The pavilion exhibitions at the Venice Biennale are where contemporary art goes to become film. Where artists are allowed, if not even expected – or downright required – to ramp up the production value of their works to desperate heights in the hopes of capturing viewers before they depart to make the opening of the next pavilion or to line up for the fifth espresso of the day. Uffe Isolotto and curator Jacob Lillemose’s fantasy-inspired handling of this year’s Danish pavilion meets this communicative challenge with a fervour that leaves me with the suspicion that they actually thrive in this attention-economy mire.
The affinities between Isolotto and Lillemose are obvious. Lillemose previously ran the exhibition venue X and Beyond in Copenhagen, and the speculative disaster scenarios showcased there have clearly made a mark on their joint project in Venice. Combining narrative and sculpture, Isolotto’s specialty could be briefly and superficially summed up as a post-digital and posthuman hybrid aesthetic where modified human bodies take centre stage. We Walked the Earth kneads these two premises into a remarkably effective exhibition formula.
When the human body is the subject or theme of art these days, its biology is generally presented as a manipulable substrate that is subordinate to the individual’s felt identity. This implies a view of biotechnology as an expressive tool. Isolotto’s vision of the future amps up technology’s influence over our biology while simultaneously relocating this symbiosis to a situation where expressive considerations no longer govern things. We find ourselves in an imaginary future where humankind has, for reasons unknown, transformed into centaurs and now lives in the aftermath of a civilisational collapse.
The pavilion has been converted into a dilapidated home for two centaurs. One of them, the woman, is placed in the pavilion’s largest room, which is reminiscent of a stable with piles of dried eelgrass. She lies on the floor, her eyes bloodshot and her head resting on her arm as if sleeping. Out of her behind hangs a foetus inside a semi-transparent bluish sac. “It looks just like a dead person,” someone next to me murmured. Did she die in childbirth? The figures were made by 10 Tons, a studio that specialises in special effects for the film industry, and I looked in vain for breaks in the illusion. Did I even sense a smell of horse? Life came to an even more brutal end for the male centaur. He hangs by his neck on a chain suspended from the ceiling; I assume he hanged himself out of grief over the loss of his partner.
The meticulous realism continues in the processing of the walls, which appear to be stained and damaged by water. Windows are smeared with dirt. Paint on the ceiling in the entrance area peels off in large flakes. Shoots and dry leaves are strewn across the floor in a room that looks like a cross between a tool shed and a pantry, with a piece of meat dangling from the ceiling and a couple of rake-like tools leaning against the wall. A pile of horse manure sits outside the main entrance. The pavilion’s doorways are equipped with gates of a peculiar archaic-futuristic design – which, a little incongruously considering the general decay, look brand new.
Around the hanged centaur and in the room next to it strewn glass sculptures resembling amorphous creatures or organs appear to have crawled out of fruit-like shells and perished. Soil residues on the shells indicate that they were grown right outside the pavilion, where the lawn has been dug up to look like a kitchen garden. Underneath some of these fruit-creatures, puddles of viscous blue liquid have formed – presumably, the same liquid that circulates in an intravenous system of thin cables worn by the centaurs.
The stylised elements, especially the glass sculptures, introduce a sense of imbalance in the hyper-realistic fiction. At the same time, these semi-abstract forms embody, like the dead centaurs, a brutalisation of organic life. In addition to having an absorptive emotional impact, this violence is thematically relevant: it is indicative of a transhumanist conception of the human as an open biological system that can be freely intervened in. Any moral objection to this constitutes a conservative cultural reflex that a good transhumanist must combat. The violence done to the inhabitants of the Danish Pavillion is an aesthetic manifestation of a programmatic irreverence towards the biologically given and the desire to transcend it.
We Walked the Earth also proposes a collapsological model of the future. Collapsology is transhumanism’s fatalistic cousin, a counterargument to the belief in an eternal influx of technological innovations that will lead to ever-greater freedom to change the framework of human life and gain new ground for self-expression. In Isolotto’s story, the transformation of human into a centaur is not the result of an increasing distance from nature, but a necessary adaptation of the organism to an ecological state of emergency that restores existential stress to the human condition. The collapsologist model is sober, but also offers an opportunity to reprimand the hubris of others. In this view, the brutal treatment of the centaurs embodies a – borderline malicious – corrective to a desire to increase our possibilities and power. Isolotto’s centaurs instead personify a constriction of the human world – parodically emphasised by joining the human being to an animal body.
A short story by Lillemose (in collaboration with Isolotto) is also distributed in the exhibition. Now We Are Water is set in an even more distant future than the centaur narrative and is about creatures that both live in water and are made of water. These luxurious beings can change shape to whatever they want and spend their time roaming the seabed in search of “bodies” to play with. Via rudimentary geometric descriptions of what they find, we come to understand that they have discovered some dead centaurs. In a morbid choreography, the creatures swim in and out through orifices, at one point turning into scalpels so that they can open the corpses’ abdomens. The story ends with them taking over the centaurs’ bodies entirely and comically animating them to move in an unsteady procession along the seabed. The aquatic beings offset the exhibition’s general pessimism; it is a life form that reinvents itself at the behest of its imagination. But if they are descendants of man, they have no recollection of it: “We don’t know whether there was life before.” They paint a picture of time after man as ecstatic, but also severed from the past.
We Walked the Earth does not lack sophistication. But it is a sophistication arising out of the careful preparation of surfaces in collaboration with craftspeople – who are highlighted as co-creators in the materials accompanying the exhibition – and a maximisation of dramatic appeal through the use of narrative and scenographic tools. Imitating the production-system and communication ploys of commercial cinema is not a freshly minted strategy in contemporary art. I think that the reason the import feels successful in this case is due to its timing; something in the air makes Isolotto and Lillemose’s strategies appear less as a subversive mockery of good taste or a cynical milking of the appeal of kitsch, and more as an early response to ongoing changes in contemporary art’s conditions for display and circulation, a mutation of art that shows every sign of offering adaptive advantages – and not just in the Giardini.
The tragic take on transhumanism and the return to agriculture in We Walked the Earth is, in a sense, about a general longing for feedback. Not primarily feedback in the tactile sense, but understood as a signal that arises from a relationship with one’s environment that makes the truth-value of any action immediately palpable by offering an opportunity to fail. This fosters the virtue of adaptivity. Similarly, the affective strategies of Isolotto and Lillemose testify to an art that wishes to be judged on whether it hits its mark or not. They have waived contemporary art’s foundational exemption from audience evaluation and implicitly accepted the loss of autonomy that follows from entering into a relationship of direct feedback with the actual environment in which the artwork operates. All relevant criteria can be observed and widely recognised. On these terms, We Walked the Earth is undoubtedly a success. But for art, becoming indistinguishable from a blockbuster – slightly overstated – is, of course, also a tragedy.
The article is translated from Norwegian.