At the 55th Venice Biennale, two neighboring projects in the Arsenale, one by Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson and one by Tavares Strachan, from the Bahamas—idiosyncratic and adventurous artists, hailing from small island nations far from the art world’s centers of power—prove enthralling, and for me are highlights of the whole Venice experience. The Biennale is on view through Nov. 24.
Kjartansson’s refurbished 1934 Icelandic fishing boat, the S.S. Hangover, with a horn-playing sextet on board, is part of Massimiliano Gioni’s sprawling exhibition “The Encyclopedic Palace.” Strachan’s installation Polar Eclipse, in the first-ever Bahamas pavilion, including works in various mediums, all involving his trip to the North Pole, signals the emergence of a major young artist.
Kjartansson’s work starts with a note of gleeful absurdity. To a famously watery city loaded with boats of all kinds, he brought an additional boat, a very special one from his homeland. Its hull is painted blue, gold, white, and russet; its sail sports the image of a winged horse, and it boasts an ornamental prow reminiscent of those on Viking vessels. It’s wondrous and outlandish, an outmoded vessel from the remote North inexplicably taking up residence in Venice for six months. On board the S.S. Hangover is the stately band, with tuba, French horn and trombone. As the band starts playing, the boat eases from its berth. But it doesn’t get far. It just travels slowly to a dock just a few yards away. Still, there is something riveting about this little, rickety boat as it makes its repetitive, truncated voyage.
Kjartan Sveinsson, formerly of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, composed the music, which seems at once ancient and contemporary. This is site-specific music for a place where architecture and water, nature and city, history and modernity all meet. It is at once mournful and contemplative, celebratory and somber. You can watch, and listen to, the S.S. Hangover here.
As a name for a vessel, Hangover is apt. There were a lot of parties in Venice during the Biennale’s preview period, and hangovers were a common affliction. The name also refers to the boat-shaped bar in James Whale’s 1935 film Remember Last Night?, in which a group of friends can’t recall the events of a boozy evening that ended in a murder. For an Icelander, this name has an additional resonance. Commencing in 2008, Iceland has undergone what is commonly called “the crisis,” the result of a binge of rampant economic speculation, greed, phantom money and unbridled consumption that resulted in financial collapse: a national party followed by a collective hangover.
At the core of Strachan’s project is his trip to the North Pole, which he reached by helicopter. In the horizontal light box photograph Standing Alone, 2013, you see the white-suited Strachan, a solitary black man in one of the coldest and whitest places on earth, standing with a flag planted in the ice.
But the subtext here is that the North Pole is anything but fixed. It lies under constantly shifting ice sheets, so it is absurd to claim any particular location as the precise pole. With the 14-channel video Magnetic (2013), you see Strachan approaching the pole, like an intrepid explorer from a century ago, but also departing from it (one camera was on his back). Approaching and departing are what is important, not conquering and claiming.
Strachan is aware that his own voyage echoes that of Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer who was part of Admiral Robert E. Peary’s renowned 1908-09 trip to the pole, and very likely the first of the party to reach it. (While Peary received the accolades, Henson has largely been forgotten, although late in his life he received government recognition for his heroic services.) Strachan is an explorer with a poetic streak, but also a tough-minded cultural critic. His Plexiglas vitrine filled with mineral oil (also titled Standing Alone, 2013) contains an exquisite and wispy glass model of Henson’s circulatory system, but from most perspectives it is virtually invisible.
Further dealing in dichotomies of black and white, heat and cold, absence and presence, north and south, for the video 40 Days and 40 Nights (2013), Strachan brought 40 children from Nassau, the Bahamas, to Venice, where they learned and sang a traditional Inuit vision quest song. Also present are two blocks of ice in transparent refrigerated cases. One is from the Arctic, and the other was cloned by scientists at Yale University from an Arctic ice sample provided by Strachan. It’s basically impossible to tell the difference, but whether “real” or “invented,” these physical and elemental ice blocks evoke great distances.
The installation also includes neon signs on the walls, seemingly explosive and fragmenting, that enigmatically announce “I belong here,” “you belong here” and “we belong here”; large collages depicting Arctic animals that are headed toward extinction (an owl, a polar bear and a walrus); and an overhead sculpture of an upside-down and exploding Inuit who resembles an astronaut. Strachan’s meditation on the Arctic and the North Pole is intensely visual, but also chock full of layered motivations and ideas. His works fit with, but do not overwhelm, the cavernous, darkened space, and sheer emptiness is a vital part of the exhibition, curated by the U.S. husband-and-wife team of Robert Hobbs and Jean Crutchfield.For me, it was especially engaging, and ultimately revitalizing, to discover these works after wending my way through the Arsenale section of “The Encyclopedic Palace.” The major and most radical innovation of this exhibition is its openness to all sorts of outsiders and eccentrics. As a result, from the outset this exhibition doesn’t look like standard fare from the contemporary art scene and art market, and many of the participating artists will be unfamiliar to most viewers.
However, the exhibition’s sheer volume, especially in the Arsenale section, turns the experience into something of an ordeal. Also, what hasn’t changed is the tendency of these big shows to highlight the curator as the central, presiding force. In this case, the obsessions and visions of quite a number of eccentric artists have essentially been fit into an extremely rational, orderly and tidy structure, one that feels more museological than visionary. The works are transformed from palpable visual forces to visual information meant to be “read” and deciphered.
That’s one reason why Kjartansson’s goofy, yet deeply touching, S.S. Hangover and Strachan’s North Pole works are so welcome. Both artists’ creations feel fresh, lively, thoughtful, generous, cathartic. You want to not decipher them, but absorb and abide with them, let them work their magic on you. After the copious curatorial prose in much of the rest of the Arsenale, the unfettered visual poetry of both of these artists stands out.