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Zarouhie Abdalian and Joseph Rosenzweig collaborate to create site-specific sound installations and performances. Their projects combine an interest in the history of experimental music with an examination of the interplay between architecture and socio-political events.
The sound installation threnody for the millions killed by silicosis (2017) examines a pivotal historical moment during which sensuous nature is appropriated and exploited in order to serve as a means to human ends. The sounds heard throughout the work depicts the act of knapping, but the source sound recording is altered so that the percussions process can refer to different hosts of the reverberant spaces: a cairn, a factory floor, a mine, a mausoleum, a church, a railway tunnel, a council chamber, a dungeon, a park, a nuclear reactor hall, a cathedral, a courtyard, a conference room. As the title suggests, the metaphor of the work references a double violence: “silicosis,” one of the oldest occupational diseases (notably affecting miners and lens makers), which continues to result in many deaths across the globe; and “the act of knapping,” a process of producing lithic tools through the controlled fracturing and weaponizing of naturally occurring forms. Restaging the work at this biennial, the artists imagine the Optical and Mechanical Plant as a site for mourning through this elegy to call for the emancipation of the dead. Here, death is articulated and foregrounded instead of being rendered as a mere ghost or specter that can be conjured away or overcome.
Founded in 2014 by Anna Titova and Stanislav Shuripa, the Agency of Singular Investigations (ASI) employs various discursive procedures to appropriate and reinterpret images and concepts. Through critical reflections, the ASI engages its projects to answer specific challenges brought on by historical experience and its effects on the present. Combining elements of critiques of representation and reconstructions of social spaces, the ASI sees its activity as a means to the production of a democratic and liberating environment.
Dream Life describes a fictional research project, which aims at rejuvenation by means of sleep management. Reportedly, the research was initiated by a group of Soviet biologists and engineers in the 1920s. They made three innovative discoveries: people can immerse themselves in a state of ultrafast sleep at moments when their eyelids blink; during ultrafast sleep, aging processes stop; and the content of dreams can be controlled—images can be selected, adjusted, and reproduced as desired by the subject or the manager of the process. After the Soviet Union collapsed, research and experiments—both official and underground—continued on the basis of a large industrial corporation and an international distribution network.
Titova and Shuripa have reproduced the Dream Life procedure unit based on the documentation they allegedly found. In this space, visitors can go through preliminary stages of logging into the Dream Life network, and learning more about the corporation’s values and philosophy and the main events in its history, which is closely linked with the history of Soviet science and society. In this immersive setting, visitors are invited to recharge by sitting on basalt retransmitter stones loaded with social energy, connecting with values of shared harmony and personal happiness advocated by Dream Life through simple blinking exercises, as well as connecting with a growing community of Dream Life adepts.
Zhilyaev’s Laborer of the Sun plays with the contemporary longing for new faith and new hope. Imagining humanity’s distant future, the artist iconizes solar panels as an expression of the Great Energy. The temporal discrepancy and the bold statement of the installation bewilders us: as the viewer wanders within the timeless cult of the sun, it is unclear when the present ends and the future begins. Referencing the tradition of sublime, the icons of the Laborer of the Sun elevate themselves, ironically, to a true sublime of meaninglessness and hollowness, instead of holiness and significance.
Fragment from original accompanying text:
A series of icons on crystal foundation from one of the Earth temples of the Laborer of the Sun denomination is presented publicly for the first time. According to the character of radio waves preserved in the distant outer space reflecting their liturgies (one of the liturgies’ fragment is reconstructed and presented at the exhibition), we are dealing with a temple devoted to a plant producing hi-tech optical equipment. These icons seem to belong to the era of disguised worship with its characteristic fears and visual simplicity. As in most cases, the main protagonist of the altar narrative is labor. However, this is unqualified labor, not bringing joy and doomed to eternal absorption of the darkly visible in anticipation of the new Star. It is commonly believed that the austere images of the Laborer of the Sun express the universal yearning for the Great Energy, which had been nurturing the artists’ faith for many centuries. The artists of the Laborer of the Sun employ iconography of early modernist painting dated 47th century before rtlk-1 and push its radically constructivist tendency to the limits acceptable in visual art. This is undoubtedly characteristic of the decline era, which makes the icons of the Laborer of the Sun a perfect reflection of those dark times.
In his artistic practice and theoretical work, Arseny Zhilyaev explores the limits of both fictional and real spaces. His most recent research focuses on the museum as a medium, space, and practice. He examines the legacy of Soviet museology from the point of view of philosophical cosmism: the exhibition is a cosmos existing within its own temporal and spatial dimensions. Employing popular strategies of contemporary art practice, such as self-irony, re-appropriation of modernism, immersion, and playful futurism, Anton Vidokle De Cosmos Recreation Center is an interactive installation that features a “museum spa.” The artist draws a parallel between the relationships of the spectator and the museum and the one of the customer and the service provider. By offering quasi-therapy treatments, the spa promotes self-improvement—as seen by the wellness industry—through the cosmos of the exhibition. Revealing its simultaneously seductive and alienating, sincere and artificial features, this installation mirrors a utopian impulse of Russian cosmism with its urge to achieve immortality, and is a critique of contemporary art institutions’ incompetency in resolving social and political problems.
Text in the artwork:
Dear Visitor to Planet Earth,
We are pleased to welcome you to the Anton Vidokle De Cosmos Recreation Centre.
Here you can enjoy the best concentrated color-wave baths in our rejuvenation sector. A collective of the first generation, resurrected Malevich clones developed their frequencies. Excellence of our art is reflected in the eternal and divine love of our clients: a love that originates in a remote past—early 21st century—when Anton Vidokle first presented his therapeutic Red Light exhibition, aboard a NASA intergalactic station.
Recommended duration of the first session is 12 minutes 53 seconds, ET (Earth Time). To achieve maximum effect, please settle comfortably in a cheiz lounge, close your eyes and concentrate on the Deafening Emptiness No47, and relate to the upward pressure on our ancestors’ laws of nature. After the Deafening Emptiness No47 penetrates your tissue, we advise you to open your eyes and spend the rest of your session contemplating the movement of the light of Sun-EH3.
The time interval between sessions must not exceed 43 hours 56 minutes 13 seconds, ET (Earth Time). The duration spent in the concentrated wave baths may be increased in geometric progression, starting with your second visit.
We wish you a pleasant immersion!
Anton Vidokle De Cosmos Recreation Centre Staff
Artist Yan Xing dissolves the barriers between disciplines such as history, literature, and social theory to broaden the scope of his investigations into various subjects, including negativity, resistance, and order. Far from being didactic, his works are often presented as open-ended, realistic yet poetic narratives.
Yan’s new work Old Friend (2019) is distributed throughout many parts of the exhibition space. It consists of a series of printouts of digital documents that tell an incomplete story, awaiting completion by the viewers. The reason why this story has become fragmented may be due to the original author’s own elisions. It tells about the journey of a worker who, at the age of fifty, spends half a month traveling to the Volga region. His goal in undertaking this trip is to visit the relatives of a deceased friend and to request that, once he dies himself, his body be buried next to his friend’s. This is a trip about friendship, ruptured relationships, catastrophe, trust, betrayal, ethics, remedy, and atonement. The narrative frames the experience of time as inherently non-linear, for the present cannot exist independently of the past that continually haunts and disrupts it. The fragmentary nature of the narrative, which allows it to be re-constructed in different orders, further reinforces this notion of time. The past, much like the protagonist’s old friend, never dies. And perhaps, instead of performing an exorcism in the name of progress, we might finally make peace with our ghosts.
Ustina Yakovleva’s artistic practice is largely based on tactile experience: working with memory through remembering and forgetting. She creates new images and forms that grow out of primal structures and gradually multiply. These jellyfish-like forms merge otherwise incompatible features from nature and beg for new interpretations. Her work presents a perpetual process of reproduction and decay of living organisms that are paradoxically interwoven with dead matter.
Preserving the memory of handcrafts, these subtle objects remind us of the value of time and of labors of love. Yakovleva’s creative practice spans into two temporal dimensions—a long laborious meditative process of embroidery and a revisiting of the ancient practice of creating ritual objects—that overlap with each other to generate new senses of perception. According to Ancient Greek mythology, Ariadna’s thread is a way out of Minotaur’s labyrinth, escaping death. Yakovleva’s art creates another labyrinth in order to escape a new threat—the rigidity of comfortable eternal life. The immortal jellyfish is a source of inspiration for Yakovleva: this creature can reverse its biological cycle and, by constantly changing its forms, is able to bypass death.
Emerging from the Hong Kong underground art scene, artist Wong Ping creates animations and installations that are stylish, ridiculous, taboo, and, surprisingly, highly contemplative.
Wong’s single-channel video Wong Ping’s Fables 2 (2019) narrates two contemporary fables that are morbidly absurd yet witty. Cow the Super Rich’s protagonist is former political dissident, Cow, who, after serving jail time for assaulting a police officer, made a fortune selling tattered jeans. Before meeting his unexpected end, Cow, who desired to feel fulfilled by improving the world, bought all the lottery bets to share the prizes with random citizens—an act that went unappreciated, as the public antagonized rich capitalists like him. Judge Rabbit features conjoined rabbit triplets No.1, No.2, and No.3, who, in pursuit of their dreams, schemed against each other. This story ends with the failed prison escape and consequent death of No.2.
The supposed “moral lessons” that follow the fables—“happiness is only real when shared” and “striving for your own happiness by any means is better than suffering together with your family”—seem incongruous, both forced and forceful, and hinting at the didactic nature of the fables. They highlight the conflicting moral codes that underlie a society of battling ideologies between the socialist ideal and the capitalist reality. Embodying a more wicked form of cultural immortality, the fables, which employ an ancient form of storytelling, adapt to the contemporary world to maintain their function as a subtle means of suppression and control, thus echoing a motif that appears in both fables: the Jail.
Peter Watkins is a film and television director. A pioneer of docudrama, Watkins’s films use a combination of dramatic and documentary elements to dissect historical occurrences or possible near future events.
The War Game (1965), uses the style of a mock BBC news program to report (in documentary style) on the devastating occurrence and consequences of a nuclear attack in Kent, England. The extraordinarily violent and horrifying shots of smashed buildings, flying debris, bleeding children, and burned flesh make visible a false history in the place of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, real events of which no film was recorded at the time. (There is indeed abundant historical footage of the mushroom cloud, the aftermath of the bombing, and the architectural ruins.
However there are no recordings of the atomic event as it is brutally rendered in Watkins’s film.) The fabricated images thus play an alarming role: by creating tragic images, they appeal for preventative action. More importantly, by appropriating the fiction of technological progress, the film reveals the great scheme of modernity’s universal claim by means of fabrication, falsification, and decontextualization to fill the void of history. The War Game won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966, even though the BBC decided not to show it at the time, as “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” The film was finally televised on July 31, 1985.
