Art has ever been both a story and critique of exactly who is afforded access to its pleasures.
It’s a story that will be told in spectacular fashion – and on water – this week at the opening of the Venice Biennale, the world’s largest art festival.
Australian artist and activist Richard Bell has organised a sculptural replica of Australia’s official Biennale pavilion to be driven around the canal city on a motorised barge, laden with heavy “keep out” chains, and with symbolism.
Bell – who is Aboriginal, and from Queensland – wasn’t actually selected for Australia’s official showing in its Venice pavilion. He did apply, but was rejected.
He responded with a crowdfunding campaign, mobilising friends and collaborators, making Instagram videos and selling T-shirts. He raised enough interest to attract eventual funds from state and national bodies, as well as from donors.
Bell’s primary medium has always been his larrikin deflation of the art world’s impulse to imperialism. Now the work, titled No Tin Shack, is figuratively and literally shipping the issues of dispossession, colonialism, exclusion and asylum to the very shores of the high-status art fair.
His intervention aims to provoke conversations in Embassy2019, an installation he and his team have also set up in Venice, in the gardens of the nearby Giardini. The tents comprising this work are also a replica – this time of the Aboriginal “embassy” erected by Indigenous activists Michael Anderson, Billy Craig, Tony Corey and Bertie Williams on the grounds of Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra in 1972.
Their disruptive, visual protest of the then-Liberal government’s rejection of Aboriginal land rights was inspirational to generations; and, according to Bell, is “the greatest piece of performance art”.
“I did the Embassy as a homage from the first embassy, but I was alerted to the magic and the genius of that endeavour by the young people who in 2011 and 2012 set up Aboriginal embassies around the country,” says Bell. “I just thought, this is amazing.”
The role of his own replica is to provide a physical place to stage ongoing discussions about community and liberation, wherever it travels in the world. In Venice, those conversations will revolve around the issues raised by No Tin Shack. “Not just about Australia’s convict past,” he says, “and the way that it treats Indigenous people with its ridiculous imprisonment rates, but also the way it treats and imprisons people seeking asylum, which is illegal under international law.”
How a culture negotiates the presence of a foreign boat, of course, is both a potent symbol of cultural confrontation in modern politics, and a brutal reminder of a globalised colonial past.
Italy’s own response to the world’s refugee crises is just one of a few realities that localises Bell’s art. “The way the city deals with tourism, and the big ships – that’s a massive issue here [too],” says Bell of Venice. The problems it shares with other cities “all lead back to the same cause: capitalism, globalisation,” he says.
“Issues regarding native people, native rights, refugee rights, people being into thrown into poverty – the crisis of late capitalism is rampant greed and redistribution of wealth. A tiny percentage of people have benefitted from this redistribution of wealth, and the effects of that are felt everywhere, even in Europe, in the richest countries of the world.”
For Bell, community is necessary to resist a culture of individualism and greed; he is at pains to explain that his artistic project is a team effort, and refers to video producers Popsart and Caroline Gardem, the project backers and the friends housing him in Venice as his “sports team”.
Documenting the project on Instagram, he can be seen in a sporting helmet, rolling a ball on his knee, saying things like, “We’re gonna talk about how neoliberalism and late capitalism impacts on the art world”.
Of the helmet, he says “art is a team game too”.
“If you want to point to the lone genius, I will point you to their team … There is no such thing as the lone genius, even Van Gogh had his brother.”
Last time I interviewed him, five years ago at the Perth festival, Bell’s quip that “we’re going to find out if the Sydney art scene is as pissweak as we think it is” – in response to the sponsorship of its Biennale by then-detention-centre-sponsor, Transfield – helped ignite a fierce boycott and the most infamous recent political showdown in Australian art.
This time I ask him what he’d like his audience to rise up against.