All aboard the Antarctic Biennale in Venice

The participants in the Antarctic Biennale international project have returned from their first art expedition to Antarctica. About 100 people from around the world – artists, architects, researchers, poets, writers, musicians and philosophers – set off on board a scientific research vessel, the Academic Sergei Vavilov, from the port of Ushuaia to the Antarctic Circle. During the artistic voyage, the participants traveled around 2,000 nautical miles (4,000 km), making over 12 landings on the shore of the Antarctic peninsula and on islands surrounding Earth’s most southerly continent. In total, on the continent’s territory, over 20 artistic projects were carried out, including performances, installations, exhibitions and sound-art experiments, as well as over 15 research sessions and philosophical discussions.

In this article, Clive Adams reviews their work and exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Clive is the founder director of the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, now based at Dartington in Devon. When working for Fabian Carlsson Gallery in London, he was involved in a project in which artist Andy Goldsworthy made the first sculpture at the North Pole in 1989

The Antarctic Biennale was initiated by the Russian ‘artist, seaman, and philosopher’ Alexander Ponomarev. First imagined to take place in 2012/13, the voyage to Antarctica was finally realized in March this year.  According to information released to the press, 100 people from around the world – artists, architects, researchers, poets, writers and philosophers – set off onboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a former Soviet research vessel, for a ‘creative journey to the shores of the white continent’. The expedition left Tierra del Fuego from the port of Ushuaia on 16 March, and concluded with a reception at the Faena Museum in Buenos Aires thirteen days later.

Projection onto the expedition vessel in the port of Ushuaia, 16 March 2017. Photo: A.Narodizkiy Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Selected artworks created in Antarctica, along with photographic and video documentation of the voyage, are now on show at the Antarctic Pavilion during the current Venice Biennale until the end of July. This includes works by the expedition’s participants and projects from the finalists of the Antarctic Biennale open call for young artists.

Left to right: artist Julius von Bismarck and Alexander Ponomarev on board. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Ponomarev (‘Captain Pono’ to his friends), is one of the major artists on the Russian art scene today. Born in 1957, he trained first as an artist and then as a nautical engineer in the late Seventies, during which time he paid his first visit to Venice. For several years he worked as a submariner in the Russian Navy, before deciding to become a full-time artist. He currently lives and works in Moscow, where his first major solo exhibition Ship Resurrection was held in 1996. One of his early works Maya: a Lost Island (2000) involved a collaboration with the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy in the Barents Sea, an action in which four ships used special naval equipment to temporarily erase Sedlovaty island from sight, after first taking it off the nautical map. In addition to his exhibitions and projects in Russia, Italy and the Antarctic, he has also created work in Portugal, Ukraine, France, USA and Monaco. His first solo exhibition in London was in 2009, and he participated in the Frieze Art Fair in the following year.

He first exhibited in the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and subsequently delivered SubTiziano (2009) and One of a Thousand Ways to Defeat Entropy (2011), both collateral projects of the following two Biennales. SubTiziano – a tribute to his hero Titian – was the ninth stage of the project Urbanization of Packs which began in 1996, and it involved the surfacing of a richly decorated submarine on the Grand Canal, dramatically negating all of its former qualities of secrecy and invisibility.

Ponomarev’s SubTiziano in the Grand Canal, 2009.

In 2012, following an expedition to the Ukrainian research station in the Antarctic in which he made photographs and videos of optical phenomena, he presented Mirage Architecture Project in the Ukrainian pavilion of the Architecture Biennale, alongside Alexey Kozyr, Ilya Babak and Sergey Shestakov. Finally, in 2014, Ponomarev established the Venice Biennale’s first supranational pavilion – The Antarctic Pavilion – in which the exhibition, Antarctopia, featured fifteen world-famous architects, including Zaha Hadid, Hugh Broughton and Alexey Kozyr, and showcased both speculative and realistic architectural projects for Antarctica. During the 2015 Venice Biennale, Ponomarev exhibited his Concordia installation (named after the capsizing of the Costa Concordia off the Italian coast three years earlier) and in 2016, The Antarctica: Re-cyclical a frontier in flux – an installation by Hani Rashid and the Institute of Architecture, Vienna- also continued the successful exhibition history of the Antarctic Pavilion.

According to the Antarctic Treaty (1959) and other international agreements, the continent is exclusively reserved for peaceful activities and scientific research in the interest of all of humanity. It is the last continent not to belong to any single state, and it one of a select few places where international agreements are really observed.

Ponomarev believes that Antarctica  encourages people to think about the future of culture and the environment in tandem; a place that provides an opportunity to imagine new ways of life on our planet. The Antarctic Biennale is therefore described as a ‘biennale in process: a unique sociocultural phenomenon’. Its aim is to create an intercultural and interdisciplinary platform for effective performance and communication in areas with limited resources, or those that are socially and environmentally remote – places that lie at the frontier of human accessibility. The project incorporates artistic, scientific, and philosophical methodologies to address the concept of ‘shared spaces’ such as Antarctica, the ocean and the cosmos. The first Antarctic Biennale departs from standard exhibition models by re-imagining a traditional art event format. It is said to be ‘a creative journey that expands the parameters of what art can be today.’

