It has recently been announced that the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017 will exclusively feature moving image and film-based works from Mohau Modisakeng and Candice Breitz. ArtThrob chats to Parts & Labour’s Brendan Copestake about the logistical challenges posed by this.
ArtThrob: Can you give us a bit of background about Parts & Labour and your involvement with the South African Pavilion?
Brendan Copestake: Parts & Labour work with artists, curators and architects between the art and the architectural worlds. We are typically project managers responsible for getting the professional teams talking together, managing the budgets and making sure that what has been described by the artist’s intent is actually what is built. We do a lot of work in the public art and sculpture realm – I don’t know if you’re familiar with Clive van den Berg’s Eland in Braamfontein or the Marco Cianfanelli and Jeremy Rose sculpture in Howick, the Mandela Release sculpture – we do a lot of that kind of stuff. Those are two of the more well-known public examples.
On the Venice side, we worked with MRA and the Apartheid Museum in 2015 on the logistics and installation of the South African pavilion. I think there were about 14 or 15 artists that year; which is a very different exhibition to the one which we are presenting this year.
AT: I seem to remember you being involved in the 2013 installation as well?
BC: I had a slight involvement in that, it was very minor. Brenton Maart asked me to do a couple of drawings for that. They were more along the lines of SketchUp renderings of the space so that he could see what he had to work with. I also worked with Monna Mokoena on the 2011 one; I did some very basic drawings for him at the time. So I’ve had some level of involvement through the last four iterations of the South African Pavilion.
AT: The Arsenale space is obviously a really interesting one. It’s a heritage site with all sorts of on-going restorations. What are some of the challenges /negotiations that come about from working in a space like that?
BC: Being a heritage space, there are obviously a lot of limitations on what you can and can’t do. The main one is that we can’t drill into the walls; we can’t screw into the floors or mark them in any way. So that makes things quite challenging for an art installation because you can’t actually hang anything onto the walls, it has to be suspended either from the beams above or you have to physically build new walls within that space to accommodate the works. If we do suspend from the beams above, we can’t touch the beams, so we have to wrap a material around the beams and put a clamp around it.
AT: So one of the things which the pavilion has announced is a focus on video and moving images and that this is the first time that South Africa has taken this approach. Can you talk a little bit about the implications of that for you on the installation side of things?
BC: The biggest challenge so far has been that both of the artworks are video-based and both have sound. So we have to work out how to separate one space from the other space without having the sound interfering with each other too much. So we’ve spent quite a lot of time and money into putting in structures that can isolate sound and to try and keep that as pure as possible.
It’s quite a challenging task because of the nature of the building itself. There isn’t a ceiling. They have beautiful 400 year old wooden beams, but there’s no actual ceiling there so sound just bounces all over the place. You constantly hear the sounds from the other pavilions opposite you. So not only do we have to be considerate of the artists within our own pavilion, but we also have to be considerate of the pavilions next door to us.
AT: Do you discuss these issues with your neighbouring pavilions?
BC: There have been conversations with the Peruvian Pavilion to ensure that what we are doing isn’t going to impact on them too much. And that’s also part of the role that the biennial architecture department play; each pavilion has to submit a floorplan of what they are proposing and they are there to check that the pavilions aren’t going to interfere with each other too much (there has to be some reasonable allowance or tolerance) and they meet national health and safety requirements.
AT: Looking at the layout of the space, the challenges become very apparent. For one thing the room isn’t enclosed. There’s a staircase and elevator and, as you mentioned, the Peruvian Pavilion.
BC: It’s a huge challenge. I mean the room itself is a little bit awkward because of the staircase and the elevator shaft (which provides wheelchair access to the space), so we have to take that into consideration and work around it. On the plus side, as you come up the elevator, Peru and South Africa are the first pavilions which you see, so we’re in a fantastic position within the Arsenale, but with that, we have to deal with these elements. But you work around that.
