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Beginning to erode some thoughts on hydrofeminism in Venice

Post-human feminist phenomenologist Astrida Neimanis’ refrain reads ‘We are all bodies of water’. I took this with me to Venice. She also writes in her book Bodies of Water, ‘As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities, and more as oceanic eddies…’ I found myself less isolated entity and more oceanic eddies in a couple of unlikely couplings. This text is an attempt to share (and recirculate) some of the watery moments of the opening days of the most recent Venice Biennale.

One of the few places to soak in hydrofeminist vapours within the biennale was Hito Steyerl’s presentation This is the Future (2019) in the Arsenale exhibition as part of May You Live in Interesting Times. The misty room constructed on aqua-alta platforms and with sandbag plastic screens by Steyerl was brimming with the dry voice of a female computer who predicts that the future will be 100% bad for your health. Disturbingly familiar, the room is a landscape with endless beats, twisted fish and mutant algae on display. Central to Steyerl’s post-internet water disco is the play on transparencies and the vapour that hisses out of the night club smoke machine. It carries in its breath the ghosts of the Anthropocene. The hydrofeminist vapours moved between transparency and opacity. The breathes of the audience mixing into this bath of seething incompatible futures.

The breathes of the audience and the desire of an audience were also present in the swell of Joan Jonas in San Lorenzo. A few minutes walk back from the Arsenale, a drafty ex-church (now the newly opened TBA21–Academy’s Ocean Space) holds the Joan Jonas’ exhibition, Moving off the Land II. On the Tuesday night, there was a gathering of hundreds to see Jonas’ live performance by the same name. The performance moved between chapters that folded in live painting, projections on bodies, attempts to communicate between humans and more-than-humans. A gentle playfulness on one level mixed with Jonas’ status as an art major on another level. I felt most moved by the projections of the audience onto Jonas. There was a palpable longing in the audience. A desire from the audience to sink into the urgency of the present climate crisis, to place these competing realities of art and climate together for a moment and to look to our artistic elders to show some light, give us some hint at what to do with these inconsistencies. And yet, Joan Jonas’ performance seemed to perform more at a distance. By filming in aquariums, I understood Jonas’ presentation as circulating around human built limits, and I was reminded of our own human made prisons. In Moving Off the Land II, much of the same material from the performance was also presented in the exhibition. However, it was in the exhibition model that the hydrofeminist cracks began to appear and leak into each other. In the exhibition curated by Stefanie Hessler, the works sit in more energetic multiplicities and the projections of text, speeches, interviews, performances, quotes, drawings and aquariums built a room full of possibilities for understanding hydrofeminist oceans. The voices of the young people are especially poignant and start to enact one of Neimanis’ suggestions that hydrofeminism allows ‘our comfortable categories of thought to begin to erode’.

Swedish artist Ingela Ihrman’s work takes your hand and leads you quietly to a contemplative place where terms like nature/culture/memory/mimetics/other/us become sticky and damp. Visitors to Venice can see Ingela Ihrman’s enlarged seaweed collections in the Nordic Pavilion exhibition Weather Report: Forecasting Future. Ihrman’s oversized seaweeds are stationed beside the glass vitrines of Ane Graff from Norway and the composting materials and video work of artist duo nabbteeri from Finland. This tightly presented exhibition offers a set of proposals for thinking through the scales of human, planetary and ecological crisis.

It was in a small stone courtyard on Thursday afternoon that Ihrman performed the Giant Otter Giving Birth (2012–2018) as part of the IASPIS and Moderna Museet presentations in Venice. It was here that the traces of the hydrofeminist matters began to emerge in full. Ihrman lay quietly in a homemade suit, dressed as an otter type creature (a suit oddly reminiscent of the 1990s BBC Narnia series and the beavers who lived by the dam). She moved like an animal almost anesthetised, odd flaps of the hand, uncomfortable shuffles. The stone courtyard of Studio Giardini filled with quietened figures listening, watching, softly observing. The first fluids of hydrofeminism leaked gently out of the birth canal of the animal. A white-ish, opaque, gluggy liquid with small strawberry coloured flecks. This leaking proceeded the birth itself. Three small black and damp baby otters were born quietly, with the concentration of the audience, entranced. I was viscerally reminded of myself giving birth (what an odd phrase that is, to give birth - to give into birth is closer to the experience). ‘On a geological scale, we have all arisen out of the same primordial soup, gestated by species upon watery species that have gifted their morphology to new iterations and articulations’. The otter released her amniotic fluids, in small puffs, onto the cold stone floor. I was engulfed by the urgency and quiet determination of the otter and the intimacy of the hushed courtyard where Ihrman gave into birth.