Anton Vidokle, artist and editor of e-flux journal, engages history and speculative social theories through art. His recent project Immortality for All consists of three short essay films on the mostly-forgotten philosophical and cultural movement of Cosmism, which was informed by Marxist thoughts and Russian Orthodox traditions and proposed a radical vision of the future. Nikolai Fedorov, founder of the movement, regarded the resurrection of all ancestors and the achievement of immortality as the “common task” of humankind. The first film in the series, This Is Cosmos, introduces the movement’s foundational ideas, most prominently the idea that death is a mistake that should be fixed via technological means. The second, The Communist Revolution Was Caused by the Sun, centers on biophysicist and cosmist Alexander Chizhevsky’s study of the effects of the cosmos (solar emissions) on socio-political behaviors. Finally, the third, Immortality and Resurrection for All!, examines the cosmists’ conception of a new museology, which regards the museum not only as a place to honor the dead, but also as a place for preserving lives ready for future resurrection. Interwoven into the films are surrealistic performances shot in rural Kazakhstan, a zoological museum, and other locations haunted by cosmist influences. The trilogy paints a picture of cosmism that is equally illuminating, speculative, and poetically absurd.
Russian Cosmism is a converging point of many threads being explored in this biennial. It demonstrates a synthesis of cosmology and technology. It expresses reverence toward the past and a desire to unify it with the future, which resists the linear social time constructed by global capitalism. It promotes a corporeal, arguably transhumanist immortality, yet also conveys a candid love for humanity. It manages to wonderfully complicate the conversation on immortality.
Stan VanDerBeek, an influential pioneer of experimental filmmaking and expanded cinema, sought, in his own words, “the marriage between art and life… art and technology… art and its future” (1967). Through experimentations with computer-generated images, projection systems, and immersive cinema, VanDerBeek materialized his futuristic visions.
VanDerBeek’s Moirage (1967) is a study of the optical phenomenon “moiré effect,” a term coined by scientist Gerald Oster. The artwork shows a series of animated “moiré patterns” that generate the said phenomenon, while music by Paul Motion enhances the work’s psychedelic and oddly meditative qualities. The “moiré effect”—shifting patterns that could suggest volumes, produced when two simple, flat patterns in motion are superimposed—parallels the artist’s own efforts to “superimpose” art, technology, and humanity in anticipation of a higher dimension: the digital future. The artist’s motivating belief that the artist must “make use of the force of art… find ways to unite technology and the human condition,” as he wrote in his 1966 essay “Re: Vision,” reflects ideological trends that informed the ’60s countercultural movements–trends often founded on a newfound faith in collective power to transform the present and shape the future.
The artist’s positive employment of technology and optimistic prospects contrast with the disillusionment towards technology that is prevalent today, inviting nuanced questions such as: How has our relationship with technologies changed? What prompts shifts in our attitudes towards the future(s)? And what does it mean to examine the optimism of the psychedelic era?
Italian artist Franco Vaccari creates conceptual works that engage philosophically and culturally informed themes such as trace, private and public spaces, and mythicization with humor. His highly influential Exhibition in Real Time series (1969–1977) playfully experiments with the photographic medium, strategies to forfeit control and allow indeterminacies in art-making, and the idea of the exhibition as an art form. This series also earned him the title of inventor of the concept of the exhibition in real time.
Franco Vaccari’s Leave on the Walls a Photographic Trace of Your Fleeting Visit (1972/2010/2019), the fourth work of the Exhibition in Real Time series, is a site-specific, participatory installation originally conceived for the 36th Venice Biennale in 1972, re-installed at the Gwangju Biennale in 2010, and here at the 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art. The installation consists of a photomatic kiosk, wall space, and instructions for visitors to engage the work by taking photos of themselves inside the photobooth and attaching the printed photo strips to the walls. The work is only completed by the participation of the visitors who will gradually fill the initially empty wall space with photos that acted as physical traces of “being-here.” The work immortalizes temporary moments as permanent memory. While resisting time, it also reveals our subjugation to its passage. As Susan Sontag reminds us, “to live is to be photographed,” but the practice of photography is also a means to “participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”
Anastasia Tsayder uses documentary photography as a means for exploring cultural and social spheres in Russia today and how they connect to the recent past. In the two projects, she addresses the history of two landmark institutions and reveals the contradictions deeply ingrained in their structures. Arsenal (2019) is a visual inventory of photo cameras produced at the Krasnogorsk Mechanical Plant. Initially engaged in military production, the enterprise began as a producer of civilian goods; over time it became the largest manufacturer of photographic equipment in the USSR, going along with sighting and surveillance systems at the same time. Military and civilian products often share the same components, which highlights the connection between surveillance systems and photo equipment. Tsayder used a special printing technique—she hand developed these photos in the darkroom without using fixing spray—and so the photographic images are gradually going to fade because of their exposure to light. The fading process of these images poetically reminds us of the tools making images disappear from our cultural memory along with a glorious past. Tsayder’s emphasis on photography’s materiality and intimate processes begs the questions: What is the future of the image? How do we make images and how do we consume them? How can they continue to help us remember?
With a touch of almost surrealist bright colors, the series Moscow Summer Olympic Games (2012-2014) documents the changes happening to the 1980 Moscow Olympics’ infrastructure from a long-term perspective. The 1980 Olympics were considered the last glorious all-nation event that took place in the USSR. It was the last chance to prove the superiority of Socialist regime and ideas of Communism over Capitalism. Today many 1980 Olympic buildings do not blend into city structures. Initially conceived as messengers from the future, these building now look like aliens from the past.
From the extinction of species to long-lasting environmental disasters such as the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl, Diana Thater creates immersive video installations that poetically grapple with threats to the natural world. By often submerging the viewers in a colorfully lit, sensory space, her work provides a window into animal subjectivity through the use of atypical camera angles and dramatic shifts in scale. Thater’s ambient works are abstractions of time which diverge from the linear narratives humans use to make sense of themselves and the cosmos.
On show here is Thater’s early work Untitled (Butterfly Videowall #2) (2008), as part of the “Butterfly” chapter of the exhibition. We ask the viewer to reflect on the butterfly as a metaphor that speaks to the dialectical relationship between life and death. Our desire to possess and preserve butterflies’ magic and wonder is fulfilled by acts of killing, archiving and exhibiting them. With this museological approach, death seems to be immortalized. At the same time, humans continue to destroy the ecosystem and generate threatening conditions for these creatures. Thater filmed the monarch butterflies at El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, where millions of monarchs hibernate after their long migration from Canada. Due to the lack of foliage in which the butterflies normally take refuge, their only option was to gather together on the forest floor—an extremely vulnerable position. Taking the shape of a flower, this installation focuses on one butterfly slowly flapping its wings. By tinting the room orange to match the vibrant hue of the butterfly’s wings, and placing the monitor facing upwards, the artist places the viewer both within and outside of the work for a meditative experience through which to consider the lives of other creatures who share this planet.
Throughout her paintings, sculptures, and videos, Maria Taniguchi unpacks knowledge and experience—connecting material culture, technology, and natural evolution—and investigates space and time, along with social and historical contexts, ones that particularly pertain to her native Philippines. Her work reinterprets everyday objects while producing vivid sensorial and cognitive experiences.
Untitled (Celestial Motors) (2012) is a visual meditation on a ubiquitous form of public transportation in modern urban Philippine life: the jeepney. These vehicles are adaptations of U.S. military jeeps, which were abandoned after years of American colonization and fighting the Japanese occupation during WWII. Received by the Filipinos, the vehicles were then modified and personalized, for example, lengthened to hold more passengers, roofs added to provide shade from the hot tropical sun.
Ironically, the jeepney has now become a cultural icon and national representation of the Philippines. However, by focusing on an atypical jeepney (coming out of a local moto shop called Celestial Motors), devoid of the typical garish trappings on its aluminum body, the video redirects the viewer’s attention to its details. Static shots punctuated by the camera’s slow pan across the jeepney’s gleaming body: a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament, a cushioned metal studded ceiling, soft cushioned seats, fancy flashing pin lights. The work does not intend to celebrate the locals’ ingenious adaptation to the vestiges of war and colonialism; instead, by casting a sharp contrast to the often exuberantly painted jeepneys with kitsch decorations, the emotionless video silently reminds us of the indifferent passage of time and the oblivion of history that continue to provide excuses to the manipulation of power.
Chthonic (subterranean) forces possess a number of resources important to humans, and are inextricably linked to the solution of the issue of death/immortality. The project is devoted to the study of human chthonopolitics which turns out to be the Gaia-politics, namely building relations with the inner forces of the Earth. This essay-exhibition is built in accordance with the narrative, which has three semantic centers:
1. Different mythological and religious ideas about the world beneath the Earth’s surface;
2. The positivist discourse of the modern era about the conquest of nature, penetration under the earth’s surface, and the extraction of resources;
3. Hybrid Contemporaneity in which new technologies are combined with animism.
The narrative of the exhibition is not historical. Rather, it is concentrated on the complex nature of Contemporaneity. It aims to demonstrate the complicated character of ideas connected with the Subterranean world today, and to show the origin of these ideas.
Ideas of the Subterranean world today are often heirs of earlier sacral meanings of the Chthonic in new hybrid forms. For example, new techno-secular projects that are trying to find resources for immortality under the surface of the Earth on closer examination turn out to be closely related to sacred archaic beliefs in the power of the Lower World.
Timur Si-Qin’s interests in contemporary philosophy, the evolution of culture, and the dynamics of cognition, take form in branded ecosystems and installations of 3D printed sculptures, light-boxes, and VR. SiQin’s works seek to think beyond the anthropocentric dualisms at the center of Western consciousness. Heaven Is Sick (Ch’uru 1 Shrine) is dedicated to the fragility and resilience of the natural world. It is a shrine in Timur Si-Qin’s long-term project of secular religion for the 21st century called New Peace. Identifying the dual legacy of agricultural society and religion as maladaptive for our contemporary world, New Peace argues for a re-enchantment, where matter becomes the necessary basis for confronting the material problems of our times. Si-Qin’s new series of sculptural works is made from 3D scans of objects and organisms encountered by the artist. In this work, the 3D printed sculpture is made from the scan of a broken river snail shell found by the artist in the Peruvian Amazon. The sculpture is dressed and decorated with the branded aesthetics of New Peace. New Peace is Si-Qin’s attempt to provide humanity with a potential path and personal resources to redefine spirituality in the age of the anthropocene.
Well-known in Russian theatrical circles, Alexander Shishkin works under the pseudonym of Hokusai for his independent projects. In The New Versailles, his affinity to theater is apparent, in his use of absurdity, surrealism, and in the dissonance between the inside and the outside. Based on a mixture of references to popular culture and everyday anecdotes, his installations and paintings display an idiosyncratic sense of magic realism.
The New Versailles explores the relationship between the living and the dead based on the videogame S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, a first-person shooter survival computer game. In the game, the player assumes the identity of an amnesiac man trying to find and kill the mysterious Strelok within the Zone, the forbidden territory surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The game is set after a fictitious second Chernobyl disaster, which has further contaminated the surrounding area with radiation, and has caused strange otherworldly changes in local fauna, flora, and the laws of physics. In Hokusai’s fantastical installation, he places human figures—cut from plywood and painted by hand—inside this digitally created post-apocalyptic landscape. Testing our physical and psychological limits, the artist is interested in asking if we are ready for a world completely transformed by the technology we ourselves create.
Shimabuku’s works are usually in the form of videos, installations, and photographic narratives about the places he visits and people he meets—they are full of the little marvels of everyday life. He brings a gentle humor and a quirky poetics into complex issues and difficult questions. While inviting a suspension of overly critical scrutiny, he seeks a pure kind of artistic wonder—without irony.
