The 59th Venice Biennale's main exhibition is groundbreaking. Not only the majority of artists identify as women, many are queer, non-white, and self-taught artists, but curator Cecilia Alemani also studied the Venice Biennial’s historical omissions, filling in the works by women which could and should have been shown since the early 20th century—exposing roots of feminist art, the arteries and veins connecting the past and the present. Once women and people of color are finally prominently present in this oldest and the most prestigious biennial, is anything missing? One wonders whether the Venice Biennial, which maintains strong ties with the art market, and where the visitors’ time is increasingly limited by its growing offerings, will ever host social practice projects. The ecofeminist theme of the main exhibition provided an invitation.
The 2022 Chilean Pavilion translates ecofeminist social practice into an immersive installation for a necessarily limited audience—only eight people can enter every fifteen minutes. First, one registers smell—moist, green smell of something both rotting and alive. The space is rather dark—lights hang low above the green living carpet of moss, water drips everywhere, and plastic red containers are piled at the walls. A ramp above this field leads toward a circular construction of steel poles. As the audience reaches the elevated platform wrapped in a translucent screen, it gets dark and a film is projected onto it from outside—we are now enfolded in a real peatland, surrounded by moss and grasses bending with the wind, our eyes at the ground level. We see shadows and hear voices of people living there. Evocative soundscape combines music, sounds of nature, whispers, and breath. The construction, smell, image, and sound create an immersive sensory environment that makes one experience the movement of the wind and yielding of the soft ground. The camera dives down taking us underground. We become the peatland.
The screen is scratched and wrinkled. It made this reviewer focus on its texture rather than feel immersed in the movie, wondering why the material was of such low quality. Only later reading revealed that it was a biomaterial skin, made of algae, collagen, and glacial acetic acid, which eventually would be colonized by fungus and moss, and decompose after six months. The fabrication of bioscreen was only one of the efforts to mitigate the greenhouse gasses emission and waste generated by the project. Its creators calculated their impact with the Climate Gallery Coalition’s carbon calculator; engaged Rebiennale, a company which recycles materials from previous exhibitions; selected the most efficient website host who contributes to renewable energies; and are reducing their carbon footprint through conservation actions in Tierra del Fuego. Since air travels contributed 93.93% of the pavilion carbon footprint, a biodegradable screen might not be seen as a necessary choice. Still, the creators’ every decision teaches us to look for alternatives to traditional materials and ingrained behaviors. Even if perceived as an impediment, the bioscreen did not dampen the overall emotional, esthetic, intellectual, and ethical value of the concept of the pavilion.
Its sphagnum moss was not harvested in Patagonia, but from a farm in Germany where it is grown for agricultural and forestry purposes in order to protect natural reserves. The pavilion’s paludiculture is a laboratory developed with scientists of the world’s leading peatland research institution gathering data about its growth under various conditions to develop alternatives to the mining of peat bogs around the world.
A wall text informs visitors that peatlands have major impact on the global climate as the greatest world storage of carbon. They absorb more carbon than forests, yet once drained, emit greenhouse gasses. Peat accumulates at the rate of a millimeter per year, so its destruction is irreversible within humanity’s timeframe. Crucially, one cannot find the name of the artist—peatland is central character of the Chilean Pavilion. And for a reason—nature is understood here as encompassing culture, rather than as opposed to culture. In other words, peatland embodies the long history of people and other living creatures who have lived with it for thousands of years. They are archives of climate and cultural information from millennia—seeds, atmospheric chemicals, as well as ancestral artifacts and burials.
“Hol-Hol Tol” means that one’s heart is made of peat in the language of the Selk’nam people who have lived in Karokynká (Tierra del Fuego) for 8,000 years. According to official history, they were wiped out, but in 2019 the Selk’nam requested their recognition by the Chilean Indigenous Peoples Law (1993). They believe that their first ancestors became mountains, rivers, trees, peat, and animals, thus creating Karokynká—therefore, for them, every element of nature is sacred. They insist that peatlands are a reservoir of memories, “We are claiming a society of mutual care: peatlands and bog people are indivisible.”
Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol is an outgrowth of Ensayos—a ten-year long research project and collective founded by Camila Marambio, an independent US-Chilean curator in Tierra del Fuego, and rooted in the approach shared by native and ecofeminists thinkers, which connects disciplines separated by capitalism, and counters the Western culture’s rationalist division between humanity and nature. Spearheaded by Marambio, Turba Tol Hol-Hol Tol brought together sound artist Ariel Bustamante, art historian Carla Macchiavello, filmmaker Dominga Sotomayor, and architect Alfredo Thiermann, guided by ecologist Bárbara Saavedra and Selk’nam writer Hema’ny Molina, and joined by specialists in various disciplines.
How to be with nature is the knowledge preserved around the world by native people. Visiting Argentina 12 years ago, I was repeatedly told—both in upper Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego—that no indigenous people survived the arrival of white settlers. It gives us some hope to realize that no genocide in history has been fully successful. It is also a cue to thinking about the ecocide we continue to commit.
- Besides website (www.turbatol.org), the project will encompass a book—a compendium of eco-cultural thought by female Latin American authors, and an assembly, which will culminate in The Venice Agreement, a poetic declaration of local initiatives protecting peatlands around the world, to be signed on World Peatlands Day (June 2) at TBA21 Academy’s Ocean Space.