Artist Ellie Harrison (self-)critically responds to the Biennale experience and the PRESS ROOM project.
I felt a little guilty about my trip to Venice as part of the EM15 project Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf. Competing in the art world’s original Olympics (albeit on behalf of the underdogs: team East Midlands), made me feel as though I was compromising my values somewhat. Over the past decade (since my last trip to Venice as a naïve and enthusiastic art-tourist in 2005), I’ve been attempting to live my values and actively address my concerns about climate change by “thinking globally and acting locally” as the old saying goes. Trying to cut my carbon footprint (and increase my sense of belonging) by observing the Biennale phenomenon from a critical distance and, instead, taking pride in being a ‘national artist’ (better still a ‘regional artist’). This means less about representing my region on a ‘world stage’ and more about building meaningful relationships with arts organisations, supportive curators and communities to create and present socially relevant work close to where we all live.
But in 2015 my ego got the better of me, when I gladly accepted the invitation to be part of Doug Fishbone’s quirky project. As my fellow EM15 artist Yara El-Sherbini and I acknowledged on arrival at our beautiful apartment in the fairytale city to find our artworks already fabricated and installed on our behalf: it’s clear the more “successful” you become as an artist, the less work you have to do for greater reward. This was the best paid gig I’d ever been offered: £2,000 fee, £3,000 production, travel and accommodation plus a daily stipend (part of what made it so irresistible). But it got me thinking about the total amount of money being spent – not just on the EM15 pavilion, but in the Biennale as a whole. Was this really the best way of investing regional / national arts budgets? Sucking money away from local communities by shipping slick artworks (and high profile artists) to another, fairly inaccessible part of the world. How much carbon was this exercise in ‘soft power’ producing?
Hmmm… how could I address these issues? Kinda tricky through the medium of a crazy golf hole! Instead I reverted to the perennial artist-activist tactics of attempting to ‘practice what I preach’ and then ‘biting the hand that feeds me’. I first tried to minimise the impact of my own participation by taking the 23 hour trip from Glasgow to Venice via train. But realising this to be a relatively tokenistic gesture in the grand scheme of things, I then chose to acknowledge my own stupidity by designing a t-shirt emblazoned with my new slogan for the artworld: Think Local, Act Global! – i.e. the absolute opposite of what we need to be doing to address climate change. My obnoxious Biennale character (always clad in shades, quaffing a Prosecco with a gorgeous gal on each arm) began as a critique, but after four days of absorbing the decadence – being plied with free alcohol and food – I realised how quickly I could turn to the dark side, (get fat and sick), and lose sight of my values in the process.
Venice is not the place for real ‘political art’. This is something Doug and I discussed over dinner on our final night: nearly all gestures become impotent in those very particular surroundings, far removed from the reality of most people’s everyday lives. The Guardian headline “Marx for the Millionaires” beautifully captures the contradictions inherent in Okwui Enwezor’s sincere centrepiece show. (From what I got to see, only Christoph Büchel’s intervention successfully addresses the context of the ‘historic city’ in a meaningful and provocative way). Where Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf succeeds however, is in its knowing decision to give the Venice audience exactly what it seeks / deserves: unashamed entertainment. The joke is on them, ultimately, for taking part (see Tim Marlow taking a shot here).
And so PRESS ROOM’s valiant attempt to inject some criticality into the coverage of the Biennale – to mobilise artists at Venice for some greater political cause (see Gaynor Flynn’s Artists For Nepal) – also seemed futile. What became painfully clear when discussing these issues with a group of UK artists at their ‘press briefing’ on Thursday 7 May – sitting eating croissants in a charming café in San Marco on the day of our General Election – was that the real ‘political artists’ had stayed at home.