In the months leading up to the expedition, a range of public events took place worldwide: Moscow, New York, Newport, Barcelona, Venice, London, Miami, Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. These included meetings, public talks, symposia, performances and an international open call for emerging artists.

Participants on board ship, with work by Ponomarev in the foreground. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

During the artistic voyage, the eighteen artist participants – which included Ponomarev himself and two artists chosen from the open call – traveled around 2000 nautical miles (just under 4000 km), making over twelve landings on the shores of the Antarctic peninsula and on islands surrounding Earth’s most southerly continent. In total, on the continent’s territory, over twenty artistic projects were carried out, including performances, installations, exhibitions and sound-art experiments, as well as over fifteen research sessions and philosophical discussions. The main objective for the creation of objects during the Antarctic Biennale was that they should not only provide artistic value, but also demonstrate a strict observation of the ecological requirements of human activity in Antarctica.

Abdullah Al Saadi drawing Antarctic Alphabets. Photo: V.Sichov / M.Molina. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Several artists became fascinated by icebergs, from whose shapes Abdullah Al Saadi (United Arab Emirates) derived an Antarctic alphabet, and onto which Alexis Anastasiou (Brazil) made gigantic projections. Joaquin Fargas (Argentina) drew attention to the fact that this ‘white paradise’ was not only melting and raising sea levels but, according to recent studies, revealing viruses that have long been trapped in the permafrost. His computer controlled mechanical Glaciator had the effect of compressing the snow, creating a ‘firn’, a state between snow and ice which contributes to the formation of a glacier.

Joaquin Fargas operating his Glaciator. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Tomos Saraceno (Argentina) acknowledged that the desire to fly was ‘universal and fundamental to humankind’, but that human activities were having a demonstrable impact on the earth’s ecosystems. His Aerocene project proposed a series of sculptures carrying sensors, inflated only by air, lifted skyward by the heat of the Sun and infrared radiation from the Earth, and carried by the wind.

Attempting to launch one of Tomas Saraceno’s Aerocene sculptures. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Another tendency of the artists was to find ways to introduce species from the tropics into the extreme cold of Antarctica. In Space Fish, Julius von Bismarck (Germany) realized a site-specific performance by employing a tropical freshwater fish to swim through the icy waters, facilitated only by a customized swimsuit. In Arriba! Paul Rosero Contreras (Ecuador) placed a cacao plant contained in a temperature-controlled capsule on top of a glacier. Both works referenced the fact that, more than 170 million years ago, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwana; at which time it experienced a tropical climate, was covered by forests and inhabited by various ancient life forms.

Paul Rosero Contreras’s work Arriba! on the glacier. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Sound work also appeared in different guises. Shama Rahman (Bangladesh/UK) brought the sounds of her sitar, associated with the heat of South Asia, into the cold of Antarctica.

Shama Rahman playing her sitar. Performance Truth be told. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Lou Sheppard (Canada) wrote a requiem based on detailed topographical maps onto which he superimposed a grid which in turn became a musical staff; elevation was recorded by sharps, flats and jumps in octave whilst the size of a particular part of coast was recorded in the duration of the notes. Penelope’s Voice by Eulalia Valldosera (Spain), described by her as a ‘wish to establish a connection with the animal world inhabiting Antarctica, asked for their vision about us and the world we live in’ was broadcast through the ship’s audio system.

Other performative works included The Phenomenon of Nature, or 99 Landscapes with a Tree by Andrey Kuzkin (Russia) which involved a head-first partial burial in the snow. The Purchase of the South Pole by Julian Charriere (France/Switzerland) proposed that he became the first person since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty to fire a weapon in Antarctica; disappointedly, the weapon which he describes as a ‘massive, air-pressured cannon with its barrel cast from a coconut tree and designed to fire coconuts’ was impounded by the German Police before departure. Ponomarev’s own work Alchemy of Antarctic Albedo (Washing Pale Moons) involved balloon-like constructions which drifted underwater in the Antarctic current.

Ponomarev’s underwater installation Alchemy of Antarctic Albedo (Washing Pale Moons). Photo: M.Pfau. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

First announced in August 2016, the intention of the open call competition was to give an opportunity to emerging and mid-career artists under the age of 35, and this received over 500 applications from 59 countries. The most active applicant countries were the USA (72 applications), UK (45 applications) and Russia (38 applications). The top ten active participating countries also included France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia, Turkey and Mexico. The winner and finalists were selected by an international jury comprising commissioner  Ponomarev and members of the artistic advisory board: president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi; art critic, curator and author Hans-Ulrich Obrist; architect and artist Hani Rashid; and Antarctic Biennale co-curator, Nadim Samman.

