Opening on 13 May, the 57th Venice Biennale is less than a month away. Lucy MacGarry (curator of the 2017 South African Pavilion) kindly sat down with ArtThrob to tell us more about the curatorial approach to this year’s pavilion, which will feature work from Mohau Modisakeng and Candice Breitz.
MacGarry was previously the curator of the FNB Joburg Art Fair from 2014-2016. The curatorial team is rounded out by assistant curator Musha Neluheni, who concurrently holds the position of Curator for Contemporary Collections and Acting Chief Curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
ArtThrob: Can you talk a bit about your decision to select Mohau Modisakeng and Candice Breitz to represent the country at the South African Pavilion? In what ways do you see these artists speaking to South Africa in the present?
Lucy MacGarry: South Africa is at an important crossroads and poised to radically transform. But for this to happen we need to truly consider the everyday effects of the discriminatory system and society in which we live. Artists like Breitz and Modisakeng require moments of stillness of their audiences. Their works stop time in order to move forward, inviting us to interrogate the subjectivity of history and our own experiences of the present. Their practices are both conversant with the local and the now but simultaneously engaged in more inclusive and expansive dialogue beyond the confines of the country’s context. Thus, the idea to present their work was informed by glossary of ambitions intertwined with the specifics of the South African context, and out of an explicit desire to challenge conceptual and visual stereotypes of African representation and cultural consumption.
Breitz is an internationally acclaimed, South African artist who has spent most of career abroad, in New York and Berlin. Over the past twenty years she has moved seamlessly between photography, montage and video installation exploring the dynamics of subject formation, the enduring impact of mass media culture and the role that language plays in our coming into being. Modisakeng’s work, on the other hand, is deeply defined by his South African-ness, yet it is in the reshaping of black identity, by pointing towards universal histories and the spirituality of space, that his practice resists binary readings. What you can look forward to is an exhibition by two independent artists of South African heritage whose practices are keenly concerned with the moving image as a nexus to explore the disruptive power of storytelling.
AT: Working with two artists naturally gives you the opportunity to curate a more pointed conversation than a larger group show. How will you be approaching the curation of the pavilion?
LM: A retrospective view of previous Biennales shows explicit evidence for the strength of an immersive installation by one or two artists versus an exhaustive, curated group exhibition. The most compelling shows one remembers from Venice are most often singular, momentous and moving. Hence, narrowing the selection down to a maximum of two artists became both fundamental to creating a compelling experience that is uniquely immersive for the viewer as well as an attempt to challenge notions of applied inclusion and representation redolent in our large group shows of legacy on the international stage.
Experimental film provides an captivating environment for viewers, and it was with the intention of creating a kind of cinematic experience that Breitz and Modisakeng were invited to collaborate. From a thematic perspective, they have created separate works that together form an articulation of our past and current state of refugeeness within a global context of exclusion and transience.
AT: Has anything been specifically commissioned for the Venice presentation? Will it incorporate new work or will it be comprised of existing pieces?
LM: We will be showing both existing and new work that has been specifically created for the Pavilion. In fact, this project represents the first commissioning of a purpose-made work for the Pavilion which sets a great example for future interactions and public sector support. The Department of Arts and Culture are indeed to be commended for their timeous and transparent appointment of this year’s bid.
AT: You’ve announced that for the first time in history, South Africa’s Pavilion at the 2017 Biennale features moving image art and film exclusively. Could you talk a bit about this decision? Dedicating a space to time-based media in the sensory overload of the Venice Biennale could be considered a bold move.
LM: Yes, excitingly, this is the first time that South Africa will present an exclusively moving image- and sound-based exhibition. We have after all one of the oldest film industries in the world and the medium forms a critical language for addressing issues of representation and misrepresentation. But attention is precious in Venice and finding a way to stand out from the other 54 participating countries presents a challenge. The writer Saul Bellow argued that the accumulation of visual distraction was a destructive force and that the emergence from it was aesthetic bliss. I tend to agree, but this is where the nature of the artwork and exhibition design come into play. By presenting only one installation by each artist, the exhibition becomes the medium, where the interior space becomes a coherent object or scripted experience that is inviting and absorbing, hopefully providing a refuge from the busyness of the Biennale.
AT: Has 57th Venice Biennale director Christine Macel’s theme of VIVA ARTE VIVA factored into your curatorial approach?
LM: While the idea of exploring artists’ personal or invented worlds might seem prosaic, I interpret Macel’s theme, ‘Viva Arte Viva’ as a refreshing move away from the overarching themes of previous Biennale’s towards a focus on individual artistic practice. This is as an acknowledgement of the artist’s role in creating a vital space for personal, free expression and societal reflection. National pavilions are not expected to respond directly to this curatorial vision that will manifest independently as a large group exhibition in the Giardini. That said, it is with a shared sentiment towards corrupting the meta-narrative that the South African exhibition will present reflexive and nuanced interrogations of historical and contemporary waves of forced migration that are deeply unsettling but also beautiful and poetic.
AT: We’ve heard rumours that there may be some interesting processes happening around the construction of the pavilion space. At this stage, can you comment on this?
LM: Unfortunately, there is a requirement of all participating countries, that we do not discuss the work that will be shown or the interior design of the space in advance of the opening. So sadly we cannot reveal any further detail. But do check out our Instagram and Facebook pages to see the Pavilion in its raw but handsome state. It is located in the Arsenale – a complex of former shipyards and armories clustered together in the floating city. You will have to join us in Venice to experience the final product!
Additional information about the artists and the South African pavilion can be found here.
Curator – Lucy MacGarry
Assistant Curator – Musha Neluheni
Project Lead – Connect Channel
Project Managers – Parts & Labour
Location – Sale D’Armi Arsenale