Art at the Ends of the Earth

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Alexander Ponomarev, Voice in the Wilderness, 2014
Alexander Ponomarev, Voice in the Wilderness, 2014Photography by Antony Holder

Antarctica enters the whirlwind of Venice with Concordia, a thoughtful installation considering exploration and morality

Who? The celebrated artist-curator pairing of Alexander Ponomarev and Nadim Samman, jointly named in the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine, is now showing at the duo’s Antarctic Pavilion in Venice. “We appointed ourselves the cultural ministry of Antarctica,” says Samman. "We are interested in the concept of transnational community. Antarctica is the closest thing to an existing political utopia that we have on this planet. Antarctica is liberation."

What? For the show, former submariner Ponomarev constructed a scale model of the grounded Costa Concordia, its lilting skeletal infrastructure of iced-over pipes sitting on steel runners leading out over the Grand Canal. An extension of Ponomarev's Voice in the Wilderness from the 2014 Marrakech Biennale, Concordia explores trust and duty. Calling out the failures of a captain abandoning his post and his passengers in the face of mortal danger, the show also invokes a spirit of exploration and polar adventure, the indomitable drive to venture ever on in the quest for new discoveries. Blowtorches positioned underneath suggest that the ropes holding the hollowed sculpture in place will be burnt through, launching the ghostly vessel into the waters below and and heralding a symbolic launch of the Antarctic Biennale.

Why? Ponomarev and Samman view the continental ice shelf of the Antarctic as a blank canvas, freed from national, economic, military interests under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, and without a native population beyond a few penguins and a smattering of international scientists. Here, the pair propose a floating biennale. "A ship of fools or a floating embassy," says Samman, "[that] will explore the potential of Antarctica for world culture." Research ships carrying artists out voyaging over the southern oceans, making art away from the intervening scrum of collectors, gallerists and media, in search perhaps of a promised land, of purity, of a salvation from ourselves out over the ends of the world. Behold, the white whale, that great cold icy mass, that snowy hill. There she blows.

Alexander Ponomarev: Concordia is at the Antarctic Pavilion, Venice until November 22.