Tavares Strachan

Tavares Strachan talks about his work in the inaugural Bahamas pavilion

View of “Polar Eclipse,” 2013. Photo: Tom Powel.

The artist representing the inaugural Bahamas pavilion at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale is Bahamian Tavares Strachan, who has had solo shows at the MIT List Visual Arts Center as well as at the Brooklyn Museum, where in 2009 he exhibited The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (Arctic Ice Project), 2004–2008, a block of ice Strachan brought back from an expedition to the North Pole. Displacement is a theme that runs through his work, whether in the context of geographical distance and scientific measurement or in the context of cultural dislocation and loss. Here, he talks about his forays into research settings and how those experiences relate to his work for the Bahamas pavilion.

COSMONAUT TRAINING is a simulation of the physical and psychological conditions of space. You’re turned, spun around, submerged. At MIT, I spent some time in the microfabrication lab and optics lab, in their zero-gravity simulations, and working with infrared video. We also hung out with an amazing scientist, Deva Newman, who is designing a new space suit for NASA. This was all part of my investigation of orthostatic tolerance—the ability of the human body to withstand hypotension during gravitational stress.

Extreme physical and cultural discomfort, and the achievement of a goal in a hostile environment: In some sense my work at the Bahamas pavilion is an attempt to negotiate these ideas within an artmaking practice. You could say there’s a recurring theme of loss and invisibility in my work. With Robert Peary and Matthew Alexander Henson—the two explorers who are remembered for reaching the North Pole—they knew one another and collaborated on expeditions for over thirty years. But after making it to the pole, they were never as close again. Essentially, they stopped speaking to each other. Peary went on to win medals, while Henson went unrecognized and worked as a federal clerk for decades after their expedition. Success tends to change people’s relationships. I’m also reminded of that quote “There’s no food on the table, but whitey’s on the moon”. . . ? Or something like that.

On my last Arctic expedition, I found out that ayaya—an Inuit folk tradition—was starting to fade away, which I found discomforting but also interesting. Teaching it to children was the best way to ensure that it would continue to live in some way. We had children from Nassau, the Bahamas, learn an Inupiaq song that is virtually untranslatable to other languages. Its meaning relies heavily on contextual clues—speakers move and enunciate in a certain way, and gesture has an equal value to words. The project involved a big leap for the kids from Nassau—but kids are ready to take on complexity in a way that adults tend to resist.

I actually think the discourse on nations and nationalism is not that interesting. A real richness has evolved out of the dichotomy between this project and the national organization of the Venice Biennale. I didn’t come in thinking my project would relate to the context of Venice, but the work of bringing forty kids here has been an aesthetic encounter and a social experience that feels very fruitful.