TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 2019

ABOVE THE FRAY

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019. Performance view, Marina Militare, Lithuanian pavilion, Venice, May 10, 2019. Photo: Andrej Vasilenko.

LOOKING DOWN ON THE SUPINE BODIES, so much living flesh laid out on towels, I feel an eerie sense of unreality set in—the kind that surges when fiction is powerful but not total. Some twenty people are below, applying cream to block the rays of a fake sun while sending real text messages, reclining on an artificial beach while actually taking care of a temperamental dog and tending to the children who trigger the animal’s barky agitation. Some are volunteers, resting for the day inside a piece of art. In a continuous loop, the cast sings songs of tourism, overwork, environmental catastrophe, small annoyances, and love.

In Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019, a spectacle of summer laziness on a damaged planet unfolds without end. The production—a collaboration, curated by Lucia Pietroiusti, among director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, writer Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė—was Lithuania’s contribution to the Fifty-Eighth Venice Biennale, where it was awarded the Golden Lion. In the libretto, worrying signs of climate change, whether an algae bloom or the unexpected appearance of chanterelles in mild December weather, are threaded through the fabric of the everyday. Spectators take in this living portrait of collective feeling from on high, peering over the railing of a balcony in a former naval warehouse just across the canal from the Arsenale. We are observers, not participants. At this remove, the hallucinatory force of the beach illusion intensifies, banishing any thought of the long queue and cold rain outside. We are extracted from the scene—extracted from our present—in order to see it, to know it, better.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019. Performance view, Marina Militare, Lithuanian pavilion, Venice, May 10, 2019. Photo: Andrej Vasilenko.

Most contemporary associations with the view from above are negative, which is why its employment—not just in Sun & Sea (Marina) but also in the drone cinematography used by a handful of artists at Venice this year—is so notable. Seeing from a lofty distance can entail a denial of entanglement, a pretense to mastery, an impossible claim to omniscience and omnipotence. Aerial perspective’s association with violence is also resolutely literal: Today, despite whatever affinity with the natural world its name might suggest, the bird’s-eye view is eminently technologized, inextricable from the automation and detachment of drone warfare, in which the human body is a speck, an object, a target. So what drives artists to recruit this fraught mode of visuality?

Sun & Sea (Marina)’s day at the beach is an allegory of gross inaction: While the world dies, we remain inert, basking in the burning sun.

John Akomfrah, Four Nocturnes, 2019, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 50 minutes. From “Ghana Freedom,” Ghana pavilion, Venice.

In John Akomfrah’s Four Nocturnes, 2019, a three-screen installation in the first-ever Ghanaian pavilion, drone cinematography appeals because it enables breathtaking vistas of the natural world, swiftly declaring production values. The aerial shot, once a costly affair necessitating the use of helicopters or cranes, is now achieved with ease. Yet within an artwork ostensibly devoted to exploring the imbricated histories of colonialism and ecological degradation, these soaring views, so easily identifiable by their unfettered motion, contradict the attitudes adopted at the level of content. The history of the drone, as philosopher Grégoire Chamayou has put it, “is that of an eye turned into a weapon.” As the drone metamorphoses from military to cinematic use, following the path taken before it by other technologies such as the zoom lens, the weapon becomes an eye once more—but its metaphorical and literal associations with sovereign violence persist. In the drone shots of Four Nocturnes, the camera sheds any index of its embeddedness in the world to offer a fantasy of disembodiment, proclaiming a freedom from the ethics of interconnection that Akomfrah otherwise calls on us to recognize.

Korakrit Arunanondchai with Alex Gvojic, No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5 (detail), 2018, still from the three-channel, 30-minute 44-second, color digital-video component (with sound) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising seashells, tree branches, laser harp, haze machine, resin, LED lights, and fabric pillows. From “May You Live in Interesting Times,” Arsenale, Venice.

For others, drone cinematography is not simply the means to a seductive end but integral to a work’s conceptual underpinnings. Korakrit Arunanondchai uses drones to capture panoramic views of Thai jungles, rice fields, and a former American radar base in No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5, 2018, made in collaboration with Alex Gvojic, a three-screen installation included in the Arsenale as part of Ralph Rugoff’s “May You Live in Interesting Times.” No history loosely ties tales of spirits and ghosts to invocations of national and religious community in Thailand, as well as to the American military presence there from the Vietnam War through today. In this enchanted constellation of death, recurrence, and transmutation, Arunanondchai courts the drone’s strange cluster of associations: not just surveillance and military intervention from a distance, but the uncanniness of its spectral disembodiment and entomomorphic animism. In a dark space of ritual, where Boychild performs and clusters of people with white-painted faces convene among green laser lights, a drone can be seen hovering in the air, blinking the same emerald color the voice-over associates with the Naga, a mythical serpent. Spirit and machine, the folkloric and the technological, converge.

