In Venice, a Show Draws Connections Between Colonialism and Marine Ecology

Diana Policarpo, “Ciguatera” (2022) (all photos Anna Souter/Hyperallergic)

VENICE — The Chiesa di San Lorenzo, home to TBA21–Academy Ocean Space in Venice, Italy, is a unique gallery space. There are no white walls or poured concrete floors; instead, classical columns flank rough brick or blockwork walls, topped by carvings or huge arched windows. The building is divided in two by an enormous black marble altar, creating two distinct but linked exhibition spaces.

Both the architecture of the former church building and the geographical location among the Venetian canal are closely related to TBA21–Academy’s exhibition, events, and fellowship programming at Ocean Space. Projects across various mediums, formats, and timescales are developed across two-year cycles of research around ocean ecologies led by a changing roster of curators. The current pair of commissions by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape and Portuguese artist Diana Policarpo is curated by Chus Martínez as part of a roster of programming titled The Soul Expanding Ocean.

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Dineo Seshee Bopape, “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” (2022)
Dineo Seshee Bopape, “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” (2022)

The two commissions are both independent and interrelated in a way that is perfectly suited to the unusual arrangement of Ocean Space’s headquarters. Common threads are woven through both projects, exploring travel and ocean-borne journeys, the relationships between colonialism and marine ecologies, and how human beings understand the ocean. Soundscapes by each artist alternately wash across the two rooms, creating a shared audible backdrop to both works.

The first room is home to “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” (2022), a new installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape in which three large screens create a wide-angle visual spectacle. Visitors are invited to sit on beanbags in the middle, enclosed by a ring of speakers and airy structures crafted from tree branches and ocean detritus. The installation draws the visitor into its center, where the tripartite film plays out across the full range of the viewer’s vision and the ambisonic soundtrack emanates from all angles.

Bopape’s video work subtly maps out a watery journey from the Solomon Islands to the plantations of the Mississippi River, and then to Jamaica and her home in South Africa. The work is closely informed by both a research residency at Alligator Head Foundation (a Jamaican-based marine conservation foundation initiated by TBA21–Academy) and an ocean expedition to the Solomon Islands led by curator Chus Martínez as part of TBA21–Academy’s fellowship program. Through the knowledge, embodied experiences, and footage gained on these trips, Bopape retraces the ghostly routes of slave ships whose legacies still haunt the waters and societies they came into contact with. The filmic elements of the installation suggest a possible process of healing these scars; hands touch and caress the waves and offerings of flowers are made to the ocean spirits.

The second room is home to “Ciguatera” (2022), an imposing installation by Diana Policarpo made up of two enormous faux-rock formations. Small video screens are revealed through openings in the lumpy surfaces, like rock pools reflecting sunlight, showing footage of marine creatures such as sea anemones or colorful fish. At the back, a makeshift-style shelter with a corrugated roof juts out from the rock, shading a larger video work featuring video footage from Policarpo’s field research trips to the Portuguese Ilhas Selvagens (Savage Islands).

Dineo Seshee Bopape, “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” (2022)

Situated in the North Atlantic near the Canary Islands, the Ilhas Selvagens have a unique volcanic history and ecology. Policarpo uses this archipelago to suggest a reconsideration of how we think about places we consider to be uninhabited, remote, or empty. If we shed our anthropocentric perspective, she seems to ask, how might we learn about the world anew?

One video showing a wide shot of the central island in the chain features a narrative voiceover accessible via headphones. In this element of the installation, Policarpo gives the island a voice, imagining its perspective on its relationships with geological forces, local flora and fauna, and human beings. The island is presented as active and agential, a spiritual and physical force contributing to the construction of coral reefs and the wrecking of ships.

Another double-screen video embedded in the rock shows a mixture of footage from scientific laboratories, island fieldwork, and historical manuscripts. The voiceover explains the phenomenon of ciguatera, from which the installation takes its title. Ciguatera is an illness caused by eating reef fish which are contaminated with toxins; as the video explains, the conditions in which the fish pick up the toxins and in which human bodies react badly to them. The ciguatera toxins react in unpredictable ways; freezing or cooking the fish can either reduce toxicity or make the toxins more potent, depending on mysterious circumstances. It is thought that cases of ciguatera are increasing worldwide, perhaps because of the increased environmental toxicity, the destruction of reefs around the world, and depleted fish populations leading to wider fishing for less popular species. The implications for human and planetary health are clear and intimately intertwined.

Diana Policarpo, “Ciguatera” (2022)

The Soul Expanding Ocean brings together two artists with different but complementary ways of engaging with oceanic histories and ecologies. In-depth research creates a complex set of fluid interconnections across the two spaces, opening up powerful investigations into the impacts of colonialism and non-human animacies and agencies.

The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Dineo Seshee Bopape and The Soul Expanding Ocean #4: Diana Policarpo continue at TBA21–Academy Ocean Space (Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Campo S. Lorenzo, 5067, 30122 Venice, Italy) through October 2. The exhibitions were curated by Chus Martínez.


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