As the title articulates, the video installation is the documentation of an interactive but seemingly absurd activity the artist staged in Sapporo, Japan. He invited participants to temporarily swap their mobile phone with a stone tool and then carry the stone tool around to visit places where people used to live in Sapporo in ancient days. The project conveys an almost too simple but often neglected idea: how can we slow down our accelerated-by-technology modern life, pause, and enjoy nature and traditions? More importantly, this action questions the vision of a high-tech future as something deterministically more progressive. Plus the artist wittily reminds us that the pleasure of touching and carrying the stones tools around—once the most advanced technology humans had invented—to “the place where salmon once swam and to hear the sound of the river” might actually brings us more peace and joy. How can we judge what is better for us?
Lieko Shiga’s photographs are characterized by their visceral color saturation, heavy use of flash, and uncanny, dreamlike tone. Experimenting with the medium of photography and deliberately challenging the conventions of documentary photography, Shiga blurs the boundaries between reality and representation, and draws on local myths and personal accounts. Her work points to fundamental questions about life, death, fear, and the means to express.
In 2008, Shiga started to spend time in the small coastal town of Kitagama in Miyagi prefecture on the Pacific Ocean. She soon became the “official photographer” of the village with only 372 residents and 107 houses, documenting daily activities, such as festivals and ceremonies, and collecting oral histories from the people in town. In her own words, “the bodies of those residents who became subjects of the works, represent the stories which are so delicate and invisible to be written as a history. Through the ritual of [being photographed], their bodies unify the land. [At the same time], as I tried to photograph, [by] subsuming and reflecting the ritual of [photographing], my body [also] experiences and traces […] the land of the Kitagama.” When Kitagama was devastated by the 2011 tsunami—the same tsunami that caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster—Shiga gathered, cleaned, and sorted the photographs that then resulted in her immersive installation Rasen Kaigan (2008-2012). The direct translation of “Rasen Kaigan” is “Spiral Coast,” but the artist also playfully makes a pun to refer to the “Past, Present, Future.” The psychedelic and uneasy experience of walking through this “forest of images” provides a glimpse into the community’s experiences in the aftermath of the tsunami, while reinforcing humanity’s vulnerability in the face of nature and the technology we invited to conquer it, both in the case of the village and the nuclear disaster.
Animation director Masha Sedyaeva poses the fundamental and existential question, “What am I doing here?” in the title of her series. The animated documentary series started in 2017 and is based on scripts taken from real life, in which protagonists are asked the title question. In episode 10, produced specially for the biennial and titled Immortal Jellyfish, a priest, a scientist, and a witch talk about God, life, and death. One of the subjects here is an immortal jellyfish—beautiful, but seemingly futile as a dead end in evolutionary development. The audiovisual projection is complemented with an installation inspired by the narrative of the film, with audio commentary from the film’s protagonists.
Kirill Savchenkov’s artistic universe is complex and contradictory. It transforms the usual modes of interaction between people and objects, questions the very basis of human life reshaped by technologies and social media, and explores the relationship between body and politics. Using various media, and referencing both past and present with futuristic promises, the artist creates installations and performances that pinpoint the ruptures of an ever-changing reality.
The installation Ch(K)ris(tin).Close Air Support is a multimedia project that contemplates the notion of conflict through an encounter between three characters across time and space, Kristin Beck and sculptors Vadim Sidur and Henry Moore, whose work provided a starting point for this reflection. The notion of conflict here is multi-layered: war, as the most violent form of conflict experienced by the three characters, gender dysphoria as an internal struggle Kristin Beck lived through during her military engagement, and the conflict between increasingly powerful technologies and the slowly disappearing intimate lives of people against the mess of a globalized media space. These conflicts blur the line between the finite destiny of human as a species and the infinite amount of traces and imprints we have left on our multifaceted world.
Artist Aki Sasamoto’s installations are often comprised of everyday found objects that pertain to food, health, hygiene, and orderliness. These installations are frequently activated through the artist’s performances, delivering poetic narratives that also respond critically to social conditions.
Presented here are three elements from Sasamoto’s Yield Point (2017), which employs the tensile stress test, a test designed to determine the elasticity of materials by stretching or bending them with specialized devices as an allegory for life. “Most incidents in life can be explained within this elastic limit,” the artist has said. Two videos titled Flex Test — Steel, Tensile Test — Steel/Brass and Trash Bag Tensile Test show metallic pieces and trash bags put under pressure until they reach their yield points—the level of stress beyond which a material begins to deform materially.
There is also a frame stretching a trash bag, implying a subtle yet constant violence. Originally intended to explore the “yield points” of different individuals and how their “elastic constants” may shape them, the work takes on new meanings in the context of this biennial: not only are individuals experiencing the stress that life exerts on them, but shared ecosystems and collective cultures, among other things, are also enduring immense pressures in the age of the Anthropocene. The tensile stress test, then, embodies the violence of a calculating kind of technics sanctioned by global capitalism, which seeks to maximize measurable results by exploiting often incomputable things—be it nature, culture, or human experience—relentlessly suspending them in these precarious zones just at the limit of their invisible yield points.
Maria Safronova prefers to work in series, in which she reconstructs and subtly opens a multifaceted and enigmatic world. In her painterly world, common objects and characters acquire unusual traits and always express a sense of angst and uneasiness. The Classrooms series depicts an “archetypical” school that all Russian viewers can viscerally recognize from their childhood. Such intense familiarity extends beyond the visuals: the odor of old textbooks lingers in the air and the bustling sound is still in the distance in the empty halls. The artist meticulously portrays the slow, steady decay of different spaces, such as a biology classroom and a swimming pool which have become part of the apocalyptic landscape.
With Chernobyl in mind, Safronova was curious as to what has happened to the architecture, objects, and nonhuman lives left behind. These images suspend time to erases the past and reject the possibility of the future. But at the same time, there is an eerie and unexpected sense of warmth, as if these “things” have acquired their own life and agency. Painting as a long-lived art form captures this process and steals time from the artist herself, in exchange for representation of eternity.
Maria Safronova works in figurative painting—classical, but not the most popular genre in the practice of contemporary art. She often depicts a seemingly familiar reality, from which hidden qualities slowly emerge only upon close examination: to what extent is this reality controlled, how artificial is it, and how similar is it to anti-utopias? The painting Panic depicts the moment of a glitch in an information system that regulates the lives of office clerks. Safronova’s technique translates the realistic image into a point of abstractness: the detached look of her protagonists reveals the vulnerability and unreliability of order and underlying systems.
But at the same time, we can’t help but wonder, has this glitch acquired its own life? Visually represented as an organic-looking virus, it seems to be emitting a certain kind of wicked energy to hypnotize and mind-control the clerks. They are not indifferent but completely mesmerized. The virus not only points to a computer failure but also any large ideological or belief systems in our societies. Safronova grasps the feeling of an apocalypse similar to that of ancient tragedies; however, when transplanted it into an office environment, it loses its grandeur and, on the contrary, demonstrates the finiteness and even triviality of the flimsy structures that determine our lives.
Roee Rosen is a painter, novelist and filmmaker. Through fictionalization and the use of humor, his work challenges and deconstructs the common registers of identities and identifications in the representation of history, desire and structural violence.
The film The Dust Channel (2016) presents the artistic life of a fictional Russian- Jewish émigré Efim Poplavsky (1978–2011), aka Maxim Komar-Myshkin. Rosen has invented a biography and an oeuvre for him that is marked by the paranoia of a Jewish artist embroiled in Russian history and politics. Set in the domestic environment of a modern bourgeois Israeli family, The Dust Channel features an operetta with a libretto in Russian dedicated to a high-tech home cleaning appliance, the Dyson DC07 Vacuum Cleaner. The family is apparently in mortal fear of dirt, dust or any alien presence in their home. In order to curb such fear, their devotion to the vacuum cleaner becomes almost cult-like. Their seemingly absurd behavior points to the equally ridiculous—if not more violent—policies on refugees and the various forms of xenophobia bred by it. The artist draws a figurative connection between dust and sand, as sand refers to Holot (the Hebrew word for sand), the name of the detention center in the Israeli desert. Holot is where political refugees are held long-term and is unrecognized by the state. As for the vacuum cleaner, the metaphor is equally strong: when technology is developed and used to construct prisons, detention centers and other forms of control and surveillance infrastructure, who does it really serve?
Ana Roldán’s work is inspired by cultural phenomena, historical events, philosophical ideas, language systems, reflections on aesthetics and theoretical concepts in general. Roldán is interested in challenging the viewer both emotionally and intellectually, through displacing and disorienting common systems.
In the series Displacements (2011/2019), Roldán appropriates images taken from a catalogue of the 1970s exhibition called The Death in Mexico. Featuring pre-Columbian objects and other artifacts, the exhibition aimed to explore various representations of death in cultural traditions. The artist cuts up these referenced black-and-white photographs and breaks them apart into fragments, slicing, dismembering, and rearranging the artifacts they depict. Roldán pays homage to these enigmatic and impenetrable sculptures with which Mesoamerican cultures—the Aztecs, or Mexicah as they called themselves,—worshipped the ruling couple of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl, or the earth deity Tlaltecuhtli—a devourer of cadavers.
But these “collages of death” gain new faces, the skulls are opened out, pierced with holes, are multiplied, or broken down into geometric shapes and recombined in new arrangements. In this manner, the visage, intrinsically grotesque as it is, becomes almost unrecognizable, transforming into a volcanic landscape, a puzzle or a picture with hidden images. Roldán’s resulting images reveal lines of fissure, gaps of black, and dislocations in form. These imperfections in the surface of her reconstituted artifacts speak to the equally imperfect processes of memory and the fragmented inheritance of knowledge and meaning.
In their collaborative work under the collective name The Recycle Group, Andrey Blokhin and Georgy Kuznetsov use recycled images and materials to bridge seemingly incompatible subjects such as the classical and the contemporary, Western art traditions, and Russian domestic realities. Recently they started exploring the gap between human and machine points of view.
The installation Artificial Mud (2019) is an artificial floor surface created with synthetic materials made from scans of real mud covered with human footprints. When the visitor walks through the hall, turbines blowing air from a hidden mechanism move this surface. Artificial Mud intends to create an experience that triggers the visitors to switch their perspective to that of a machine’s, and to feel how the world is inside the “brain” of a machine. The artists try to create a sense of emptiness and immateriality of the space under visitors’ feet. In their own words, “there are two points of view in the world: a human’s and a machine’s, but the latter is a perspective that we do not see and doesn’t exist for us. The experience gives the viewer a chance to feel like a machine; not just to see it, but to feel it.”
In this artwork, the Recycle Group examines how technology changes society and the looming notion of singularity. Ray Kurzweil, who coined the term “technological singularity,” defines it as the time when humans and machines will merge together with AI to reach superhuman levels of intelligence. The artists explore on-going debates by asking questions, such as: Can machines have their own feelings? Will they ultimately take control of our world? And what will happen to the relationship between humans and machines in the future?
Treading a fine line between being poetic and being provocative, artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s video works bridge history and contemporary politics, different cultures, as well as the realms of the living and the dead.