Korakrit Arunanondchai with Alex Gvojic, No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5 (detail), 2018, still from the three-channel, 30-minute 44-second, color digital-video component (with sound) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising seashells, tree branches, laser harp, haze machine, resin, LED lights, and fabric pillows. From “May You Live in Interesting Times,” Arsenale, Venice.

Charlotte Prodger’s SaF05, 2019, shown at the collateral event “Scotland + Venice,” offers a different take on the drone. For this forty-minute piece, the artist braids together fragments of her autobiography, often pertaining to sexuality, encounters with landscape, and a drone-assisted effort to glimpse the titular SaF05, a female lion in Botswana that possesses a mane and mounts other females. Addressing themes of capture and escape, Prodger draws energy from the tension between the somatic intimacy of the iPhone camera, for which she is known, and the remote delegation of the drone, which she uses here for the first time. These dynamics of proximity and distance echo the way the video relays personal history while employing a variety of strategies to obscure, anonymize, and conceal the self and others. Prodger makes her instructions to the drone operator audible as the two of them track the lioness from the air—a pursuit ending in failure. This queer feline avatar frustrates the promise of aerial perspective to deliver the world to view, just as queerness itself upends efforts by science and language to categorize human experience. SaF05 stages the desire for panoptic vision only to underscore the arrogance—the violence, even—inherent in the assumption that all can or should be given over to representation. The ethical and the erotic meet in this space of withholding, in which both the confessional self and the maned lioness prove elusive.

Charlotte Prodger, SaF05, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 39 minutes. From Scotland + Venice 2019.

IN SUN & SEA (MARINA), the effort to grasp the whole is different, emerging as nothing less than a political imperative. Climate change, after all, poses a problem of scale. We can read about Indian cities running out of water, see photographs of emaciated polar bears traipsing through mounds of garbage, or hear the UN warn of “climate apartheid,” but it remains as difficult as it is necessary to conceptualize the totality of the crisis. Sun & Sea (Marina) marshals the view from above to confront its spectator with a complex whole all at once—a gesture that might serve as a reminder of the imperative to think of the interconnectedness of the global system. Yet whatever chimera of mastery is indulged by the viewer’s godlike perspective, it collapses through the dispersal of the gaze across a visual field arranged without hierarchy and punctuated by an array of unplannable events. When will the dog bark? How long will the small children stay amused? What news will the performers read on the internet? The liveness of the scene, the reality of its bodies, pushes back. Our predictive models try to tame an unimaginable future and fail; this leaky fiction is, like the Anthropocene itself, animated by an uncontrollable contingency that dwarfs our efforts to cope.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Acid Forest, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 63 minutes.

Prior to collaborating on Sun & Sea (Marina), Barzdžiukaitė made ample use of aerial perspective in her experimental documentary Acid Forest, 2018, filmed in a sylvan area of Lithuania poisoned by the feces of cormorants. Sweeping drone shots punctuate the work, giving a sense of the vast devastation, but dominating throughout is a perspective that prefigures the Lithuanian pavilion: The camera looks down at an oblique angle on a wooden platform where tourists come to take in the sullen display. As in Sun & Sea (Marina), leisure activity and questions concerning the relationship between human and nonhuman life mingle in a single setting, partaking of dark humor as well as despair. In both works, Barzdžiukaitė reorients viewers’ habitual perspective, placing us in an atypical position: We gaze at tourists—which is to say, at stand-ins for ourselves. We are asked to consider humanity from without rather than from within, however impossible this may be, as if disengagement were a prerequisite for understanding.

But what do we see when we extricate ourselves from the flux of life through the conceit of art? In the artificial world of Sun & Sea (Marina), we see the artificiality of our own world, the withering product of so much human intervention on earth. If Sun & Sea (Marina) offers a vision of our present, the apparent whimsy of its pastel hues belies something much more somber. “This season the sea is as green as the forest,” sings the ensemble—and still they do nothing. The “wealthy mommy” is above all thankful for a restaurant and hotel at the Great Barrier Reef. Sun & Sea (Marina)’s day at the beach is an allegory of gross inaction: While the world dies, we remain inert, basking in the burning sun. We try to relax on the edge of an abyss. Of all the characters, the youngest display the most acute awareness of earth’s fragility. Adolescent sisters weep for the dying corals and extinct fish. The bees have fallen from the sky as the drones have risen. With youthful naïveté, these children imagine that 3-D printing will replace all that has been lost. As we gaze down at them from above, the proposition that technology will save us appears a cruel irony. Perhaps Sun & Sea (Marina) is not an opera after all, but a requiem. 

Erika Balsom is the author of An Oceanic Feeling: Cinema and the Sea (Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2018) and a senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College London.