The current 55th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale includes many ‘firsts’. Among them is the Bahamas presenting a pavilion amid the choice real estate of the Arsenale. One of nine new entries added to this year’s list of exhibitors – the other eight are Côte d’Ivoire, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Kuwait, the Maldives, Nigeria, Paraguay, the Republic of Kosovo and the Vatican (yes, that’s right, the Vatican) – the Bahamas’ debut features 16 works by a single artist on the world-beating themes of climate change, new- frontier exploration and cultural difference. Even more unlikely: it's orchestrated by New York- based, Nassau-born Tavares Strachan, a wildcard conceptualist who routinely square-knots together farflung locales like Venice, Nassau and the North Pole.
“People don’t necessarily think about how closely the global north and south are linked together,” Strachan tells me over a beer at a down- at-the-heel Spanish workingman’s club on Manhattan’s west side, where we’ve met to discuss his Venice show. “The national model for an exhibition like the Biennale means something totally different today than it did a century ago. There was no discussion of climate change then – but now when there’s talk of the polar ice caps melting, it’s because islands like Venice and the Bahamas will be underwater.”
People don’t necessarily think about how closely the global north and south are linked together
A thirty-three-year-old creator who grabbed the attention of the international art scene in 2006 after he journeyed to Alaska to excavate a 4.5-ton block of ice which he later displayed in a solar-powered freezer in the Bahamas, Strachan is that rare, cagily confident, self-generating artist who prefers autonomy and temporary alliances to long-term gallery contracts in order to get things done. A free agent who has worked with various US and European galleries and institutions, his large-scale schemes routinely require teams of curators, production experts and assistants. One 2008 project, which resulted in the 2011 founding of what Strachan calls “the Bahamas Air and Space Exploration Center” (BASEC) – the artist’s version of NASA for his native country – led Strachan to confer with numbers of physicists and mathematicians in several countries before eventually travelling to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, for months of gruelling astronaut training.
For his Venice installation, which he has darkly titled Polar Eclipse, Strachan has decided – he tells me as we strain to talk over a World Cup qualifying match on television – to “go all out”, putting everything he can into a multipart, enormously complex operation of the sort that can sometimes make art acquire outsize, even heroic dimensions. A project that involves, among other geographical dislocations, the artist retracing the steps of Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson’s 1909 expedition to the North Pole – the African-American Henson is reported to have led rather than assisted the Caucasian Peary in this historically contested achievement – Polar Eclipse also features Strachan in his most complete psychocartographer mode.
“I’m fascinated by the idea of being in two or more places at once, and exploring difference that way,” Strachan tells me – namely, the evolving notions of belonging, national identity and globalisation. “The way an institution like the Biennale deploys the idea of ‘difference’ as cultural tourism, both historically and currently, is something I want to work with and expand till I’m satisfied I’ve dealt with it completely.”
I’m fascinated by the idea of being in two or more places at once
A mental and physical journey the artist will represent as both a 6,000 sq ft, theatrically lit, multisensory space and a 14-channel, 360-degree video he has titled Magnetic, Strachan’s travel to the outer reaches of human habitability has everything to do with his hauling back striking new images and experiential connections for others to make their own. What more impacting way is there, one might ask – in view of the current ineffectiveness of fact-based data – to illustrate that cities like Venice, Nassau and New York are significantly threatened by global warming?
“When I talk about ‘exploration’ I am talking about adaptability,” Strachan says, measuring his words with typical thoughtfulness. “What I’m trying to do, essentially, is to triangulate the so- called new world, the old world and the uninhabitable poles, while talking to the potential catastrophe or grace that might face all three.”
‘The traveller sees what he sees,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote, ‘the tourist sees what he has come to see.’ That’s how it is with the very mobile Strachan and what he calls his “lean and mean crew of handpicked coconspirators”. A group he has gathered to orchestrate the many moving parts of his incredibly ambitious pavilion – the gang includes curators Jean Crutchfield and Robert Hobbs, producers Christopher Hoover, Michael Hall and Tina Gregory, as well as his own brothers, close friends and even Strachan’s mother, who made his North Pole gear – these folks have helped make material what is essentially this artist’s high-concept, low-stress poetic vision.
In Venice, that vision calls for a virtual cornucopia of perceptual sleights of hand and science-inflected trompe l’oeil works. Among the planned pieces on view, for example, are a dark room constructed for three ‘shattered’ neon sculptures Strachan calls “a catastrophe of light”; several large-scale labour-intensive collages of Arctic animals on the verge of extinction (each took about eight months to make); an exploding lifesize resin sculpture of an Inuit figure made up of 350 separate pieces; a nearly invisible glass sculpture of Henson suspended in mineral oil (“the oil and glass have the same refractive index”, the artist explains); as well as a football-size piece of polar ice that the artist will soon have cloned at a secret laboratory at Yale (both the real piece of ice and the ‘cloned’ one will be exhibited side by side in custom-made freezer units come June).
But the individual work Strachan is most proud of – the one he says brings together the entire installation as an integral whole – is the one that led him to fly 40 fourth-, fifth- and sixth- graders from Nassau’s Sadie Curtis School to Venice last winter. There to perform an age-old Inuit hunting song, Strachan’s young guests made flesh and blood the sorts of genuine multicultural experiences he cherishes as part of his own artistic heritage. Filmed and recorded inside the Bahamas’ first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the a cappella song Aya Aya – for which Strachan says there is literally no translation – not only provides the soundtrack for the exhibition. It also demonstrates how cherished words, concepts and ideas from one part of the world can retain, in another entirely new context, multiple yet universal meanings.