The single-channel video The Class (2005) delivers a literal lesson on death in an unlikely setting, a somber classroom. Six corpses lie dormant on silver morgue trays, while a living teacher, played by the artist herself, lectures them on death in a sedative and didactic tone.
Apart from offering a satire of pedagogical conventions through the absurd narrative of a living person teaching death to the dead, the work also relativizes death. In the lecture, the teacher covers a plethora of topics—definitions of death, neutral or even positive dimensions of death, different religions’ attitudes towards it, etc.—topics that underline the diverse ways of approaching and understanding death. Of course, to the lifeless students, death is no longer a mystery that invites interpretations, but a cold, definitive, and singular truth. The artwork thereby proposes that conceptualizing death is a privilege of the living, for whom death acts as a projection of personal and collective subjectivities. The teacher’s statement that “art can play with the meaning of death… approach it from different angles” points to one perspective of this biennial: through artworks that embrace diverse conceptions of death, viewers may gain a deeper understanding of different cosmologies.
Diana Fonseca Quiñones’s work involves the meticulous, almost obsessive, construction and transformation of simple gestures and ordinary things around her. By mixing fact and fiction, she is interested in disrupting the perceived reality and predictability of the future based on our experience. Quiñones creates metaphors that poetically comment on the ephemeral, yet eternal cycles of life.
In her video Los amantes (The lovers; 2007), the humblest of materials, a pair of burning matches, lean against each other in flame. Their anthropomorphized, fleeting disappearance into the darkness becomes a parable for the vulnerability of human life and the sharing, longing, love, restraint, and death that everyone must face. This poetic work serves as a prologue of the biennial’s main project, not only because it touches on humanity’s profoundness, but also for how it invites us to reflect on the very beginning of human stories. The discovery and control of fire is considered one of the earliest technologies, and the cultural images of fire have since evolved into a rich and multifaceted history. Although mythologies surrounding the origin of fire vary in different cultures, the Greek one has dominated. “Promethean” thought is what gave birth to the development of modern technology. How can we open up the interpretation of fire and thereby recognize and rediscover cosmogonic myths from all cultures?
Charlotte Posenenske’s early experimental approach to mark making, and her interest in the optical effects of color and interactive sculptures were informed by her experience working as a theater costume and set designer. In 1967, she produced Series DW (shortly after she conceptualized Series D, a variant with six shapes in galvanized sheet steel). The installation work was comprised of four shapes of lightweight corrugated cardboard, resembling standard ventilation ducts. The Series DW modules can be combined at will and adapted to different exhibition contexts. By establishing elementary systems of form that are activated by numerous participants, Posenenske offers a collective and collaborative model of artistic authorship that unfolds across sites of production and presentation. She uses permutation and contingency as playful conceptual devices to oppose compositional and cultural hierarchies. In this sense, the “immortality” of Posenenske’s work lies in its radically open-ended nature: the endless permutational possibilities and the continual reconfigurations that engage the public.
Posenenske’s desire to not make art for individuals but for the public, with cheap and mass produced industrial materials, as well as her hope of creating an emancipatory model of work as play, foretold her decision to quit the arts. She made the announcement in the politically and socially tumultuous month of May 1968. In order to understand the labor conditions in factories, she went on to pursue a degree in sociology with a focus on industrial labor and worked as an advisor in support of unions. At the end of her life, Posenenske approved the continued production of her art series, thus ensuring the works’ renewed life.
Gala Porras-Kim’s research-based and multidisciplinary practices explore subjects on (post-)colonialism and indigenous cultures, in particular, pre-Columbian cultures. Linguistics, museology and conservation, and the (re)interpretation of ancient artifacts are among the most prominent subjects of her works.
In this Biennial, Porras-Kim presents an ensemble of artworks that explore the nuanced relationship between technologies and local cosmologies. Archimedes Death Ray 2 (2019) is a brass sculpture that projects a bright beam of light when sunlight activates it, referencing Archimedes’s mirror, a mythical artifact said to incinerate Roman fleets with its channeled sunbeam. Mesoamerican Negative Space 9 (2019) recalls the obsidian mirrors of Mesoamerican cultures, which were believed to be, and used as, portals to other realms. The drawing Ring Mountain PCN’s (2018) depicts a rock found on Ring Mountain, Marin Country, that contains curvilinear nucleated (PCN) carvings, a mystifying type of native American petroglyphs. Last but not least, Untitled (Efflorescence) (2019), an effloresced concrete slab, alludes to a demolition strategy employed during the time of the colonization in Mexico: using salt to break down the concrete binders of historical buildings. Mythicized technics, technics that act as mediums between humans and the supernatural, technics that document cosmologies, technics that sabotage cosmologies… Through the display of complex interactions between “cosmos” and “technics,” the artworks deconstruct the distinctions between the two concepts, demonstrating how the past may live through artifacts, underline the danger of technics instrumentalized by colonialists, and ultimately aid us in the contemplation of “cosmotechnics.”
In his work, Ivan Petrokovich focuses on phenomenological parameters of the photographic medium and its conceptual possibilities. His work explores themes such as the inherent fallibility of communication methods, the fundamental instability of human existence, and their effects on individual and collective psyches.
Exhibits #1–9 speculates on the interaction between humans and new technologies in urban spaces, and imagines the city electric supply system as a rational computer. In Petrokovich’s view, bugs and glitches in these systems should not simply be perceived as evidence of technical malfunction; instead, they represent a complex pattern of an emergent “will” of the machine. Thus, the work demonstrates a possible scenario of the advent of technological singularity—the emergence of consciousness in the complex artificial systems that can happen under their own control and go completely unnoticed by humanity. Are they the ghosts in the machine?
Heir of 1970–80s’ “Moscow Conceptualism,” and originator of “psychedelic realism,” Pavel Pepperstein’s practice skirts the line of direct statements while rejecting reductive interpretations. His images accumulate sources from various cultural spheres to acquire unorthodox meanings.
While imagining a distant future, 7000 years ahead, the Russia City series is deeply rooted in Russian cultural heritage and considerations of the country’s turbulent history. Each painting depicts specific scenery that is fantastical and uncanny. The paintings are full of visual details reminiscent of the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde and Soviet dreams of the cosmos, as well as other culturally clichéd archetypical Russian images. Echoing Pepperstein’s literary work, the paintings propose that it is not the people nor the history that carry the essence of Russia, but nature and its mystical power. He comments: “At some point Russia City gets invaded by aliens and oyster shells and it becomes clear that humans will disappear, but Russians will stay”—implying that anyone living in this territory can be defined as Russian, independently of belonging to a particular nationality or even humankind.
Artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s groundbreaking and transformative work has profoundly re-shaped our understanding of art practice today and its relationship with social and political realities. Through her practice, Piper uncompromisingly— with humor and wit—addresses gender, race, xenophobia, and, more recently, social engagement and self-transcendence.
Thinking and dancing are synergistic in Piper’s world. Adrian Moves to Berlin (2007) documents her hour-long performance at Alexanderplatz in Berlin. In the video, she dances to selected Berlin house music with continuous improvised movements. According to Piper, the work is dedicated to the workers from former East Berlin, the past legacy of a common ideal, and the city of reunification, “in which two formerly segregated societies are finding intelligent ways to come together. In Berlin, dance spaces have been one of those ways since the Fall of the Wall in 1989.” This is a solitary dance to celebrate not only the artist’s personal journey, but many different beings. When a person is faced with the anomalousness of another being (be it ideological systems, political beliefs, animals, nonhuman, or other intelligence), the experience of dance—one of the most profound and ancient ways of communication—may be able to realign our empirical conceptions and the judgements that accompany them. The invitation here is not to impose one way of thinking or doing, but to foreground the connections between our intellectual and sensual natures.
Piper’s joy, energy and optimism are infectious. Can we dance, together?
Comprendre et s’exprimer (2019) is a modular work, that simulates a model of how to unearth or de-sediment the grip of one’s own intellectual foundations. The work draws from Nyampeta’s short piece of fiction about a writer attempting to draft a novella at a time when the use of existing words is restricted by copyright. As a result, the writer turns to the late philosopher Rwandan Abbé Alexis Kagame, whose writings are some of the earliest to emerge from south of the Sahara. In a dialogue between these two characters, the writer translates Kagame’s work and in doing so, forges new words that fall outside of the copyright restrictions. The work also draws from obsolete French school textbooks formerly used in Rwanda, mostly between 1986 and 1994. The books were composed as syllabi published in six volumes corresponding to each ascending level of the public secondary school system.
The extensive range of the source materials includes socially and culturally divisive content, alongside poems, songs and stories
by Panafrican figures such as Negritude poet Birago Diop. Allegorical and poetic, Comprendre et s’exprimer highlights the subjective nature of information and how easily it can be controlled and manipulated by the dominant power at a given time. The discussion here is about seeking alternative means, such as writing and art-making in order to multiply the means of survival and continuation of knowledge and civilization.
Through her installation work, Yuko Mohri creates micro-mechanical worlds from everyday items, electronic parts, and machine components in order to channel intangible energies such as magnetism, gravity, temperature and light. Her systems are often meticulously designed but instead of creating a highly controlled mechanism, Mohri allows contingency, slippages, and errors to take over, which encourages unexpected results. She is interested in the nonhuman and unpredictability, not as magic powers, but as agencies that remind us of the limitation of our perception and experience.
In this kinetic installation, Mohri stages a whimsical scene that gives visual form to the negotiation between the natural and the manmade. A scanner runs rhythmically, capturing the fluttering motions of an artificial butterfly powered by a solar panel with a light source from a bulb. The visual data is produced in a nearly infinite stream and the results are uncanny images continuously showing on the monitor. However, instead of considering them as multiple images of the same butterfly, Mohri intends to explore the concept of a single “pleated image.” In her view, this image, which proliferates each time when a scan is completed, folds movement and time within itself. Different from a moving image, in which time progresses in a linear fashion, this butterfly image is a multi-layered, continuous entity that drags time along and lags, making it acquire volume and depth instead of pointing forward. If we are able to experience time in a non-linear way, will death still haunts us? The image of this Common Rose butterfly (its Latin name noted in the title), with its rough, blurred quality, frequent glitches, and digital noise seems
to capture things that should have not been caught.
Coming from a mathematics background, artist Sara Modiano’s practices frequently revolved around the concept of “divine geometry”—the idea that shapes carry cultural and religious significances. Whereas her earlier paintings explore abstract geometricism, her later sculptural works are more conceptual and politically charged.
Modiano’s Cenotafio (Cenotaph) (1981), a site-specific installation that resembles a pre-Columbian mortuary construction, is rebuilt at this biennial with marble bricks. Presented alongside the monumental installation are seven photographs from the series Desaparece una Cultura (A Culture Disappears) (1981), which document sand sculptures of stepped pyramids installed at the beaches of Puerto Salgar, Colombia disintegrating as seawater washed over them. Created in response to the volatile political climate in Latin America of the time, the installation and photos provide a powerful analogy for the violence of (post-)colonialism—likened here to the relentless forces of nature—which submerges and suffocates indigenous cultures. While eroding forms resembling precolonial funerary architectures signal the dying of local cosmologies, the works also have a hopeful dimension. They suggest a possibility for reviving the past by reincarnating its forms into different bodies, here sand or marble bricks. In Modiano’s sign system, the spiral of right angles—a “divine” geometric pattern found in the architectural structures—also signifies the passage to the beyond, in this case, a passage both to the underworld of cosmologies and to the futures that will inevitably be haunted by them, or maybe, witness their rebirth.
