The Venice Questionnaire #29 – Lucy MacGarry

The co-curator of the South African Pavilion will present the moving image works of artists Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng

Mohau Modisakeng, Untitled Metamorphosis 7, 2015, Ink-jet print on Epson Hot Press Natural, 120cm x 120cm. Courtesy Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town; Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam; Tyburn Gallery, London Candice Breitz, Ghost Series #9, 1994-6, Chromogenic Print, 68.5cm x 101.5cm. Courtesy Goodman Gallery, Kaufmann Repetto + KOW Berlin

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2017 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening (13 May – 26 November). 

Lucy MacGarry is the co-curator, alongside Musha Neluheni, of the South African Pavilion, which includes work by Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng. The pavilion is in the Arsenale.

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

The South African Pavilion will be presenting Candice Breitz + Mohau Modisakeng – an exhibition by two artists of South African heritage whose practices are concerned with the moving image as a nexus to explore the disruptive power of storytelling. Audiences will be immersed within an installation that interrogates historical and contemporary waves of forced migration. Without divulging too much before the Pavilion is officially launched on 10 May, I will say that the works are multilayered, affecting and beautifully filmed. Breitz is, after all, an internationally acclaimed artist who has moved seamlessly between photography, montage and video installation over the course of her 20-year career. Living abroad for the most part, in New York and Berlin, she has focused her practice on the dynamics of subject formation, the impact of mass media culture and more recently the nuanced conditions under which empathy is produced. Modisakeng’s practice, on the other hand, is deeply defined by his South African-ness, yet it is in the reshaping of black identity, by pointing towards universal histories and the spirituality of space, that his practice resists binary readings. He uses a personal lexicon of ritual and symbolism in which his own body becomes both a vessel and a signifier. Our hope is that both local and international audiences will find resonance with their works. 

How is making a show for the Venice Biennale different to preparing a ‘normal’ exhibition? Or another biennial?

Curating for a biennial format is rare in South Africa where institutional support for non-commercial, large-scale exhibitions remains limited. So this is a first for co-curator, Musha Neluheni and myself. With an estimated attendance of 500,000 visitors, Venice is the granddaddy of the global biennial circuit and thus carries with it critical weight and responsibility. This is further emphasised by the fact that South Africa has only participated in the Biennale for the past four iterations as a result our complicated political history. Wanting very much to establish ourselves amongst the major players, a key intention in our curation was to reflect the rise of practice that is conversant with the local whilst simultaneously engaged in more expansive dialogue beyond our local context. The selection of only two artists was an attempt to challenge notions of applied inclusion and representation redolent in our international group shows of legacy, and to create a compelling experience that is uniquely immersive for the viewer. This is the first time that South Africa will present an exclusively moving image- and sound-based exhibition.

There are a huge number of biennial exhibitions across the world nowadays. Do you think the Venice Biennale still has a special status, and why?

The Biennale is the oldest and largest, contemporary visual art event in the world. It remains a crucial part of the art ecosystem – as an opportunity for major projects to be realised and for professionals from around the world to engage. While non-commercial in nature, the Biennale can have a tremendous impact on the careers of artists. Acknowledgement in the media or on the streets of Venice is most often followed by a surge in demand for a given artist’s work and, consequently, an increase in the value of their work. 

What does it mean to ‘represent’ one’s country? Do you find it an honour or problematic?

In a globalised art market, the Venice Biennale is one of the few contemporary art instances, where nationalism does come into play. But this is a legacy issue and there is an interesting history of how it has been approached by artists and in many instances corrupted. For example, in 2012 Germany selected Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, Indian artist Dayanita Singh, South African artist Santu Mofokeng and French-German artist Romuald Karmakar as a means to articulate how the cultural landscape of Germany is determined by different religions, economies and politics. This year, Sharon Lockhart is an American artist representing the Polish Pavilion. For us, it is important to critique the idea of representing one’s country and hope instead to achieve a clear representation of our vision for the exhibition.

The Venice audience is a diverse group. Who is most important to you? The artists, the gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening, or the general public which visits in the months that follow?

Creatives, professionals, critics and the general public are intrinsically linked audiences. Affecting artworks should be accessible to a diverse cross-section of people. Again, what is more important to us is that the vision of the artists is most accurately represented. If we are successful in this respect, positive responses should follow.

Did you visit the last Venice Biennale? What’s your earliest or best memory from Venice?

Yes I was there in 2015 to co-curate ‘The Johannesburg Pavilion’, a project that constituted a group of South African film and performance artists investigating the possibilities of presenting work on the edges of a global art event like the Biennale. Of course that was a significant year for African representation as Nigerian curator, Okwui Enwezor was named director. Beyond All the World’s Futures, my personal favorites were the Icelandic Pavilion by Christoph Buchel shut down by Venice police, the Brazilian Pavilion by Antonio Manuel and the Nordic Pavilion by Camille Norment.

How does a having a pavilion in Venice make a difference to the art scene in your home country?

Having an ongoing presence at the Biennale is crucial in terms being part of a conversation that is global and isn't exclusively market driven. By having a strong pavilion, we hope to bring attention to South Africa as being at the forefront of contemporary art. Also acknowledging that the visibility of African countries remains limited, our participation is critical for encouraging fellow African countries to take part and represent their own stories, artists and creative excellence on the global stage.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

I’m looking forward to seeing the Nigerian Pavilion featuring Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor and Quddus Onikeku, Xavier Veilhan (France), Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler (Switzerland), Carlos Amorales (Mexico) and Phyllida Barlow (Britain). I’m also excited about participating in the first African Art in Venice Forum established to encourage the participation of more African national pavilions at the Biennale.

Click here to read all the Venice Questionnaires so far

8 May 2017