Strachan discusses his installation, Polar Eclipse, which represented the Bahamas in its first participation at the 55th International Venice Biennale.
Tavares Strachan’s affecting, sublime work at the Bahamas pavilion proved to be a formidable success at this year's 55th International Venice Biennale. Polar Eclipse prompts the viewer’s immediate visceral reactions to the artist's subtle treatment of a reenactment of a historic narrative: the 1909 polar expedition of Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson. The latter was an African-American explorer, said to be the first to reach North Pole. Strachan explores displacement and narrative shifts in both geographical travels and historical stories, gently leading viewers to simultaneously feel belonging and alienation. For the piece, Strachan installed fictional documentation of his chosen story, including two large blocks of ice from the North Pole in display cases, spacesuits, a neon sign which reads "You are Here," and "We Belong Here," and forty Bahamian schoolchildren singing an Inuit song. Through engaging his own native Nassau community, an American historical event and an Inuit song on an Italian—yet international—cultural platform, Strachan drew attention to a particular transcultural code and globalized culture to which we indeed all belong.
Jovana Stokić How happy are you with your Venetian experience?
Tavares Strachan My team and I were there for six weeks, and we tried our best to become a part of the community. It was entertaining, to say the least.
JS Entertaining? Before we began today, you mentioned altruism.
TS Yeah. I guess my altruism has more to do with rigor than it has to do with a sense of generosity. People should think about things a little more. People like to generalize, and there’s a lot of miscommunication when they do. I like that. Your own agenda sometimes can be confused: Whether you’re doing something for reasons that you think are. When you become rigorous, you maybe think about those things, and perhaps you don’t do those things for the reasons you thought you were doing them. This is why it is more about rigor than it is a sense of exchange, or generosity, or giving. I mean, maybe those things come down the line, but first you have to ask yourself those difficult questions.
JS That’s wonderful. From a sense of personal responsibility, you then open the space of freedom. Artistic freedom. But also, tension. What constitutes success? People came to the show, they said it was lovely, and the blogs mentioned you. This is outside success, but did you get answers for yourself?
TS Me? I make to make again, and in any way the Biennale helps me to make again, then that’s successful.
JS We all come from a specific geographical and geopolitical place. In this constellation, you represented a specific country, at the Biennale for the first time. There are certain expectations of the institution of a national pavilion. People don’t only see your name, they’re like, “Oh, we are entering Bahamas.” There's the basic association of a Caribbean paradise. They don’t think about colonialism, and post-colonialism, the sphere of influences and the layers. It's just, “Oh! Bahamas are doing something!” And then we enter the Arsenale pavilion it is about displacement, and displacement in meaning, and these categories of national representations, of expectations. I want to know how you position yourself vis-a-vis this kind of representation of the national pavilion.
TS Representing any singular idea is a joke, and not enough people are laughing, so maybe it’s not a funny enough joke.
JS But what about the neon signs, when you enter the pavilion: “You belong here,” and “We belong here.” Where is here?
TS I’m working on that. (laughter). I haven’t quite worked that out. That’s why I was challenged to make that piece.
JS For me, it was welcoming. I don’t know if that was the intent.
TS Welcomed and also challenged. For me, it goes back to this idea of singular responsibility—how if I pick up trash, then it helps everything else. But mostly that was how individuals relate to groups, and how individual cultures and global cultures function. Having you walk into that room was supposed to be a little bit disarming, kind of a Venus flytrap, maybe hypnotizing you a little bit, drop your guard. John Baldessari said something like, “A work of art is good at pointing out other ideas.”
JS Other, larger ideas about the world?
TS Yeah, it’s a giant arrow. I like this idea very much. Misunderstanding of history, misunderstanding of culture, misunderstanding of national identity—
JS —racial identity.
TS And even less complex everyday use of language. Those kinds of misunderstandings happen all the time. Relationships end and humans fall because someone thought they said shit and they said it. I think that’s beautiful and fascinating. So much could ride on so little. When you begin to open up a narrative, especially historical narrative, you find that as you learn more about it, your relationship to what you know as truth is shifting. I learned of the Henson and Peary narrative, maybe, between seven to ten years ago. They went to the North Pole together in 1909.
JS The gentleman was African American, right?
TS I don’t know if he was African American. It’s easy to describe him that way, but I don’t think he was. How does someone like him end up in the North Pole in 1909, when a lot of other people like him were being hung for treason? It’s quite provocative, if you think about it. But he was in the North Pole, and the narrative begins once he arrived. In every story about exploration, the actual event is only a small part of the complete situation. The idea of these facts, heroes, and how we build myths are all flexible, because they change: Maybe the protagonist and antagonist change roles over time.
JS What did this story instigate?
TS Just the loopholes of history, how everything that you think you know about what happened four hundred years or two hours ago, is subject to someone reciting a narrative to you with their own agenda. It goes back to this idea of social responsibility, you as a viewer, and how are you going to make sense of the world. And you—how did you come to this work, in particular? Talk. Tell me how you walked into the space.
JS What I loved is that feeling of gentle nudging to see what the images are showing, the composite images. I know you don’t call them paintings. What do you call them?
TS I call them things on the walls.