As leading figures of the influential French New Wave movement, filmmakers Chris Marker and Alain Renais produced experimental documentaries and essay films throughout their lives that critically engage history, politics, and culture.
The film Statues Also Die (1953), an early collaboration by Marker and Renais, offers a critique on European museology and the colonialist mindset by examining westerners’ treatment of traditional African sculptures and masks. Significantly, it distinguishes corporeal death from cultural death, and physical endurance from cultural immortality. “When statues die, they become art”—the museums’ preservation of artifacts necessitates their removal from the webs of relationships that breathed life into them. Their expressions are vacant, their gazes lost: the figural sculptures became “dead” projection screens for the colonial tastes, beliefs and fantasies. This type of museological practice segregates the past from the present, rendering the past entirely passive—an idea that opposes the beliefs in many indigenous cultures of sub-Saharan Africa. The filmmakers attribute the differences in attitudes towards the past to cosmological differences evident in mortuary practices: While Europeans “put stones over our dead to prevent them from escaping,” among many African cultures, the dead were revered as “the roots of the living,” their remains maintained nearby and incorporated into cultural lives. By allowing the cultural pasts to exist around us as ghosts, even if that means acknowledging their “deaths” in some sense, the living could grant them a different kind of immortality.
Ksenia Markelova often works with textiles and techniques from sewing and embroidery. She endows her objects with a sense of life through a visceral resemblance of both body and flesh and, at the same time, the morbid feeling of death.
In the vulnerable objects she creates, the artist tries to visualize the interaction between unconscious and conscious structures that constitute a person (and which are constructed by a person). Markelova’s creative work derives from the interaction, including conflict, between fear and desire — she dissects these notions into fragments in order to reveal new configurations of
the whole. In this installation created especially for the Biennial, Markelova experiments with the concept of “eternal materials”—wax, for example, something that can endlessly melt and reform. She also introduces image-symbols of eternity, such as the alchemical serpent Ouroboros eating its own tail. In the endless chain of transformation, the beginning and the end become
Jill Magid’s work is deeply ingrained in her lived experience, and explores the emotional, philosophical and legal tensions between individual and “protective” institutions or authoritarian systems such as intelligence agencies, the police, and the military.
Magid’s series Illuminations (2019–ongoing) is inspired by the controversial “Jesus Rifles,” a set of gunsights produced by the American company Trijicon, used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the training of Iraqi and Afghan soldiers, whose model numbers include Bible codes. Each of the selected Bible verse contains the word “light.” For this installation, the gunsights lock onto specifically selected books in which a quote, also including the word “light” and and complicating the verse’s meaning, has been illuminated. For I am the Light of the World (2019), the work presented at the Biennial, Magid has mounted ACOG4X32JN8:12 to the spine of a Russian edition of Mikhail Bulgakov’s collected novels, ISBN 5-270-00800-9. The scope model number has been burnished, and a passage from The Master and Margarita has been gilded on it. Using the optical devices as a literal and metaphorical lens, the work echoes the very history of the biennial’s venue and probes the brutal hypocrisy and dangerous collapse of military and religious systems, by addressing the themes of visibility and illumination.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
ISBN 5-270-00800-9 p. 716
He paused and added: “But why don’t you take him with you into the light?” “He does not deserve the light, he deserves peace,” Levi said in a sorrowful voice.
The Barragán Archives is a multimedia project examining the legacy of Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902–1988). Along with most of his architecture, Barragán’s personal archive remains in Mexico. Since 1994, however, his professional archive has been held below the corporate headquarters of the furniture company Vitra in Switzerland. The archive was allegedly
purchased by the company’s chairman as an engagement present for his fiancée, Federica Zanco, in lieu of a ring. Zanco’s non-profit organization, the Barragan Foundation, controls the complete rights to Barragán’s name and work, and has ensured that the archive remains closed to the public. The project has resulted in a series of objects, installations, performances, and a feature film that explore what can happen to an artist’s legacy when a corporation owns and tightly controls the rights to his work.
Three artworks are presented here. The Exhumation documents the removal of Barragán’s cremated remains from the Rotunda of the Illustrious Persons of Jalisco in Guadalajara, Mexico. These were given to Magid, who then delivered them to a company in Switzerland where they were transformed into a diamond. The neon sign comments on the capitalist neutralization at stake in the trademark Barragan®: by removing the accent from “Barragán,” a character from the architect’s country of origin, the Barragan Foundation detaches it from its cultural identity.
The “carpet of flowers” at the biennial was installed by the same artisan who annually makes the Tapete de Flores in the Pantéon de Dolores—Mexico City’s largest cemetery. An “offering” installed on the Day of the Dead in Mexico to celebrate family members who have died, it represents the shared path between the living and the dead.
Tala Madani’s work creates figures and narratives that are oftentimes grotesque, violent and obscene but can at the same time be innocent and hilarious. Obliquely referencing the artist’s Iranian-American origins, her work crosses formal and political lines to expose the slipper nature of image creation. She uses an almost child-like visual language to create a sharp commentary on humanity’s complexity.
In her short animation Mr. Time (2018), Madani illustrates with a blunt sense of humor the connection between the phantasm of immortality and the infinitely expandable time constructed by capitalist exploitation. Mr. Time portrays “time” as an absent-minded human figure riding endlessly up and down escalators until a gang of bald-headed men appears and throws him down the escalators repeatedly. Mr. Time starts to be ripped into bloody pieces because of the injuries. Despite its gradual disintegration under the pressure of exterior violence—from his arms and legs breaking off to his ultimate beheading—his body still crawls persistently and does not cease moving forward. No matter how hard we try to stop time, it never stops or wants to stop. To experience the flow and passage of time means to expose the limitation of our consciousness.
This compilation of short animations features jarring subjects of the violent and absurdist vignettes, such as naked men prowling alleyways like feral cats, a giant jellyfish-like penis pounding a crowd to death, and a mob pushing a poor figure down escalators until his body falls to pieces. But Madani does not use provocative imagery to score easy points. With a painterly approach, she delivers brutal thrills, which cut deeply across complex subjects like power, desire, and our cultural appetite for gore, as well as our own obsessions with death.
Working across many different media, Cristina Lucas dives into the political and economic structures of our time to reveal disjunctures of official story, personal history, and collective memory. The focus of her work ranges from the position of women, Western hegemony, and humankind’s ambition to control nature.
Lucas’s immersive installation Clockwise (2016) is comprised of 360 mechanical clocks arranged in a 360° arc mirroring the curvature of the earth. Hanging in a horizontal line across the space, the hands of the clocks are set at precisely measured four-minute intervals, the four-minute divisions adding up to 24 hours, corresponding to the global axis of time. The austere and all-white interior points to the highly abstracted time and space imposed by the homogenous modern life of the never-stopping 24/7 techno capitalism. However, infiltrating into this highly standardized system is the cacophonous multitude of the clicking sounds coming from each individual clock. Such a sensory encounter requires viewers to slow down and spend some time in the space. In this way, Clockwise manages to question the very phenomenon of how a lived temporality shall not be reduced to computational logic.
Artist and film director Bo Wang’s practice delves deep into socio-cultural discourses, engaging nuanced subjects, such as how images, symbols, and spectacles function in a society; urban spaces and their transformations; the meaning of “community”; and discourses on postcolonialism. His essay films examine history and contemporary reality with acute theoretical awareness and humor, uncovering connections that weave together new narratives.
In collaboration with Pan Lu, researcher and writer whose interests coalesce around the topic of cultural and cross-cultural analysis of various textual forms, Bo Wang’s 28-minute essay film Miasma, Plants, Export Paintings (2017) investigates the intertwining histories of 19th-century colonialism. The underlying historical narratives in the film include John Reeves of the East
India Company searching for draughtsmen in Canton, the popularization of Chinese painting among European upper-class men, the British occupation of Hong Kong, and the 1894 plague outbreak. The work revolves around the western myth of the miasma, a toxic fume believed to envelop tropical regions like Hong Kong. The consequent vertical segregation of Hong Kong situated British colonists on higher elevations from which they cast their exoticizing gaze upon the “primitive” Orientals, who were believed to be more resistant to miasma. Exported paintings from China furthered the fetishization of the Orient, while later photos documenting the plague epidemic, attributed to Asians’ lack of hygiene, embodied a scientific gaze that discerned their
technological backwardness. Asians, as the object of the gaze, were defined by images circulated by the colonists, which ultimately helped construct a reality where everything falls into a single, Eurocentric synchronizing metric. The film offers a re-examination of such a worldview, once considered to be absolute and immortal.
Trained as a dancer, Qinmin Liu’s multidisciplinary practices treat choreography as a language, a philosophy, and an approach to examine and engage the realities we experience. Her works are often autobiographical, referencing diverse cultural influences that have shaped her identity. Liu’s The Rite of Spring (2019), created for this exhibition, is an immersive 120-minute live performance, appropriating Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral masterpiece of the same name. Poetic, mystical, and savage, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) depicts a sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death in a Russian pagan ritual, and attempts to encapsulate the “mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring.”
Liu’s recontextualization features an international group of dancers, a grassy field blooming with electronic scraps as its stage, and silver robotic arms waving in sync in the background. The performance is a remix of diverse genres, including ballet, Russian folk dance, hip-hop, and contemporary dance. The work imbues the robotics with a human aura, unites technology with spirituality, and envisions a sensual yet uncanny technological future that embraces multiple cultural pasts. But what does the machine represent here? Is it an object of sacrifice from the remote past? Or is it mind-control master of the future? The Rite of Spring inherits the sinister undertone of the original work, asking viewers to identify the “virgin dancer” in this context and consider what may lurk behind the “creative power of spring.”
Artist Liu Qingyuan is an ultra-prolific woodcutter, treating the medium as a means of documenting everyday ideas and taking part in cultural happenings. His woodcuts incorporate elements from China’s Modern Woodcut Movement (1930s–1940s), vernacular art forms, street culture, propaganda posters, and advertisements.
The title “The Sole Certainty Is that Tomorrow Will Surprise Us All” quotes futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book The Third Wave, in which the author speculates on the futures entailed by the transition into a post-industrial society. The images on the posters originated from the artist’s ongoing woodcut creations inspired by writer Lu Xun’s On Destroying the Voices of Evil (Chinese: Po E Sheng Lun), an unfinished 1908 essay that aimed to enlighten and mobilize his countrymen. Informed by these two pieces of literatures, the work presents images that are futuristic in essence, yet also highly reminiscent of the past turmoil, recalling the Cold War and the revolutions of 20th century China. By incorporating the past into the future, some dystopian, some revolutionary, some alien, the work imagines different futures that defy expectations of a linear understanding of progress—futures that simultaneously resemble and negotiate with science fiction and history.
Known for intervening in the social systems underlying the everyday, Liu Chuang’s practice unravels the hidden mechanisms that construct our global reality, from labor migration and urban infrastructure to mass manufacturing. Through grim humor and poetic language, his early work often took the form of installations with readymades. In recent years, Liu has undertaken long-term field research trips to investigate the deep historical connections within contemporary phenomena and the results are presented through film, installation, photography, and archival materials.
