t think that’s the kind of labour someone from the Global South should really be doing.
BC: The Biennale College reversed the usual trajectory for artists, whereby site visits follow an invitation to participate in the biennial. Did this change your perspective in terms of the work you produced?
Ambra Castagnetti: Being in close proximity to the spaces of the biennial made me feel as though I was touching its history, but what I really came away with was a sense of fragility. Venice is built on water and sustained by a submerged forest of wooden poles, so you can feel the ground rumbling below you. For days, I suffered a kind of vertigo, as if my body could sense all that water underneath. That fragility became part of my work.
BC: What does this year’s theme, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, mean to you?
AC: It melds together all my imaginaries. I draw much of my inspiration from nature, in which human and non-human organisms constantly transform throughout their lives. Metamorphosis is a way to survive reality while searching for identity: a transformation of both body and mind. I see technology as a prosthesis that increases our capacity for moving through the world. With clothes, transvestism or sex toys, for instance, you can change how you perceive your body in relation to others.
BC: What are you exhibiting?
AC: A sculptural installation. Some elements are going to be in bronze and ceramic; other parts will be softer and lighter; some will be wearable: they will be activated during a video performance. I am building a fictional ecosystem where horizontally codependent elements will merge reality and imagination. Human bodies, animal bodies and clothing come together in organic communion.
BC: Are you excited to be in the Venice Biennale?
Andro Eradze: Absolutely! Where I live, in Georgia, we lack institutional support, so to be included in such a huge exhibition feels special. I visited the Venice Biennale in 2011 – my first-ever trip abroad. I was young and I didn’t know much about the international contemporary art scene, so the experience revolutionized my practice as a filmmaker. I had started out portraying my family and friends but then I shifted to things and beings that are considered ‘alien’ and beyond social constructs. I’m still in the process of understanding a lot about the art world: the hype around a name, for instance, or the pressure of visibility.
BC: What was your experience of the Biennale College?
AE: Meeting with so many professionals was amazing, but the best part was interacting with other artists: we were all connected. At times, I felt anxious, but I found the water in Venice very calming. I always sat next to it: to read poems, think, paint. It helped me to cool down. Being next to water is magical, and magical realism is a key source of inspiration for me.
BC: Can you describe your project?
AE: I call my works ‘experimental films’ and I see them as meditations on otherness. They reflect on the colonial impulses that manifest themselves in relation to the environment and other living forms. The film I am presenting (working title Raised in the Dust) is rooted in two books: Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) and an epic poem by Georgian classical writer Vazha-Pshavela, The Snake-Eater (1901), whose protagonist has the supernatural ability to understand the language of nature, while facing social obligations. My film starts where the poem ends, offering an imaginative version of what might happen next. It takes place in a forest at night and focuses on the idea of a human carnival, its dark sides and its consequences.
BC: You are the only one of the four finalists to have spent significant periods of time in Venice. Not only did you exhibit in the Zimbabwe Pavilion of the last biennial in 2019, you also recently had a residency and a studio here. How has this impacted your work?
Kudzanai-Violet Hwami: I like to work at night and, because I was so focused on conceptualizing my project and preparing for other exhibitions, I didn’t go out much. I’m sure my legs will be more productive when I return for the opening! The city and my paintings live in separate universes, except, maybe, for their shared palette of deep red and oranges, which responds to the local light, whose colour has slowly seeped into my work.
BC: How was your experience at the Biennale College?
K-V H: Unexpectedly intense – and supportive. During the workshop, I received news that my father had passed away: in my heart, now, he is associated with Venice and its waters. That’s how the city trickled into my life, I guess. Working was my way to escape from it.
BC: What are you going to exhibit?
K-V H: My installation – which includes paintings, large vinyl prints and an audio piece – will be titled The Wedding of Astronauts, after a 1983 stone sculpture by the Zimbabwean master Henry Munyaradzi. The intention is to take you to another space. I am very aware of all the uprisings and polarized politics taking place around the world, but my body cannot take the trauma, so I find alternative routes through my work that bring me to people like Munyaradzi or to texts, words and messages that allow you to wander, to transcend space and time. The audio piece reproduces the sounds from a Bira, a Zimbabwean ceremony about celebrating and connecting to ancestors and other worlds.
The work of Simnikiwe Buhlungu, Ambra Castagnetti, Andro Eradze and Kudzanai-Violet Hwami is on view at the main exhibition, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, at the 59th Venice Biennale from 23 April to 27 November 2022.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘A Venetian Education’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.
Main image (L-R): Portrait of Andro Eradze. Courtesy: © the artist. Portrait of Simnikiwe Buhlungu. Courtesy and photograph: © Anh Trần. Portrait of Kudzanai-Violet Hwami. Courtesy and photograph: © Catherine Hyland. Portrait of Ambra Castagnetti. Courtesy: © the artist.