JS Things on the walls. The entrance in itself was slightly disoriented, preparing you for the space. Nothing was loud. Even the light. This gentle nudging of my visual interest coming into a whole, without a beginning, without an end, without being lectured. That’s when I became interested. Then I learned about these different modes of existence of—how many years? Million of years of ice, or—
TS North Pole ice is not that old. A few months. It is in that all water is old, but, it’s not been frozen for too long, because it freezes, it melts, it freezes, it melts. It’s shifting. Ice shelves crack, they move around. It’s a very flexible environment. That’s what makes it so dangerous, it’s flexibility. It’s difficult to predict. Going to the Pole was significant because I felt like I was chasing after something that was absurd and ridiculous. The North Pole is a geographical location, but it has very little physicality, in that there’s no land. It’s just a floating piece of ice. So it’s a mathematical point, under a floating piece of ice. And it’s so riveting how important it was, a hundred years ago, and still is now, to a lot of people. Important in terms of what it means for human evolution. It’s like going to the moon. This was what it was like going to the North Pole a hundred years ago.
JS Acquiring presence.
TS Yes. Expressing what I would call the infinite melancholy of being a human being. Like, “Hey, World, we’re here, trying to find out something else about ourselves.” Going back to this idea of an expedition: That absurdity is what I was chasing after. The physicality is really one small part of it, the actual going to the North Pole is one small part of it. It was really a conceptual problem I was trying to sink my teeth into. About how there is no real location, and how that scares a lot of people. And how a lot of people can’t really handle the fact that it’s difficult to know something, to be sure of something, to be sure of how you think about your own identity. It’s hard to know all of that has been affected by history, who gets to write history, who gets to listen to history, and how all these things are interconnected and affective. It’s a lot to take on, to deal with and think about. For me, they all become beautiful. In my head, they’re all these interesting things. I’m not burdened by them. They’re really wonderful problems to feast on.
JS How was the actual visit? Did it have the spirit of a romantic expedition? Man versus nature?
TS Getting there wasn’t so dramatic, but being there was. The sun is always at the same spot—it doesn’t do it’s normal shift across the globe. It hovers at 25 degrees. It’s never dark, so whenever you wake up, it’s still daylight. The sun is there, there, there, all at the same height. It’s very hostile. You really feel your own fragility. At any point, something can grab you, like a polar bear, or falling through a shift in the ice. And there’s a certain level of ridiculousness that screams at you: Why I am here? And “here” doesn’t mean in the North Pole, it means—
JS This planet. Is this something “You belong here” captures?
TS I think so. That’s what it’s scratching at. This whole series of work was me sitting at a card table and it’s my hand, and I don’t know what the end of the game might be, but that was my hand at that particular time.
JS Not giving answers, just scratching at them. What about the forty girls?
TS Twenty boys and twenty girls. It’s the fortieth year of independence of the Bahamas. At first it was a play on the literalism of independence, then it became me reinterpreting my own experience through the eyes of these children, and how my own development as a child could have been different if I had had the experience that they may have had. I worked with teachers in the community in Nassau. The teachers had their own criteria, which I was a part of, but it had to do with their own personal situations. One kid had just lost a parent, one was really gifted at public speaking, one was a straight-A student, one had a much less fortunate family. The thing they all had in common was that they’d never really been anywhere far before, and that was the rationale for how they were selected. They all went to Venice, and we spent a little bit under a week there working on this performance. It happened in the Pavilion. The song was Ayaya, an Inupiaq song. Its a language historically threatened by the physical and historical challenges of it's speakers, and I thought this was one way to think about its preservation. It’s an Arctic, indigenous language, of Inuit people. We guided them as much as we could but, that’s the funny thing—meaning is often made over time.
JS But it’s also related to a slightly absurdist element, because obviously you’re interested in preservation, but it’s not dictatorial. So it turns into children's play. Which is not to say that you are mocking anything. This is not a somber anthropological endeavor. These children had a blast.
TS They did. I don’t think it’s something you easily get. There’s a strange sense of purpose to what they did. They didn’t go on vacation. It was a project that they were working on, and they did it together.
JS What about your own travels? You were in Russia.
TS I was. Star City. It’s always interesting being in a place where you’re preparing to go somewhere else. Everything in Star City is about being somewhere else. Not being in Star City. I really like this idea. When you do neutral buoyancy training, or you go under water in a space suit, or vestibular training, where you spin in a chair to disrupt your sense of balance—you’re doing all these things because this is what it’s like somewhere else.
JS Like transcendence.
TS Fucked up transcendence. You’re sick half the time.
JS That’s the point zero of performance. It has to be with your own body, to push it to the very possibility of existence. Now I am bringing you back now to “You belong here,” which has an emotional pull.
TS Yes, it’s very emotional. For me, the thing about that work is: When you read it, you say it. I wanted to make a piece that you would own, as a viewer. So when you say “I belong here” or “You belong here,” you own it. You’re now in the driver's seat.
JS That’s the altruism, my dear friend. Altruism as you defined it.
For more on Tavares Strachan and Polar Eclipse, click here.
Jovana Stokić is a New York based art historian, curator and educator, and currently a deputy chair of the MA program in Curatorial Practice at SVA.