In the three-channel video, Liu weaves various threads together across historical periods and different places in a dazzling visual essay. Contemplating the exchange between energy and information, the story centers on connections between the hydraulic projects and the Bitcoin mines in southwest China. He speculates on ruptures in historical moments, such as the completion of the telegraph network built on top of the foundations of the ancient postal stops during the last years of the Qing Dynasty. This final legacy was able to connect vast regions of the empire, but also accelerated the internal collapse of the dynasty amidst the uproar of many different ethnic groups at the turn of the 20th century. Liu juxtaposes the technology of culture—such as modern recording, photography, and museums—as a means of constructing knowledge systems, with virtual currency technology as a way out of China’s centralized national currency system. But as the drone-facilitated camera scans through the bitcoin mines, surrounded by the vast landscape, and as the voices of the folk singers are devoured by the roar of the machines, a sense of unsettling emerges from the tensions between planetary infrastructure and indigenous traditions, between digital economy and earth’s material memory. Is transformation between the different cosmos possible?
Gabriel Lester’s artwork, films, and installations originate from a desire to tell stories. But instead of conveying any explicit message or singular idea, his work proposes ways to relate to the world, to how it is presented, and to the mechanisms and components that constitute our perception and understanding of it.
The installation Battery Life (2019) is a new commission for the biennial. It is composed of a used Soviet-made conveyor belt with a battery-powered lamp attached to it. As the conveyor belt continuously rotates, the revolving lamp lights up the space in a never ending circular movement. The seemingly simple mechanism creates a theatrical environment that abstracts time and space to infinity.
Explicitly visual, yet implicitly narrative, the meanings start to emerge as poetic metaphors. In the artist’s own words: “This is a satellite in orbit. Eternal revolution. Grinding light and a battery that dies and is reborn on a daily basis. The scanner, the lighthouse. An eye for an eye. Ebb and flow. Ploughing through time. A planet in orbit. Time is music.”
In his practice, Egor Kraft explores the developing possibilities of communication in the context of rapid digitalization and their correlation with such discursive notions as information, identity, chaos and order, time, and perception. At the core of his interest is the way technologies affect our fragmented perception of the world and interfere with its seemingly incontestable logic.
The goal of Content Aware Studies is to generate, or—in a symbolic sense—to resurrect lost antique friezes and sculptures by means of machine learning algorithmic analysis. Based on image analysis, the algorithm generates 3D models, which are then printed in transparent resin and used to fill the missing parts of these friezes and sculptures. The synthetic material extends body parts of the ancient gods and giants, and evokes a sense of lifeless sterility, pointing to a particular version of the future. The resulting sculptures sometimes faithfully restore the original forms, and at other times reveal bizarre errors in AI’s interpretation of human anatomy.
The project aims to put in conversation the aesthetics of classical antiquity with generative computing. It explores the automation of artistic labor, quasi-archeology, and the aesthetic relationships of creating artwork in collaboration with AI. Questioning the idea of authorship in its traditional sense, the work scrutinizes the interpretation of knowledge and culture in the information age.
Swedish-Palestinian artist Tarik Kiswanson discusses identity through his multidisciplinary artworks. Informed by philosopher Édouard Glissant’s notion of “trembling thinking,” Kiswanson’s practices are based on the premise of rejecting stability and categorization and embracing the “in-between” spaces within which identities oscillate.
Kiswanson’s two works both involve preadolescents and mirror the artist’s own experience growing up as a mixed-race person migrating between countries. Passings (2019), which was developed during the artist’s recent performance Dust (2019) at Centre Pompidou, takes the ghostly form of radiological scans for boys’ sportswear clothing, overlaid with middle-eastern, North African and Asian ethnic costumes loaned from the Tiraz Foundation in Jordan. The Reading Room (2019), on the other hand, shows a 6-year old boy struggling to read in English, with narration by an adult, presumably the boy grown-up, recalling the feeling of being lost.
While the former implies the burden of understanding one’s own lineage, the alien cosmologies that follow one by birth, the latter implies that of adapting to “other” cultures. Together, they accentuate a feeling of rootlessness and the struggle for self-identification as one becomes identity-conscious. The sentiment of belonging to everywhere yet nowhere, however, is not unique to children of cross-cultural backgrounds. The artworks underline the conditions of globalization-capitalism experienced by many: beneath the facade of super-interconnectedness enabled by technologies, one might feel increasingly disconnected—to others, to the past, to the future, to other cultures, to one’s own culture, to oneself. But at the same time, the works convey hope through the presence of children and inspire viewers to rebuild these connections.
Ominous yet seductive, uncanny yet tender, the performance, installation, and videos by Geumhyung Jeong question the ever more indistinguishable boundaries between man and machine, animate and inanimate, and the deeper psychology behind these limits, such as desire and control. Trained in dance, theater, and filmmaking, Jeong’s work always considers the sensual relationships of the human body.
Small Upgrade (2019), dedicated to this biennial, is an installation comprised of three elements: the robotic sculptures Homemade RC Toy Small Upgrade F2019, the videos Upgrade Guide F2019, and Materials. The project is a continuation of her recent work, Homemade RC Toy, in which “RC” stands for “remote control.” In the artist’s own words, “after some experiences with my creation, I made plans for a small upgrade… in order to improve its performance.” This time, the artist has turned the exhibition space into her workshop. She collected the objects and materials to make the project on site. The artist taught herself the basics of programming and robotics to build human-scale, remote-control sculptures from DIY technologies using metal
brackets, batteries, wires, dental study props, and disassembled mannequins. She also made a film demonstrating the strange choreographies to which she subjects her “homemade” bodies.
Exploring the erotics of technical animism, Jeong’s project raises critical questions on the transformation of our relationships—not only with technical objects, but also with ourselves and our reality in an increasingly technologized world. As we make more machines, constantly upgrading them to replace our labor, we as humans become ever more inert. As these objects gain life force and agency, who is really “remote-controlling” our life?
By identifying incidents beyond the camera, Chia-Wei Hsu’s video work re-establishes relationships between humans, materials, and places that are often neglected or deliberately erased in the writing of mainstream history. He emphasizes the actionability below the surface of image-making.
The video installation Spirit-writing (2016) presents an unusual dialogue between the artist Chia-Wei Hsu and the frog god Marshal Tie Jia who was allegedly born in a small pond more than 1,400 years ago. It is said that his temple in the Wuyi Mountains in Jiangxi, China was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, so he has since taken shelter on Matsu Island in Taiwan. The local villagers communicate with Marshal Tie Jia through a unique divination chair ritual to help them make decisions on many things in life. During the ritual, the divination chair shakes violently under divine orders and proceeds to hit against the altar table and write down commands decreed by the divine power. Sometimes, legible words are written down; other times, the writing needs to be deciphered through further gestures of pounding or noise-making.
In Spirit-writing (2016), Hsu invited Marshal Tie-Jia to come to a film studio where the ritual was performed to ask about the original conditions of his temple in the Wuyi Mountains. Hsu also informed the Marshal about the approach and concept behind this art project. Motion capture technology was applied in the film studio to document the movements of the divination chair, which was post-produced into a 3D animation, while a 3D temple was also constructed according to the fragmented clues provided by Marshal Tia-Jia. The work provides an inspiring example of how we might be able to navigate through the realm of the digital and the divine, and reconnect scientific methods with ritualistic beliefs that are repressed by the former as superstitions.
A filmmaker and artist, James T. Hong’s anchors his practice in rigorous research. While many of his recent projects focus on geopolitics and the rise of right-wing ideologies in the context of globalization, he also scrutinizes historical events to uncover their relevance to contemporary socio-political discourses.
“Three Arguments about the Opium War” (2015) presents two opposing narratives about the same historical event, the two Opium Wars that took place in the mid-19th century, during which the British and French forces invaded China over disagreements regarding the opium trade. The videos feature quotes from Chinese and British men who took part in the wars, which the artist collected through archival research, juxtaposed with sceneries of modern Hong Kong and Guangdong. While the Chinese men protested the brutality of the foreign invaders, the British men justified the colonization of China and violence against its people: “The Qing Chinese way was doomed to be swept away by the modern European order.” The wars not only kickstarted China’s industrialization and modernization processes, but also arguably began the dying process of Chinese cosmology, for the country’s defeat by more powerful Westerners was considered a sign of “backwardness.” The work projects a much grander trend that is still present today and has been taking effect across the globe: local cosmologies strangled in the name of progress, as Western technological thought became the only yardstick against which all are measured.
Artist Francisco Camacho Herrera’s projects are highly participatory and frequently operate as spaces of social activism. Often political in nature, these works investigate social reality and, through them, explore potential futures.
The multimedia installation Lucid Dream (2019) revives the forgotten art of alchemy, and takes a speculative approach to alchemical symbols and the philosopher’s stone, a “primary pure material” that lies at the heart of the alchemical pursuits of resurrection, immortality, and metaphysical truths. The installation presents a real-time video game environment, within which viewers explore the seven stages of alchemical transformation through old illustrations. The title and the shared environment function as an analogy to the “collective unconscious,” directly referencing psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung’s writings on alchemic symbols— which, as Jung theorized, evoke mythological images of immortality in the human psyche. Also highlighted is the belief that the philosopher’s stone must undergo a stage called “nigredo” (“blackness”) to be produced, during which the material “dies” to be reborn into a higher element. The work provides potent, multi-layered metaphors that encourage viewers to meditate on various subjects. Alchemists and Jung regarded the alchemic symbols and the philosopher’s stone, as a technical object, as portals to metaphysical space, demonstrating a strong bond between technology and mythology/cosmology.
The collective dream space gives viewers an opportunity to reexamine Jung’s investigation into the shared, immortal aspects of humanity. And, lastly, to contemplate the nigredo stage, necessitating the acceptance of a “material death” as a prerequisite for transcendence or “immortality”—this functions as a telling allegory.
Having grown up in China during a period of rapid urbanization and social changes, He Xiangyu is especially attentive to the mutability of things. While his earlier projects, often framing the material changes of objects as analogies for social phenomena, are rather abstract, his recent work takes a more documentary and often biographical approach.
His multimedia installation Terminal 3 (2016–2019) presents snippets from the lives of young African acrobats attending the Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Arts School in China. Most of these students come from Ethiopia and Sierra Leone and have diverse religious beliefs, but share the dream of joining an elite circus one day. Accompanying the video are sculptures of acrobats made from colored clay, a material as “plastic” as the students themselves. Acrobatics, which has a rich history as a court display in imperial China, is now integral to the cultural industries and tourism sector in the town of Wuqiao, continuing the legacy of expending bodies for monetary gains. In this context, the school seems like a factory: importing talent, contorting student bodies into more profitable forms, and then exploiting them.
But for the African students, there is more at stake than their bodies. The video exposes a profound sense of rootlessness—amongst the movements of globalization capitalism, individual identity and the cultural past become burdensome and ultimately disposable. These young African students, semi-willingly put under the constant pressure of being re-molded, ground their realities in the monotonous cycle of training and praying, which appears to reify their bodies and—more importantly—their identities. For these students, does moving forward entail letting the past die?