AT: You’ve done some really interesting negotiations with the space in the past. I’m thinking of things like the Angus Gibson video ‘enclosure’ in the previous pavilion.
BC: I think that those kinds of limitations make you think outside of the box creatively and that could be part of the success of some of the pavilion stands. In 2015, all of those dry walls were built specifically for that installation and at the end of it, they all get removed. Then they get rebuilt for the architectural biennale and then removed again, and so on. What we’ve been trying to do is to recycle as much of the walls and lighting units as possible so that we can save some money at least.
If you look at the photographs of the empty space, you can see how the building has tilted, the walls aren’t parallel to the ground. They’re actually at a 3-5° tilt. The walls themselves aren’t actually running parallel to each other; which adds to further complication of trying to build anything square or straight. It’s all skew! From the bottom of the wall to the top of the wall, in some cases, there is a difference of 400mm, which is quite substantial.
Then of course there is a language barrier whilst working in Italy, English being a second or third language and often things are lost in translation. It also does not help that the biennale set up is over Easter with multiple public holidays all in a row, kinda like in South Africa. To top it off Italian lunch hour is between 13:00 and 15:30. So it’s a challenge to make changes during buildup as time is not on your side and most materials have to be brought into Venice by small boat and trolley. It’s a tiny island with lots of canals.
AT: Are you working closely with the artists with regards to the realisation of the final projects? Can you share any details about the works?
BC: Absolutely. We’re in constant communication with Candice and Mohau as to exactly how the pavilion is going to function and how their space is going function. Of the two, Candice’s is a bit more technically involved, so there has been a lot of communication in a technical sense.
As I mentioned, both artists will be presenting a film and we have been working hard on isolating the soundtracks. That’s about as far as I can go at the moment without giving too much away.
AT: Video is definitely a medium where you have to be kind to the viewer to get them to stick around. If you have a 3 hour epic, you have to give them somewhere to sit.
BC: It’s got to be comfortable. Or uncomfortable, depending on how you want them to feel in that space. One of the rooms has been treated in such a way that it will put the viewer in a very specific frame of mind.
The rooms have been designed in such a way that the architecture doesn’t have any presence. The architecture itself falls away and the artwork itself pushes to the forefront. And that’s done very specifically. Because you don’t want to be sitting there going ‘Wow, that’s an amazing wall’ while you’re trying to look at the work.
AT: Also just within the context of the Venice Biennale, getting audiences to look at anything for longer than 2 minutes is a challenge in itself.
BC: That’s quite a big one, definitely. Typically within the biennale format, the successful works are the more immersive ones, where you go in and sit in an environment and it’s all-encompassing. A critique that’s been raised about past South African pavilions is the sheer amount of work on display. The individual works tend to get lost in the amount of works that you see within a Biennale day; your brain gets overloaded. One small artwork is easier to forget than an immersive environment and spending 5 minutes in a room, rather than 30 seconds with a lone work. I think that’s a challenge for all pavilions.
AT: You’ve done this a couple of times now. Once everything is up and hung, do you spend some time doing reconnaissance, looking at how people respond to certain things for future reference?
BC: What I think was quite interesting about the pavilion in 2015 with the MRA and Apartheid Museum was that – from a South Africa point of view – the issues that were dealt with were issues that we as a country have been dealing with for a very long time. There was a lot of local criticism around that. But I think that it’s very important for the South African audience to understand that we’re not only presenting works to a South African audience, but we’re also presenting works to an international audience. And to try and satisfy that need from both sides is quite difficult.
When we engaged with foreigners in the space about the works, they were really quite interested and we had a lot of good responses. A lot of that context was quite new to them and not everyone is aware of South Africa’s recent political position. The point of the Venice biennale is to take a snapshot of your country and to present it, so a lot of positive work came out of that.
The South African Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale opens on 13 May, 2017.
Additional information about the artists and the South African Pavilion can be found here.