Glass visits Ocean Space at the Venice Biennale

AT THIS year’s Venice Biennale, the most prestigious international showcase for contemporary art, new projects by the South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape and the Portuguese artist Diana Policarpo explore the complex legacies of the Ocean.

Commissioned by TBA21 – Academy, whose mission it is to raise a deeper awareness of ocean life through the perspective of art, these solo shows, presented as part of The Soul Expanding Ocean exhibition programme, occupy a stunning 9th-century church located just east of St. Mark’s Basilica.

Following more than 100 years of closure to the public, the academy embarked on an impressive restoration project of the Church of San Lorenzo, enabling it to open in 2019 as a community site, Ocean Space.

The building’s grandeur has recently been complemented by immersive installations by Bopape and Policarpo, which reside seamlessly within their baroque surroundings. The exhibitions are momentous showcases for both artists, who have been developing their practices over the past decade.

Bopape’s work is currently on view at the Sydney Biennale; Policarpo was the recipient of the illy Present Future Prize (2021).

Portrait of Diana Policarpo. Photo: Filipa Fernandez

Portrait of Dineo Seshee Bopape. Photograph: Rachael Barrett

Dineo Seshee Bopape’s video work, titled lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive (2022), is displayed across three large-scale screens that can be seen – as well as heard – immediately upon entering the church.

Emitting powerful images accompanied by a vivid soundtrack of melodious voices, Bopape’s films relate to various journeys made by the artist, starting with a residency that she undertook in the Solomon Islands, which, as she explained at the exhibition’s preview, was extremely important as a starting point.

As well as allowing Bopape to engage with the island’s natural beauty, the residency also led the artist to reflect on histories relating to the island’s ancestors, including the role played by slavery routes. The films on view speak to the dramatic, dangerous component of water, evoking the visceral quality of being at sea, while simultaneously highlighting its wonders.

Bopape’s commission was also informed by a research residency she undertook at Alligator Head Foundation in Jamaica, a marine conservation foundation initiated by TBA21 – Academy. At the opening, Bopape spoke of trips to Ghana and Senegal, following her time in the Solomon Islands, underlining the significance that travel has played in her engagement with the Ocean.

Ocean Space at Chiesa di San Lorenzo. Photograph: Enrico Fiorese

In the adjacent space, Diana Policarpo’s sculptural installation Ciguatera creates an imposing presence. Giant cave-like forms give the impression of a thoroughly natural landscape that spreads across the ground. Look closely, though, and these monumental rocks reveal small screens which have been embedded into their surfaces.

The films they show are fascinating, detailing microorganisms that appear both microscopic and enlarged. With their bright hues and diverse textures, these forms are thoroughly captivating to observe.

Like Bopape, Policarpo took a research trip as her point of departure, inspired by the natural biodiversity she encountered on the Ilhas Selvagens (Savage Islands) in the North Atlantic Ocean.

At the preview, the artist spoke of the project’s multidimensional quality, marking the first time that Policarpo has integrated audio and film elements within a sculptural format. The scale of Ciguatera is also a first, as the artist’s largest installation to date.

Like the forceful waves documented in Bopape’s films, the delicate plant life recorded by Policarpo acts as a repository for memories, histories and, perhaps most importantly, possible futures.

Exhibition view “The Soul Expanding Ocean #4: Diana Policarpo. Ciguatera”, Ocean Space, Venice, 2022. Commissioned by TBA21–Academy. Co-produced by TBA21–Academy and Centro de Arte Moderna Gulbenkian, in collaboration with Instituto Gulbenkian Ciência

Exhibition views of “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Dineo Seshee Bopape. Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?”, Ocean Space, Venice, 2022.  Commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy

Together, these thought-provoking projects by Bopape and Policarpo engage with ecology in a way that is speculative and dynamic, rather than didactic. The presence of Ocean Space within the contemporary art landscape feels vital.

by Derby Jones

The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Dineo Seshee Bopape & #4: Diana Policarpo is on view at Ocean Space, Venice, until October 2, 2022.

For further details, visit: Ocean-Space