“car traces, jaguar footprints… here, writing is making, and drawing is a verb. a nod of page and a stroke of spell. draught. a mechanic fresco of the plant’s body surface.” (I. Grishaev)
Ilya Grishaev’s artistic practice is set in its contemporaneity even though it bows to the great tradition of modernism. In his installations and performances, the artist investigates the similar manifestations of “irrationality” and “sub-consciousness” that were explored by French surrealism with its interest in automatic writing and universal languages. Often starting with letters and numbers, Grishaev moves to creating signs and texts that seem strangely familiar but remain rather indecipherable. Without imposing any didactic interpretations or directions, the artist invites viewers into his game of symbols and creates experimentation and exchanges with his audience. Modernity has witnessed the rapid disintegration of the symbolic world and the destruction of cosmologies with imaginary systems of order. With the spreading of instant digital information and products, the potency of a shared collective memory through metaphors, poetry, and symbols becomes ever more alienating. Grishaev asks: How we can re-incorporate such an intimate relationship with our world again? And so does this exhibition.
Ivan Gorshkov’s practice wittily re-engages with traditional artistic forms, such as painting and sculpture. He blends materials, textures, and visual languages to produce dynamic figures, fluidly morphing between human and nonhuman. By shifting boundaries between concept and image, similar to blending different ways of interpreting the world, his work opens up new aesthetic possibilities in conversation with the digitalization of contemporary culture.
Nosferatu features two anthropomorphic creatures. In the artist’s imagination, these creatures have undergone so many transformations to the point that they have lost themselves in between worlds and spans of time and cannot recall anything, neither identity nor existence. Immortality is beyond their strength, and they became petrified in this sculptural form on the way to it. “Don’t expect there to be something human left there,” Gorshkov warns. We can’t help but wonder, what is this “something human” he is referring to? Is it our physical flesh, our intellectual and emotional capability, our sense of identity and existence, or our arrogance and blind belief in our ability to determine our own fate?
The artist group from the city of Izhevsk (formerly known as Ustinov) carries a hint to its working method in its name. The artists see an entire universe with a whole hidden life in microscopic particles. The group invites viewers to pay attention to details, and in order to do that they have to adjust their optics and devote time to meditative scrutiny. The museum here acts as a metaphor for an optical device, which introduces the viewer into a particular framework. The fictional microscopic life represented by architectural layouts—made of grains of sand or pieces of various materials imitating the development of organic life—is thus embedded into an established institute, such as the museum, and acquires a legitimate right to existence.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres employs readymade everyday objects to create artworks that deeply reflect on the foundational aspects of the human experience, such as love, gender and sexual orientation, illness, and death. His practice often involves viewer participation, presenting art as accessible and socially-engaged to confront elitist notions of art.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Revenge) is one of his iconic candy installations— monumental piles of edible candies for viewers to take and consume, maintained through regular replenishment. Formally reminiscent of Minimalist or Conceptual artworks, but sharply opposed to the essentialist immutability that these works often epitomize, Untitled (Revenge) lives as a morphing entity that embraces change. The pile’s size constantly fluctuates between the forces of depletion and replenishment, as if imitating the breathing of an organism. It has also been installed at alternate weights: 325 pounds when first installed in Madrid in 1991, and 1000 pounds at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in 1994. Untitled (Revenge) is immortal in the way that it perpetually generates new meanings through re-contextualization and interaction with viewers. The work’s inherent mutability, interactivity, and ambiguity render it radically open to the viewers’ subjectivities, inviting new interpretations that uphold its relevance. It speaks to a humanist notion of “immortality” by demonstrating how meanings and ideas can metamorphose across time and space to generate affective understanding and empathy.
Claudia Martínez Garay’s artwork investigates the histories of pre-Columbian artifacts, in particular the transmutation of their symbolic meanings in the process of constant appropriations and re-contextualizations. By examining the erosion of these artifacts’ identities in a capitalist world, her works suggest the inseparability of (post-)modernity and colonialism. A newly commissioned work for this biennial, Garay’s multi-media video installation Y no podrán matarlo… / And they could never kill him… (2019) features the indigenous Peruvian actor Reynaldo Arenas, a cultural icon known for his portrayals of Incan characters such as El Gran Inca and the last Inca. The video is simultaneously biographical and fictional, historical and futuristic, assembling media such as footage of him reenacting his role as Túpac Amaru II (a mythologized historical figure who led a large Andean uprising against Spanish colonists), found footage of his past performances, dialogues between Arenas and Martínez Garay about his career, as well as CGI scenes performed by a 3D model of Arenas.
The work not only explores the tensions between history and myth, the indigenous and the foreign, but also those between technological and cultural immortalities. This video installation underlines the nuanced relationship between technology and the cultural past: through modern recording technologies, CGI, and digital archiving indigenous culture is rendered immortal. Yet, technology could also function as an instrument of colonization, facilitating myth-making and perversion of truth with the result of commercializing a culture. While prolonging the life of a local cosmology, technology could ultimately deprive it of its genuineness, as epitomized by Arenas’s CGI avatar, ironically portraying an anti-colonist figure, who is immortal but incapable of showing any human emotion.
b. 1980, France; lives and works in Berlin and Paris
At the 5th Ural Biennial Main Project Cyprien Gaillard presents a film Ocean II Ocean, 2019
Navigating through minimal aesthetics, a romantic sensibility, and an anarchic spirit, Cyprien Gaillard’s work examines the relationship between culture and nature, built environment and landscape, geographical sites and psychological states. He actively questions the foundations and the very viability of the notion of civilization.
Ocean II Ocean (2019) features footage shot in metro stations in Russia and other regions of the former Soviet Union, focusing on the fossilized organic matter imbedded in the marble walls and floors. Gaillard combines this footage with archival lm documentation of New York’s MTA subway cars being dumped in the ocean. The soundtrack of the film comes from a composition of shimmering steel drums, recycled from old oil barrels. The locations and historical context subtly hint at our fate — ideological and technological disintegration. The camera shifts from the prehistoric creatures preserved in the multicoloured marble: cephalopods, bivalves, snails, echinodermata and the fish and turtles swimming around the train wreck submerged in the Atlantic. The common perception of time is suspended here. The cycle of life and death, birth and decay, existence and inanimateness is communicated through a sense of awe at geological time. As the artist wittily describes it: “if we imagine deep time as being like our fingernails, the layer of human existence would be so thin that it could be easily led away with a nail file!” It is only this cyclic relationship that is permanent and immortal.
Ilya Fedotov-Fedorov studies the relationships between man and nature, science and ritual. The pursuit of immortality originated the practice of ritual mummification, the physical preservation of human bodies. In order to document knowledge about nature, humans invented the technique of taxidermy to preserve animal bodies. Fedotov-Fedorov considers natural history and zoology museums as both temples and cemeteries for nature that foreground a profound paradox: as animals and plants are prepared for their immortal life, they first have to be killed.
Digital methods of data storing generate new rituals and preservation modes: metadata, 3D-scanning and modeling, and virtual reality become a digital version of Noah’s ark. Fedotov-Fedorov’s new work, created specially for this Biennial, poses the question, whether digital images of animals and plants continue nature or manifest its death. The artist looks for connections in the chain nature-human-technology, where each subsequent link emerge from the previous one, gains autonomy, and then subjugates and destroys its antecedent.
Multimedia installations by Vladislav Efimov often study the secret life of inanimate objects. In his work produced for the biennial, Efimov considers the natural history museums as meeting points for life and death. There, creatures deprived of life provide the narrative about natural diversity. Entering into a dialogue with those who are living, the dead serve as sources of
information and subjects to be studied.
The starting point for the project Without Blood is the theory from Communist philosopher, physician and science fiction writer Alexander Bogdanov, who founded the first institute of blood transfusion and considered blood as a means to unite people. However, Efimov is skeptical about Soviet mysticism. His photographs are produced with infrared light, which automatically
turns them red. They seem to be filled with blood, which in fact is not present there. As emphasized by the artist, blood is supposedly the only substance absent in the museum devoted to evolution and the study of life: “Its force is now spread out nourishing an indifferent universe.”
Danilo Correale’s multidisciplinary practice offers critical yet poetic and playful reflections on the power mechanisms in late-capitalist control societies. Basing his projects on extensive research and collaborating with experts from a broad range of academic fields, Correale mobilizes art as a means of rendering visible the pressing issues that deeply affect us. Many of his works examine rest and leisure with the intention of politicizing them in the neo-liberal capitalist context where the forces of production relentlessly encroach on and erode individuals’ free time.
The installation Reverie — On the Liberation from Work (2017) is a continuation of Correale’s long-term investigations into the current capitalist structure. But it also takes it a step further by contemplating what might lie beyond it. Created in collaboration with a hypnotherapist, the work features a two-chapter guided hypnosis exercise aimed at deeply relaxing the viewer’s body and mind in preparation for a speculative future without work. The work calls into question the seeming “immortality” of late capitalist ideology, its lasting mechanisms, as well as the hyper-nor-malized notions of work, leisure, and freedom that it entails. For the artist, capitalism’s “immortality,” which defines life as perpetual productivity, must be overcome in order for humans to embrace a new future. The calming voice summons a utopian vision of a future world where automation leads to the liberation of humans from labor so that they can pursue individual development and fulfillment. The narrative frames personal time not as undesirable downtime, but as an inherent right of every human that must be defended against the realism painted by late capitalism.
Bruce Conner’s artistic career is internationally renowned for its diverse and often oppositional practices, among them his surrealistic assemblage sculptures, his avant-garde films collaged from found footage, and his photography of the Beat Generation and later the Punk scene. Conner’s works are frequently informed by social, political, and historical themes, and subtly expressed through experimental, witty, and occasionally unnerving forms.
The visual content of Conner’s film CROSSROADS (1976) consists of declassified official footage documenting Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test conducted by the US at the Bikini Atoll in 1946 to investigate the bomb’s effect on warships. The footage of underwater detonations and the mushroom clouds that follow—filmed from many angles—are collaged together and slowed down to a crawling pace to create a mesmerizing effect. Accompanying the visuals is a psychedelic soundscape of ambient music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley: bird chirps, car engines, lapping waves… sounds that could evoke the image of a calm afternoon in the Bay Area on the California coast of the United States. The juxtaposition is uncanny—contradictory yet oddly harmonious. In this way, the work suggests a reversal of foreground and background: the Cold War paranoia about nuclear fallout surfaces to the visible foreground, while everyday life sinks back to a spectral, psychological realm. The work summons in the contemporary viewer a fear of nuclear weaponry, but it also reminds us of the double-edged nature of technology in general. Technologies, as exemplified by nuclear power, promise progress towards a utopian vision of the future involving conquering nature and achieving immortality. Yet progress in technologies also means the upgrading of our capacities to destroy ourselves, intentionally or not—consider not only nuclear weapons, but also incidents such as the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters. The work thus fulfills a cautionary function: if we willfully neglect and alienate “death” in the pursuit of “immortality,” then unprecedented disasters await us.