On 1 December, 2016, the results of the open call were announced during Art Basel Miami Beach. The first prize – an invitation to realize their proposed artworks during the first art expedition to the shores of Antarctica – was awarded to two artists, Sho Hasegawa (Japan) and Gustav Dusing (Germany). The work by Hasegawa, Winter Landscape (Antarctica Version), involved skating on ice using specially-made ice skates, cast with one side made of bronze and the other aluminium so that they worked together as a galvanic cell to generate electricity used to drive a light pen which drew onto photographic paper. Dusing made The solid state of matter, a tent-like structure of frozen cotton; as the expedition moved on, the structure was broken down and wrapped up so that no trace was left behind.

The Antarctic Pavilion with projections by Andrey Kuzkin and, in the foreground, the sphere used by Julius von Bismarck to transport his Space Fish. Photo: A.Narodizkiy. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

Works by fourteen other artists, including two from the UK, Bridget Steed and Louise Oates, were also included in the group exhibition held in the rooms of the former offices of the Adriatica Societa di Navigazione. Applying principals from digital gaming where the world is just surface, Steed imagined Antarctica’s icebergs as virtual environments, whilst Oates explored effects on the Thermohaline Circulation, a large-scale ocean conveyor belt driven by temperature and salinity, through the use of sodium acetate and its changing states. Sybren Renema from the Netherlands installed a neon work, ‘Great God! This is an awful place’ (words from Scott’s diary on finding that Amundsen had beaten him to the South Pole) in the exhibition.

The Antarctic Pavilion with neon billboard by Sybren Renema. Photo: Paul Rosero Contreras. Courtesy: the Antarctic Biennale

There were in addition fifteen more contributing artists involved, and fourteen interdisciplinary participants including Adrian Dannatt whose reports home  provide a vivid account of daily life on board ship, as witness to ‘a comic scene of earnest lectures with half the audience staggering out, loudly puking and groaning’. Anna Somers Cocks, executive director of The Art Newspaper, for which Dannatt wrote, was chairman of the board of trustees of the Antarctic Biennale and has written her own insightful articles on the project.

The results of this unique Biennale have yet to be assessed, but the project’s author and founder, artist Alexander Ponomarev is certain that the organizers have managed to carry out, and even go beyond, the originally planned program: ‘If we’re talking about numbers, then we carried out 150 percent of the program. We worked with the Antarctic, the ocean, whales and penguins, fish and birds. On board the vessel we had an international team of astonishing people, each of whom has an indomitable spirit of adventure and romance. Despite the continual pitching of the ship, in the lecture hall every day, there was packed attendance for lively debates, with global issues and challenges discussed with humour and inspiration’ added Ponomarev.

Commenting on his journey to Antarctica with the Biennale, Eugene Kaspersky, chairman of Kaspersky Lab, a Russian global cybersecurity company and one of the project’s major sponsors, said: ‘We have supported Antarctic expeditions in the past, but this has been the biggest project for us on the continent so far.’ A series of documentary films, television arts programs, illustrated books and photographic albums will disseminate the results of the voyage. The artistic works created amidst the ice of the Antarctic will now be exhibited at leading exhibition venues and museums around the world.

Left to right: Antarctic Biennale co-curator Nadim Samman, Alisa Prudnikova and Clive Adams.

Finally, we might question how unusual is Ponomarev’s enterprise? He may perhaps remind us of our own Richard Demarco, notably in Demarco’s contribution to Edinburgh Arts 1979, A Quest Through Europe or The Long Way Round To The Edinburgh Festival. This particular Journey was undertaken by 106 fellow artist-explorers for 63 days over a distance of some 7500 miles from the Hebrides to the Cyclades and back, part of it aboard the sailing vessel Marques. Since 2003, the UK organisation Cape Farewell has led eight expeditions to the Arctic, two to the Scottish Islands, and one to the Peruvian Andes, taking creatives, scientists, educators and communicators to experience the effects of climate change firsthand. For several months during 2006/7 Chris Drury was artist in residence with the British Antarctic Survey, during which time he created ephemeral works, videos and photoworks; back in the UK he made works from echograms – radar images of cross sections through the ice down to the land mass beneath.  In 2007, the End of the World Biennale in Ushuaia commissioned the artists Lucy + Jorge Orta to embark upon a remarkable expedition to Antarctica; aided by the logistical crew and scientists stationed at the Marambio Base, they founded their ephemeral Antarctic Village and raised the first Antarctic Flag as a tribute to the Antarctic Treaty.

Post script: The organisers of the Antarctic Biennale were careful to consult with Dr Sergei Gulev, a world expert in the field of climate change at the Russian Academy of Science, over the possible effect of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the research vessel and these were considered to be negligible compared with that of industry and road transport. Nevertheless, artists travel long distances by air to undertake this and other projects, in the case of Al Saadi involving a round trip of 40 hours from Dubai, and this inevitably contributes to global warming and the consequential loss of sea and land-based ice. Latest figures show that travel to Antarctica is steadily increasing, with the ‘air-cruise’ sector of tourism continuing to show the most growth at 36% compared to recent years.


The Antarctic Pavilion is now open every day except Tuesday from 2-6pm until 31 July at the Palazzo Molin a San Basegio, Fondamenta Zattere Al Ponte Longo 1412, Venice. Learn more at

Press release_Antarctic Biennale_Back from the expedition

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