The Venice Questionnaire #7 – Sharon Lockhart

The American artist on representing Poland at the Biennale

Sharon Lockhart, Little Review, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw Polish pavilion, Venice. Photo: Barbara Kaja Kaniewska

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).

Sharon Lockhart is representing Poland. The pavilion is in the Giardini.

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

At the heart of the project for Venice is my collaboration with the girls of Rudzienko – a state-run sociotherapy centre outside of Warsaw. The project started in the summer of 2015 with the goal of giving voice to the girls’ ideas and aspirations. I devised a series of workshops with the Polish educator Bartek Przybyl-Olowski in which he introduced them to a set of philosophical concepts and facilitated discussions that became the basis for my film Rudzienko. Additional workshops the following summer and winter with experts in theater, yoga, dream awareness and movement therapy, rounded out the material for that film. Yet, it became clear to me that there was a need for this to become an ongoing project, and I wanted to create an educational structure for the girls that would continue even when I wasn't in Poland. I conducted more workshops for them in the summer and fall of last year as well as this winter. The result of all this is Little Review, my presentation for this year’s Venice Biennale.

My project is also motivated by the life and work of Janusz Korczak – a Polish-Jewish pedagogue, philosopher and writer from the early twentieth century. From 1926 to 1939, Kroczak created a newspaper Mały Przegląd (Little Review, the project's namesake), a weekly insert to the Jewish newspaper Nasz Przegląd. Little Review is an attempt to replicate or recover Korczak’s mission of giving voice to youth. We have been working with the Korczak Orphanage and the National Library of Poland to bring the girls of Rudzienko into dialogue with the archive of Mały Przegląd’s thirteen-year publication run.

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

One of the primary differences in creating a project for the Venice Biennale is that this presentation is somewhat site-specific. Each of the show’s elements – a film, photographs, an educational component and a series of translations of a historical Polish newspaper – have been created specifically for the pavilion, so I really have had the opportunity to tailor the presentation to this context. The fact that I am representing Poland has also allowed me access to a number of institutions like the National Library, Polin Museum, Zacheta, and Centrum Sztuki Ujazdowski Castle. This project has really been a collaborative effort and I feel so honoured with everyone’s help and good will. The high profile of Venice has also made it possible to bring the girls to Venice so they can see the work that we made together.

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?

I am teaching a class right now at CalArts on the phenomenon of biennials and my students are asking that same question and researching the history. I think one thing that makes Venice different is its long history and the very specific relationship between national cultures and internationalism it creates.

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

I am American but after years of creating work in Poland, I have built a network of collaborators and friends there. My work is always based on extended engagement in which I immerse myself within communities and foster close relationships with each collaborator, so being selected to create work for the Polish pavilion, and to represent with and for the girls of Rudzienko, is an amazing honour.

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

They are all important viewers – each group of visitors, and each individual visitor, brings a unique perspective to the presentation. As an artist, it is exciting when anyone engages with a work, an exhibition, or your practice as a whole. My works requires active participation from the audience to engage and filter it through their personal emotions.

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

I did not visit the last Biennale. I visited the 2013 one, the 2005 one, and participated in a film programme in the 1997 Biennale. 1997 was my first time in Venice. That time we visited a lot of churches and museums. I was blown away by the beautiful paintings that I had only seen in books.

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

I am in the unusual position of representing a country other than my own. I am hoping that my project makes a difference for Poland. In the small circle that I am involved in there I think it already has. The work we’ve done unearthing the career of Janusz Korczak and bringing it to a group of young women has made a difference in their lives and we are working to continue educating people about Korczak and translating The Little Review to English. The girls of Rudzienko and I think of our work as a feminist manifesto. I think that is important to today’s situation, especially in Poland.

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

Among others, I’m looking forward to seeing Mark Bradford’s work at the American Pavilion. Aside from wanting to see the presentation of my home country, I have also deeply admired Mark’s work and see many parallels between the socially engaged elements in both of our practices. 

Click here to read all of our questionnaires published so far

10 April 2017