With deep historical consciousness, Ali Cherri’s practice traces political and geological correspondences to investigate the effects of catastrophe—both man-made and geological. In the epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk (dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2100 BC), “called a god and a man,” sets off on a quest for eternal life after watching his friend Enkidu die before his eyes. The death of Enkidu, who was made of clay and water, confronted Gilgamesh with his own mortality, which he had never feared before, considering it futile. By looking at different creation myths, Eternity and a Day (2019), premiered at this biennial, journeys into stories of mud creatures, such as Enkidu, and swamps, in which one can drown but also resurrect. Very few spaces represent the periphery of human existence as well as muddy swamps. The stagnant waters over which hover buzzing insects and in which splash small creatures of every kind, unveil a complex picture of a dull and gloomy misery, both worrying and invasive. Neither completely soil nor completely water, this in-between ground is dreaded, enigmatic and ghostly, and causes death and sickness. Mud-gathering sites are also literal geopolitical swamps where economic forces converge: from traditional brick quarries to gold hunters’ muck swamps.
Fascination with mud both as matter and metaphor has a rich history. Its transformation into material for construction is a process as old as humanity. The artisanal brickmaking process has been practiced for thousands of years, and utilizes all of the natural elements: earth, water, fire and air. The story of mud is the story of perpetually shifting geographies, of elemental forces and terrains that cracks and break into new topographical formations. The first gods we dreamed up made the world out of mud. Out of mud we made pottery and the first vessels in which to preserve and carry things. Mud also became memory: it held and kept. The first life came from mud. The place where earth and water met and mingled gave birth to the first single-celled organisms that would become every living, breathing creature in the world: flora, fauna, and fungus. In The Tower of Mud (2019), bricks rise to form a vertical structure, a tower that comes out of a tradition as old as our memories of time. Following the consistent and evolving symbolism of aspiring for verticality, The Tower of Mud is a celebratory monument to the union of soil and water. It is said that a handful of mud contains “more organized information than the surface of all the other known planets.” If mud had its own memory, what might it deem worth remembering?
With a refreshing anarchist spirit, the diverse practice of Anna and Vitaly Cherepanov probes everyday details in order to create unusual connections between them. From youth culture to pop aesthetics, the artists often use urban space as ground for their artistic experiments. For example, in their long-term project Theater under Cameras, they stage playful activities in front of omnipresent surveillance cameras, with the cameras recording their actions. They are later able to retrieve these videos, since some of the camera recordings are publicly available. Their movements unexpectedly interrupt the ordinary urban landscape. What the viewer sees is not the city itself, but a performance carried out in front of the cameras in order to actively engage the viewer’s gaze in the subjects of urban life.
Simple Movements is part of Theater under Cameras. In the videos, shot in the city of Nizhny Tagil, several people, all wearing red, run, one after another, past a number of cameras; the resulting videos are then synchronized to show the running movement as if it were an endless flow. As surveillance cameras continuously impose seamless monitoring over urban life, the artists challenge the system with playfulness and humor, re-taking control of oppressive and authoritarian technologies through direct intervention.
Communicating in the language of the occult, artist Yin-Ju Chen’s works explore planetary-scaled themes, such as man and nature, the collective (un)-consciousness, power and totality, past, present, and future catastrophes, and religion. Chen’s Extrastellar Evaluations series (2016 – ongoing) delivers absurd yet telling narratives that evoke mythologies, popular conspiracies, spiritualism, and pseudoscience, challenging viewers to adopt strange worldviews and meditate on various subjects with a less anthropocentric perspective.
Extrastellar Evaluations (2016), the first work in the series, presents fragments of history as evidence of an alien existence on Earth, the Lemurians from the Pleiades star cluster. The multimedia installation features a video set in the scenery of the enchanted indigenous land of Mt. Shasta. It alludes to the elusive Lemurian spiritual leader “Adama,” a wall diagram, a letter by psychic medium “Lucia,” a projection of the Pleiades, and various objects that reference the minimalist movement, including James Turrell’s light projections, Carl Andre’s metal plates, Donald Judd’s cubes, and Mel Bochner’s crystal grids. These artworks are reinterpreted here as the Lemurians’ means of intergalactic communication. The cryptic wall diagram not only furthers the uncanny association between art and aliens, but also incorporates photos of human disasters from the ‘60s into this celestial web, offering the viewer an alternative interpretation of history and human existence. Treating artworks as changing entities open to new, even outlandish narratives, Chen playfully defies the logic of canonization, a process of immortalization. In the meantime, the work evokes a kind of non-human-centric “immortality” by alluding to mystical agencies that would eventually outlast humankind.
Tensions between public and private, online and offline, techno-lust and everyday life are at the core of Aram Bartholl’s work. His public interventions and installations, often entailing surprisingly physical manifestations of the digital world, challenge our conceptions of reality and incorporeality. Bartholl asks not just what humans are doing with media, but what media is doing with humans.
Aram Bartholl takes three CCTV dome cameras out of the context of surveillance infrastructure and places them on the gallery floor as if they have fallen from somewhere and were left unattended. The built-in auto-tracking function makes the cameras follow any motion in its surroundings. But as they move their lenses, the devices’ center of gravity shifts and causes the cameras to roll around on the floor helplessly. As a result, the software is confronted with even more motion to be tracked. From time to time, the cameras bump into each other or start to follow and trigger each other’s movements. The relentless and helpless movements render the cameras victims of their own sisyphean mechanism. The humor teases out the invisible yet deep contradiction between vulnerability and violence, freedom and control embedded in the flow of urban modernity imposed by technology.
TOP25 (2018) is a series of short 3D animation sequences featuring the 25 most used passwords in the world. By adapting the text of these top 25 passwords into original designs and arrangements by different creators on the Internet, the remixed sequences in the video follow the popular aesthetics and visual concepts often used for YouTube intros. The mechanism of setting up a password presents an illusion of human agency, while in fact passwords have taken on a life of their own, like ghosts veiling the security of user identities and computer systems. To speculate further about a so-called “digitally immortal” future, what would happen if one could not log into his or her own “immortalized” copy?
In her artistic practice, Elena Artemenko explores issues concerning the body, its controls, and obsessive psychological states. The Pull explores the tension of a collective body making continuous attempts to overcome gravity as it pulls itself up with internal will. A group of individuals performs a cyclic ritual of pulling and falling. As soon as one of the performers accumulates enough energy and inner forces to pull him/her out, the others follow to push upwards. But the collective body again falls down, limply, and its efforts seem to be trapped in a Sisyphean curse.
A sensational and powerful metaphor, The Pull poetically describes the vulnerability of individual will and collective labor under systematic and authoritarian control. It also hints at the cycle of life, and how ups and downs, inward and outward, birth and death are all parts in the process of energy transmission that forms the larger cosmos.
By rotating the wheel handle of the Street Organ, the viewer makes this iron machine come to life, and the boots start marching. Directly referencing military symbols, Artemenko turns this authoritarian machine into a giant instrument. As the mechanism rotates, the boots hit the ground, making a rhythmic stomping sound. But there is something distressing here: Where are the bodies that are supposed to be wearing these boots? Who is giving the order for their march? Why are they not going forward, or anywhere? At once cacophonous and mechanical, this inanimate movement emphasizes the indifferent and ominous military force, and the numerous human lives that have been anonymously sacrificed.
Born in Tuva, a region known for its shamanic traditions, Evgeny Antufiev works with unusual natural materials, meticulously crafting heteroclite objects that mimic ritual paraphernalia. Commissioned for this biennial, Untitled (2019) is a series of marble and malachite sculptures that Antufiev created together with Liubov Nalogina. In one way, these works pay homage to the traditional Russian folk art of paintings on storage chests and spinning wheels, and in another, they refer to the Soviet tradition of monumental art that employs mosaic techniques to decorate industrial and public buildings.
The main material used in creating these objects is malachite—a historically emblematic mineral of the Urals. Irony lies in the fact that Ural deposits of malachite are now fully exhausted, and today this semi-precious stone is imported to Russia from Africa. With the example of malachite as a quintessence of everything Russian, the artists question the immortality of a symbol in our cultural memory and its fate in the exchange of global capitalism.
In his work Petr Antonov uses the medium of photography to explore visible traces of history and culture, as well as possibilities of photography as an artistic tool. Fundamental Catalogue explores the little known history of the Leningrad Pulkovo Observatory scientific mission to Chile. Between 1962 and 1973 Soviet and Chilean astronomers were carrying out joint observations of the southern sky. The mission required three purposely built telescopes, two of which still remain in Chile. In September 1973 the scientific work was abruptly interrupted by the right-wing military coup led by general Augusto Pinochet, and the Soviet astronomers had to leave the country immediately. The Fundamental Stars Catalogue SPF1, a result of the eleven years of joint work by the Pulkovo Observatory and the University of Chile was published in Santiago in 1975, two years after the unexpected departure of the Soviet astronomers.
Bringing together contemporary and archive photographs, scientific imagery, found objects, and a video, the project looks for possible relations between science, politics, global economy and technology. The election of a Marxist president in Chile resulted in the hurried evacuation of the Soviet scientists. Three years later, the largest Soviet telescope in Chile ceased operations as a consequence of the worldwide scarcity of the photographic film, while establishing correct star coordinates in the Southern Hemisphere turns out essential for the spacecraft navigation. Fundamental Catalogue is a part of a larger research carried out together with Pedro Ignacio Alonso and Hugo Palmarola of the Catholic University of Chile with support from The National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development of Chile.
Carlos Amorales explores the effect of language and the possibility of communication through other means such as emotion, sound, gesture and symbol. His work is deeply personal—reflective of introversion and at times, obscure. It journeys into a dark world of fantasy, blurring the line between the real and the imagined.
Covering the walls and ceilings, the installation Black Cloud (2007/2019) is composed of hundreds and thousands of butterflies and moths made of cut paper. The artist modeled the insects after researching over 30 different species. Upon close observation, each tiny winged creature appears delicate and elegant but when viewed as a whole, the dense mass creates an overwhelming, surreal contrast. The uncanniness envelops the viewer and evokes an experience fluctuating between beauty and awe, the fanciful and the macabre, calm and calamity. The inspiration of the work came from a few different sources: annual butterfly migrations, a single black moth in a book Amorales read, and most importantly, the time he spent with his grandmother and his grief over her passing. Through the work, the artist manages to connect grand natural phenomena with intimate personal memories. As one wanders through the space, the insects seem to come to life and fly up in a swarm. Suspending life and death, Black Cloud continues our fascination with butterflies—a biologically unique life form that is able to metamorphose and transform from something ugly to magnificent.
Andrey Olenev / b.1993, Russia / lives and works in Nizhny Novgorod
Untitled, 2019 (Mural: acrylic paint, 2055×420 сm)
The plant still bears signs of the presence of a staff artist. Wall drawings, hand-drawn and -glued GOST State Standard sheets, scenery on the stage of the local recreation centre (or Palace of Culture, as they were called) that we can see in old photographs are all nameless and wordless artefacts, the results of someone’s work. A large-scale mural on the walls of room No. 18 reproduces a hypothetical group portrait, an unrealistic scene from the factory life. This work by another artist was not created for the plant, it is about the plant. It overpowers the viewer with its totality, makes him a part of a frozen collective action. The motif of depersonalization is crucial for the practice of the artist Andrey Olenev. Taking physicality away from the drawing, he pictures a certain plant worker, transparent and invisible, that exists only within the plant walls. The artist acts as an invited screenwriter when he arranges a composition of aeriform work robes, among which there are no main and secondary characters.