Attention-grabbing stunts, such as VR and interactive elements, are a double-edged sword—they can be highly entertaining, but they can also feel like a time-waster if the gambit doesn’t pay off. One such example at this year’s Venice Biennale came in the Chilean Pavilion, which boasted queues of 20-plus minutes to get in at the Arsenale. Word on the ground from some had been that the wait wasn’t worth it, though visitors who did persevere got to see a technically complex film installation focused on peatlands of Patagonia.
That work, part of a pavilion called “Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol,” is the creation of artist Ariel Bustamante, art historian Carla Macchiavello, architect Alfredo Thiermann, and filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor. (Camila Marambio also served as the pavilion’s curator.) Its focus is the Selk’nam people and their reliance on the natural environment of Tierra del Fuego, which is currently facing the threat of ecological destruction. Members of the Selk’nam people were also involved in its creation; an extensive list of credits can be found on the pavilion’s site.
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The wait to see this work comes because you’re required to see this video installation from beginning to end. Only eight people are allowed in at a time, and the work lasts about 15 minutes.
Once inside, viewers are walked up a ramp and into a panoramic screen. The screen itself is not like a traditional one found in a theater—it is as thin as a layer of skin, and viewers are told not to touch it because it is made of an undisclosed kind of biological material.
As the film begins, viewers are asked to sit down on the floor and remain quiet—not that it would be easy to talk over the loud soundtrack of the work, whose thrumming and booming can be physically felt. One assistant described this aspect of the pavilion to me as a sound bath.
The film itself is somewhat hard to describe because much of its imagery borders on abstraction. At its start, the camera hovers over what appears to be a peat bog. Then the camera slowly sinks into the peat and goes gradually deeper into the earth. Sonically, the installation grows increasingly intense as it does so—the effect simulates a primordial state in which visitors are seemingly brought into close connection with nature.
Then there is a period of silence, and the camera rises back up. Once above ground again, there is darkness. Spectral forms emerge from that void, running in a circle and chanting as they do so. After the film ends, viewers are allowed to exit the way they came in and invited to touch the fields of moss transported to the pavilion along the way.
Chile’s pavilion has so far proven divisive, with some enthralled by the immersive elements and others underwhelmed after waiting so long to get in. But lengthy queues are a part of the Venice Biennale experience, and typically a telling one—it shows which pavilions people are truly interested in. Could Chile’s gambit pay off in an award? It seems unlikely, although buzz is certainly mounting.