Natalya E. Maller was one of a select group chosen to invigilate the Australian Pavillion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. As the exhibition draws to a close Maller reflects on the exhibition that was.
As an invigilator for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, I was able to spend extended periods of time with Simryn Gill’s installation Here art grows on trees. I closely observed the work: how people and nature interacted with it to reflect its passage through time – a theme curator Catherine de Zegher calls ‘entropy’.
Nestled among the trees and with a view of the canal, the Pavilion, with its signature veranda, was reminiscent of an Australian bungalow. Inside the Pavilion, rain formed puddles on the floorboards, and, when dried in the sun, left fine organic-shapes like the growth rings of a tree or the contours of a lake. Little stones from the Giardini grounds collected in visitors’ shoes; unexpected found objects, they gathered along the walls with rust-coloured leaves curled and crisped by the sun. Spiders knitted tiny webs among the found objects of Naught and a concoction of debris settled in the rain-filled base of Half moon shine. Sometimes venturing into the Pavilion, a dark-grey skinny cat moved under the stairs like a shadow.
It was a sweltering thirty-two degrees and the humidity was high. Mosquitoes were everywhere. The sound of crickets mingled with the hum of the occasional boat as it passed by. Everyone tinged sweaty pink, visitors drifted in and out of the Pavilion like Venetian tides. They moved slowly and talked quietly among themselves. Children played outside. They collected objects, peeked under the stairs and into every nook, or sat on the steps and fiddled with sticks. Cooled by a breeze from the canal, people gathered on the deck to find respite from the sun. One couple sipped bottled water and studied the Biennale maps. At the front of the Pavilion, a man struggled uphill with a pram; deep in the gravel, the wheels left a trail of wavy lines like those of a Japanese garden.
Visitors could not resist interacting with show. Gill had placed a found, dark-green, travel trunk on the Pavilion’s lower level. On one corner, a visitor had left a beetle’s carapace. Another wrote,
“I love you” in the trunk’s dusty surface. Someone else used their origami skills to turn a brochure into a box; they left it on the floor under Naught. Even the shrub near the Pavilion’s exit did not escape attention; on one of its golden leaves someone wrote, “Arts tree, 2013”.
One morning when I arrived to open the pavilion, I found a dead bird on the deck. Its wings were askew, its neck was twisted and its eyes were squinted tightly shut. Small drops of brownish blood decorated the floor. I touched the bird gently; its soft body was still warm. I gathered it up and buried it under a bush. The exhibition is about inviting nature in to interact with the artwork, but, ironically, the bird had flown into the greenery reflected by the Pavilion’s glass doors. Stunned to death, it began another journey when I returned it to the earth.
Visitors were relaxed. A baby slept in a pram next to its parents who napped in the red chairs of Let Go, Let’s Go. The trees cast a shadow over them. With their legs outstretched and heads tilted back, the couple were completely still. Fast asleep, they were oblivious that their pram obstructed the work. Perhaps they had forgotten they were in a Biennale pavilion; so comfortable with their surroundings, they choose it for an afternoon nap. Gill’s work references place and home and this couple had made her living artwork their home.