In the stomach of an octopus was the setting for the film within the French Pavilion, a new set of works from artist Laure Prouvost entitled Deep Sea Blue Surrounding You/Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre. Nemanis’ writes ‘Water entangles our bodies in relations of gift, debt, theft, complicity, differentiation, relation’ and it’s these terms ‘…gift, debt, theft…’ that come to mind when I think of the assemblage in the pavilion. A watery way of thinking through the current climate crisis emerged in Prouvost’s work. The French Pavilion was entered after standing in a line, and then going down the back, around the bend, behind the way, under a bush, through the other door. In this tunnelled entrance audience ascended into the newly laid floor of the pavilion. The floor was a sexy shiny aqua glass that held forgotten bits and pieces. Glass animals, cigarette butts, Nokia phones, things gathered in corners like washed up residues. The accumulation of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene pleasantly locked into aquatic blue. Apparently at times there were live pigeons there too, although I never saw these. For me the traces of hydrofeminism appear in the shiny blue glass of the French Pavilion. An intrusion into the space that speaks so clearly of things glamorised, things forgotten, figures moulded into each other and stuck together in this way were we are now. Not fighting for an environment ‘pristine’ but still fighting for the messy, entangled, acidic, plastic-filled oceans and for the problems we are part of and the intersectional fights for liveable futures.

In the end what can be understood from a Venice Biennale viewed through the leakiness of water? The way water escapes us. The way water returns. I’m left with the impression that the pavilions are escaping and that Venice continues with or without the art swells. Near the apartment where I am staying there is a man on a boat sledging mud out of the canal. The man works digging up the grey sludgy matter, moving it from the canal to the boat in small scoops of his mechanical arm. Tourists watch with interest, myself included. Another day I am witnessing Basque/Spanish artist Itziar Okariz’s To Pee in Public and Private Spaces in the Spanish pavilion and am reminded of the watery archives we visitors leave in Venice. Another day it rains and I buy an over-priced umbrella. Another day I sip Pickle Juice in artist collective Slav and Tatar’s installation Dillio Plaza, leaving a salty taste of brine and tears. Another day I visit the communist centre on the corner, where I alight onto the boat for the work MEDUSA.A of Venetian Sara Tirelli and the floating VR pavilion. I watch the reality presentation with interest, the mechanics of the piece and the discombobulating experience of combining virtual reality with Venice reality. But it’s the moment of taking the glasses off that seems to feel the most intimate, the most connected to a possible hydrofeminist feeling of being both aware and part of the problems of coexistence - materially and philosophically. I ride on the waves of the grand canal in Tirelli’s boat. The low golden sun so bright in my eyes that Venice becomes a shadowy imprint. I’ve never seen Venice quite like this. ‘The space between ourselves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin’. In an attempt to become an oceanic eddy, I drink it in, it’s like thinking underwater.

---- Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris

Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris is a curator and artist. Currently, she works in Stockholm as Curator at Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation and is undertaking doctoral studies from the University of New South Wales on the connection between the current climate crisis and contemporary art practice in the Nordic region.

*Quotes from Astrida Neimanis, Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water, Chapter Six of Undutiful Daughters, edited by Henriette Gunkel, Chrysanthi Nigianni and Fanny Soderback and Astrida Neimanis book Bodies of Water

Image credits 1-2:

Ingela Ihrman

A Great Seaweed Day 2008-2019

photo: Finnish National Gallery | Pirje Mykkänen

Image credits 3-4:

Laure Prouvost, Deep See Blue Surrounding You / Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre, French Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019. © Giacomo Cosua


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