Spiky Seating

In the Nordic Pavilion in Venice, insects, green growths in glass containers, and clusters of seaweed all thrive. Whether it is inhabitable to us humans is less certain.

Nabbteeri, Ethnographies of a homespun spinelessness cult and other neighbourly relations (Gingerbread house), 2019. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen.

“Three alien creatures have settled in at the heart of the building,” someone said during this year’s press preview at the Nordic Pavilion in Venice. The building itself was completed in 1962, designed by the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn with three slender tree trunks growing up from the floor through the pavilion’s roof, a fundamentally non-anthropocentric device that fits in well with an exhibition space wherein three nations must try to coexist.

Weather Report: Forecasting Future
Ane Graff, Ingela Ihrman, nabbteeri
58th International Art Exhibition La Biennale de Venezia, the Nordic Pavillion, Venice, Venice, Venice

The immediate impression conveyed by this year’s exhibition is one of tasteful poise and balance. We can tick the appropriate boxes associated with politics and aesthetics, and the theme is, unsurprisingly, the climate crisis and the uncertain future facing us. The curatorial duo from Kiasma in Helsinki, Piia Oksanen and Leevi Haapala, has not aimed for over-the-top effects and works that clash violently with each other. Sadly, such balanced restraint is unlikely to be among the most successful at this biennial, which, with its element of international competition, may be flippantly described as the Eurovision of the art world. This year, it seems that immersive and performative installations such as Belgium’s mechanical puppet theatre and the Lithuanian indoor beach opera are generating the most buzz. However, one may reasonably ask whether striving for such emphatically dramatic displays is worthwhile.

With its two massive sliding glass doors, the Nordic Pavilion admits a lot of creepy-crawlies into the exhibition space. Insects, yes, but perhaps the art public is also a kind of pest? Venice is famously tourist-infested, and the biennale does nothing to improve matters. I myself feel like a big fat beetle knocking back prosecco at the press viewing, where the buffet seems to exert the strongest pull of all. It may seem relevant to ask the same question posed in 2009 prior to the first instalment of the Bergen Assembly triennial: To biennale or not to biennale? I know what my answer to that question is.

Nabbteeri, Ethnographies of a homespun spinelessness cult and other neighbourly relations (Dead hedge), 2019. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen.

Centred around a large screen, we find a comfortable lounge area with what appear at first to be alluringly soft beanbag chairs in various shades of brown, yellow, and blue. However, it soon becomes clear that the Finnish artist duo nabteeri (Janne Nabb and Maria Teeri) has no intention of catering to the comfort of weary human bodies. This landscape of sacks, which contains gravel from the area around the pavilion, is covered in the kind of spikes used to keep birds away. Here, green growths live in glass containers, but whether planet nabbteeri is also habitable for us, we cannot quite tell. Even the video screen is equipped with spikes. It shows a 3D animation that appears to be a report from a post-apocalyptic setting. A childlike robotic voice registers more or less mutated creaturesinhabiting a landscape reminiscent of the installation we ourselves occupy. Words written in an organic, death-metal-like font emerge and fade away on the screen.

The duo also contributes two other works, but spotting them can be difficult. I passed by a messy planter outside the building, thinking that someone had rather failed to set a party mood here. But then again, that wasn’t the intention. This is compost collected by the artist duo, creating a comfortable, welcoming home for beasties of a different kind than us. At the rear entrance of the exhibition building is a globe-like open form full of twigs that acts partly as a barrier to human visitors, and partly as yet another invitation to congregate with other species. Humans, who install pigeon-deterring spikes everywhere, cannot simply assume that we are the only life forms addressed by nabteeri.

With her beautiful and mildly abject seaweed sculptures, Swedish artist Ingela Ihrman is responsible for the exhibition’s most generous gesture. Seaweed shapes made out of textile and metal wire wind and coil through the room in hues of brown, red, and green. One type of seaweed used as a reference for this work is called gutweed: long tubes not unlike human intestines. Contrasts between an outer and an inner world are invited to converge and collapse. Ihrman has previously worked with performance, and indeed these sensuous intimations of other ways of being have a certain queer theme going on. Sadly, however, these moments seem quite subdued. The spectacle evokes one of Venice’s most captivating sights: the soft undulating seaweed extending from the quays out into the canals. Ihrman’s works are also a surprisingly good fit with the current exhibition at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, The Nature of Arp. The French-German sculptor Hans – or Jean – Arp (1886–1966) was part of the Surrealist movement, and Ihrman’s works enter into a remarkably harmonious conversation with his. Abstraction based on nature has previously seemed to me rather anxiety-ridden, an attempt to raise oneself above the chaos of nature by rendering it artificial. Now, however, Arp’s works look like loving meditations, and Ihrman’s performative creations make it clear that it is humankind’s superiority that is heading for a fall.

Ingela Ihrman, A Great Seaweed Day, 2018–19. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen.

Close to the three slender tree trunks, we find Norwegian contributor Ane Graff’s three glass vitrines, containing materials that reference inflammatory conditions. The vitrines can be seen as fragile, wide-open bodies in a state of dissolution. Lakes of molten glass in pinks and violets flow onto the pavilion’s concrete floor. As in Ihrman’s art, there is a striking formal beauty here, even though one gradually realises the bleakness of the theme. Taking a scientific approach, Graff has studied bacterial cultures, particularly those pertaining to autoimmune diseases that, sadly, are on the rise due to environmental impacts and excessive use of penicillin. Our bodies are left vulnerable and begin to attack themselves when the friendly bacterial cultures that assist normal functioning are chased away. Autoimmune inflammatory conditions appear to be the result of our failing sense of coexistence. The last stage of inflammation is presented in a glass cabinet full of black dross and two rather uninviting cocktails jokingly named Anxiety and Memory Loss. Graff’s works do not flail their arms dramatically, but offer multi-layered food for thought; they stay with you for a long time. Another interesting feature is that the chemical compounds in Graff’s vitrines and cocktails will continue to act on each other and their appearance transform right up until the exhibition closes in November

The three contributions communicate clearly and harmoniously with each other, each taking a different approach to problematising the ecological challenges facing us today. The curatorial team has imposed a contextualisation of the works, but I take the liberty of regarding this as a self-service buffet that you can pass by at will. For an exhibition with some unresolved potential it is perhaps a paradoxical hope that as time goes by and the climate changes already affecting the pavilion become clearer and the sea levels rise, other species will move in and chemistry will bring about truly surprising transformations.

Ane Graff, States of Inflammation, 2019. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen.