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VENICE, Italy — Acqua alta: high water. It’s something Venetians have learned to live with, when the city floods under high tides and strong winds. It mainly happens in the winter, but even under the mild May sunshine, the crowds sipping coffee in Saint Mark’s Square will sometimes get their feet wet. At these times, the lines between lagoon, canal, and city square become blurred, mixing the usually distinct spheres of earth and water, perforating our comforting belief that we have mastery over the elements.
When the waters begin to rise, the city authorities sound a siren to warn residents and put down elevated walkways along key pedestrian routes, helping Venetians and tourists to prepare for the encroaching tide. This strange environment is uniquely positioned to remind us of the dangers we all face, living in the inescapable grip of the Anthropocene: sea level rise, extreme weather, coastal erosion, flooding, extinction.
It is perhaps unsurprising then, that allusions to rising waters can be found across the Venice Biennale this year, as well as among the collateral events. This is not the first time that water-related climate artwork has been shown at the biennale, but it strikes home with a particular power in the 2019 edition, which opened only a few weeks after the release of the UN’s damning report on human-induced biodiversity loss, international action by the Extinction Rebellion group and teenage activist Greta Thunberg, and the declaration of a climate emergency by various governments. Artists and curators, at least, are shown to be aware of the ongoing destruction of the natural world and the threat it poses to human life.
In the Arsenale Gaggiandre — where both water and air are integrated into the architecture of the space — visitors will find Tomás Saraceno’s installation “Aero(s)cene: When breath becomes air, when atmospheres become the movement for a post fossil fuel era against carbon-capitalist clouds” (2019). Viewed from a floating pontoon, the installation consists of a group of works, including “On the Disappearance of Clouds” (2019), a suspended carbon cloudscape, which, like a work of aerial theatre, responds to the choreography of the tides and weather simultaneously to visualise greenhouse gases and to suggest an idealistic post-fossil-fuel world.
To complement this piece, Saraceno also presents “Acqua Alta: En Clave de Sol” (2019), a sound work which draws on the alarm system developed by the city of Venice to warn residents about high water. “Acqua Alta,” which is triggered by the Venetian lagoon’s tidal phases, speculates on how the floating city might sound in 100 years, when its vulnerable creations and ecologies have been submerged because of exploitative and anthropocentric human actions. By making global warming both visible and audible, Saraceno highlights our reciprocal relationship with the elements and suggests alternative ways of responding to our predicament.
Elsewhere in the Arsenale, in Ralph Rugoff’s curated exhibition at the heart of the biennale, is Hito Steyerl’s installation “This is the Future” (2019), which combines projected videos with raised walkways inspired by those used in Venice during high tides. Steyerl, who has been named as one of the most influential people in the art world, is known for her video works exploring digital identity, surveillance culture, and technological advancements. “This is the Future” utilizes the artist’s now-familiar post-internet aesthetic and technological concerns, but also incorporates a foray into the world of plants, leading on from her successful recent show at London’s Serpentine, Power Plants.
The installation presents a digitalized garden of the future. A computerized voice names the redemptive properties of various plants, highlighting their “amazing” attributes such as providing us with oxygen. These are things we all know, but they are also truths we frequently manage to overlook.
“Warning,” says the voice, “It is very risky to enter the future.” In the future, we are told, there is a 100% chance that we will die. This is a wonderful example of ecological tragicomedy (reminiscent of the Golden Lion-winning seaside opera for the Anthropocene playing out in the Lithuanian pavilion). It’s a humorous reminder of human mortality, but the plants and raised walkways in Steyerl’s installation remind us of all the tragic and avoidable ways in which we might die in the future: through ecosystem collapse or widespread flooding. Steyerl suggests that, despite our belief in the power of technology and the ability of artificial intelligence to predict the future, we might end up being wiped out by nonhuman forces. And if we do, it will ironically be by our own doing, through our inability to recognize the complexity and unpredictability of nature’s delicate balance.
Concerns about the dangers of rising sea levels have also percolated through the various collateral Biennale events, which are spread throughout the city. Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum is an exhibition devised by the New York publication The Brooklyn Rail. The show, which is set in a typically Venetian damp and crumbling church, addresses the environmental crisis in the age of climate change, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean Sea.
The show centers around a selection of works by Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Bon, including a 2006 neon text work from which the exhibition takes its title. Another piece by Bon, “Oratorio Mare Nostrum” (2019), echoes Tomás Saraceno’s work in the Arsenale, using sound to connect the Venetian lagoon and the moon cycles. The piece acts as an aural map of the Mediterranean, creating a meditative atmosphere and encouraging visitors to recognize the ecological peril of Venice and its surrounding land/seascapes.
The specificities of the site are further highlighted by her piece “Inverted Mediterranean Pine” (2019), in which the sculptural remains of a burned tree are placed precariously over an existing hole in the church floor, revealing the foundations and lagoon beneath. In Venice, the sands are already shifting beneath our feet. And yet, the Mediterranean pine used in the sculpture was sourced from Malibu, California, where it was destroyed in a recent wildfire; Bon reminds us that the interconnected consequences of climate breakdown can be witnessed everywhere, and they come with all the unstoppably destructive power of fire and water.
On the other side of the city, Phi Presents: Renata Morales and Marina Abramović includes “Rising” (2019), a virtual reality piece by Marina Abramović. The frighteningly effective VR experience leaves the viewer stranded on a platform in front of a collapsing glacier, as increasingly large waves roll toward the ice shelf. This visceral, quasi-first-hand experience of the physical dangers of ascending sea levels is followed by a face-to-face encounter with the artist. Abramović’s digital double — created through motion-capture shots of the artist in a swimming pool — stands submerged in a tank of water, looking at the viewer with her characteristic piercing stare.
She seems to be drowning, and she is motioning to us. Is she asking us to save her, or is she asking us to realize that we are drowning too?