A sensuous citrus scent lingers in the air; and as I walk, I am enveloped by a soft pool of dewy fog. I’m warmed, I’m refreshed, but I’m about 5,000 miles away from an early morning stroll in Suriname… I’m in Venice at the 58th Venice Biennale and about to enter the Dutch Pavilion.
Titled The Measure of Presence, neither this alluring smell nor the fog are actually part of the Dutch presentation; though in a fitting irony, that evokes thoughts of the Netherlands history of industry and exploitation and exchange, these elements add to the Pavilion’s experience, as well as its conceptual depth.
Indeed, exchange is at the heart of the Dutch concept for this year’s Biennale: born out of a conversation between Iris Kensmil, Remy Jungerman and Benno Temple (the two artists representing the Netherlands and the Pavilion’s curator) The Measure of Presence explores, through dialogue, the interconnected histories that have formed 21st century Dutch culture.
The work of Remy Jungerman is perplexing. My first impression of his dominating installation was one of ghosts and decaying modernity. But this was me reading his work, and specifically his use of colour and material, through my western (aesthetic) bias. Finding inspiration in both the 20th century’s European avant-gardes and African and Monrovian cultures, Jungerman’s installations depart from the western notion of ‘influenced by’ — where a culture is appropriated and refined through the lens of the western view / practice to create a quasi-cross-cultural artwork for easy reading — towards a notion of cultural remediation: achieved through a levelling in visual languages.
Entering the Pavilion Promise IV is the first work you encounter. Resembling an ornamental aloe vera, the monumental form is constructed from a set of slender wooden beams, painted in grey iterating sections. Positioned vertically these beams draw your attention skyward, and as you examine their elegant forms Jungerman’s source voices (read cultural influences) begin to speak to you: rusted nails puncture; wool whines. These adornments give each beam an identity, and life of its own.
Dotted throughout Promise IV’s structural base are a number of slats. Painted in muted colours and patterns their arrangement is far from random or romantic; Jungerman has laid out these slates according to his version of Stanley Brouwn’s (the South-American-born Dutch artist) conceptual ordering system.
This same visual language is used in Visiting Deities. Constituted by Kabara Tafra and Horizontal Obeah GREENGESITONU I, II, and III. The installation balances three Futurist ocean liners (Horizontal Obeah GREENGESITONU I, II, and III) above a baron seabed, creating a dynamic flow of horizontal energy that sails through the nothingness at the rear of the Pavilion. In a poignant reference to both the legacy of the sea trade (slave trade) and the modern-day flow of peoples, Kabara Tafra is the sea that sits between the ocean liners and the crumbling earth.
A bleak reading initially, the two individual works that form Visiting Deities have a more utopian aspiration: to invite communication, conversation, and reflection across cultures. Far from staging modernity as a phantom of imperialism, this dishevelled blankness — an aesthetic resembling the city of Venice, is an invitation to fill in the gaps together; to share in order to replenish, and to provide the joint energy to fuel our ships on their journey towards a sustainable cross-cultural interconnectivity. Lets’ hope that the work doesn’t go the way of Venice and become a selfie icon.
Remy Jungerman and Iris Kensmil share more than just a refined colour pallet, of greys, blacks, soft lemons, pale blues and plumbs; both follow similar conceptual frameworks. Like Jungerman, Kensmil’s contribution to the Pavilion pairs different forms of production and display to expand conversations; and through this expansion, she aims to create a more inclusive cultural trajectory.
Kensmil’s work has a strong sense of agency about it. She urges artists, thinkers, and citizens to speak up, to ask for space beyond the identity politics trapping the 21st-century cultural discourse.
The New Utopia Begins Here #1 draws upon the idea of the pioneer — a term often associated with utopianism. The installation layers glowing portraits over a modernist wall mural. Depicting seven black women whose contributions to modernity has often been overlooked and left out of the mainstream narrative, these dream-like portraits linger in the space, their soft presence cutting through the clean lines of the modernist mural. Following a 19th-century impressionist painting technique — using a light undercoat to give the portraits a vibrancy — Kensmil imbues these portraits with an air of calm tranquillity that gives these pioneers an understated power and presence. By connecting these iconic black figures to modernism Kensmil aims to correct the one-sidedness of mainstream knowledge, in doing so she underscores the important role these women play in the construction of our present, and how their work will support the development of our future.
Behind this grouping, Beyond the Burden of Representation, makes explicit how knowledge is produced and maintained in the museum / gallery environment. Here a series of paintings, depicting exhibition environments, are paired with a collection of art history and philosophy books, and sit over Kensmil’s mural. By reproducing these containers of knowledge alongside their historical frame (modernism), Kensmil lays bare the limiting structure that has, and continues to, perpetuate a set of prevailing principles; principles based upon a restricted scope of what utopia and progress means.
Benno Temple’s curatorial approach to the Pavilion’s underpinning concept works well: pairing two artists who dissect the overlapping cultural connections that have formed contemporary Dutch culture has been an effective measure of what constitutes the present. Not a critique or lament of our imperialist past, the Pavilion is an attempt to introduce into the conversation practices, iconographies and languages that have been overlooked or historically miss translated.
By re-animating, the present through a polycultural visual language, Temple, Jungerman and Kensmil have created a quasi-public space, a conceptual port of sorts. Far from a globalized privately owned public open space, where the reading is done through the eyes of the capitalist, the three create an alternative meeting point, one that breaks down the dogmatic bonds that have been pinning together our contemporary world, creating space for deeper more complex reflections on the past and how this can be used to shape the future.
Iris Kensmil &Remy Jungerman
The Measurement of Presence
Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Giardini Castello, Venice
11 May — 24 November 2019