DRIFTING IN PLACE: WOOLOO'S MALDIVIAN COCONUTS (CAPRICCIO) AT THE 55TH VENICE BIENNALE
PUBLISHED IN THE EXHIBITION CATALOG OF THE MALDIVES PAVILION
A coconut floats past on the greyish water of the Grand Canal. It’s bright green, entirely out of place – that’s why you notice it.
Or else, more likely, you don’t notice it at all. Twelve Maldivian coconuts drift along the canals of Venice, largely unnoticed, occasionally glimpsed by passerby. That’s the difficulty in writing about Wooloo’s work for the Maldives Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale: I have not actually seen it. Or rather, I haven’t seen any of the coconuts: the work extends beyond the visible proof of Wooloo’s small, elegant gesture, encapsulating the often imperceptible shift it instigates within the Venetian landscape.
For Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) (2013), the Danish artist group has taken these twelve coconuts (the crop of one tree) from the Maldives and released them into the canals of Venice at various locations resembling views from classical vedutismo paintings. During the Biennale, the coconuts spread throughout the city on the currents of the water, noticed only by those who happen to stumble across them. A small, incongruous element inserted into one sinking civilization from another – a Maldivian coconut in Venice prompts a reconsideration of one’s surroundings. Imparting a sense of placelessness and transience, the work suggests both the endurance and fragility of the natural world.
At the center of the work, the coconut itself is a major aspect of life in the Maldives, both practical and symbolic. Coconuts are a staple food for Maldivians; the coconut palm is the national tree, and its image is featured in much of the nation’s visual culture: on the official emblem as well as on countless guidebook covers, hotel brochures and tourist photographs, evidence of the huge tourist industry (which accounts for roughly one third of the Maldives’ GDP).1 As a species, the coconut has spread throughout the world by floating across the oceans to new destinations. Coconuts are so well-suited to sea travel that they can drift thousands of kilometers and still stay fresh. Once washed ashore, the coconut can sprout a new tree from the high concentration of nutrition encapsulated in its core. Each coconut is the seed of life – a small portable nation, sustaining itself despite harsh conditions.
Yet the image of coconuts in the water is also an image of destruction: following the last tsunami to hit the Maldives, in 2004, the vast number of coconuts floating in the water was a major sign of ruin, of the tangible devastation wrought by climate change.2 If rising seas eventually submerge the Maldives, its coconuts will remain, small reminders of its past existence. The coconuts floating through Venice are simultaneously emblematic of nature’s resilience and its capacity for destruction. In this sense, Wooloo’s piece can also be read as a preemptive elegy to the small, almost unnoticed island nation.
Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) is in dialogue with both Venice and the Maldives, revealing parallels between these two quite different locations: both are deeply affected by climate change, and – unless significant action is taken – will likely be submerged by surrounding waters in the near future. Both, moreover, are dependent upon a tourism industry which sustains the national economy while steadily depleting resources and destroying the natural environment. Venice today is sinking, a result of rising water levels due to climate change as well as extensive industrial construction in the mid-twentieth century; parts of the city flood weekly.3 In the Maldives, the situation is even more precarious: as sea levels rise catastrophically (58 cm by the end of this century, according to a UN estimate), the island nation, only 2.3 meters tall at its highest point, is at risk of disappearing into the Indian Ocean.4 The Maldivian people may well be some of the first victims of climate change as a nation, and some have raised the possibility of relocating the Maldives – first from the most at-risk islands to other parts of the country, but eventually as a sovereign nation recreated within an existing state, such as India or Sri Lanka.5 Hence the Pavilion’s conception of a ‘portable nation’: the imminent threat of displacement due to climate change raises questions about the stability of the Maldivian people and culture, and about what constitutes a nation.
Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) echoes, moreover, the Maldives Pavilion’s theme of ecological romanticism – a poetic exploration of shifting conceptions and constructions of nature in the face of catastrophic climate change. It reflects an approach to nature as a concept – constructed, shaped by human needs and ideas – but also as an intuited space, composed of emotional environments. This, then, is the double grief of climate change, to which Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) speaks: its horrific concrete effects – starvation, mass homelessness, the extinction of native species – but also placelessness, dislocation, the profound sense of loss in having one’s home destroyed or disappear irrevocably.
At the same time, the work considers the history of Venice as the first center of international trade, the point of origin in the process of global capitalist exchange – the process which systematically exploits and devastates the natural world. In a sense, the coconuts’ random paths through the canals and beyond, perhaps into the surrounding seas, trace the pathways of goods and capital through Venice in past centuries. Moreover, the twelve coconuts were released at sites in the city resembling those that were depicted by 18th century vedutisti, painters of Venetian cityscapes. These twelve image-sites situate Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) within the local visual history of Venice, and link the piece to Italian art historical tradition. The work’s connection to the vedute tradition also suggests a relationship between residents and outsiders, given the popularity of these paintings as souvenirs for European travelers on a Grand Tour, and of Venice – then and now, and especially during the Biennale – as a tourist destination. Vedute paintings are “a phenomenon inextricably linked to place.” 6
This engagement with place is central to Wooloo’s practice: the artist group works in dialogue with a specific location – or, in this case, two locations, the Maldives and Venice, with their myriad particularities and shared environmental precarity. Yet with Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio), Wooloo also upends the feeling of site-specificity: the parenthetical title, Capriccio, refers to the tradition of architectural fantasy within landscape painting, notably employed by the vedutista Canaletto. In his paintings of Venice, Canaletto combined precise, realistic detail with an invented or fantastical element. In a similar manner, Wooloo has introduced an unfamiliar element into the Venetian landscape, the coconut, something impossible, literally out of place.
In contrast to Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio), many of Wooloo’s earlier works engage collaboratively with people in a given location on a large scale. Their practice – site-specific interventions and participatory projects – develops new possibilities for structuring the social and considers “how the total saturation of capital in society affects artistic production.”7 New Life Copenhagen (2009), for instance, reflects the artists’ longstanding commitment to the politics of climate change and the social and economic structures that prevent climate action. For New Life Copenhagen, the artists secured housing in Copenhagen for 3,000 activists and participants in the United Nations COP15 climate conference. The participants, who otherwise had no affordable housing options, were hosted in private homes in and around the city; the interactions between host and guest became part of the work itself. Blurring distinctions between art and activism, public and private, New Life Copenhagen “created the possibility for strangers to share their homes and experiences, to thus collaborate under the broad goal of addressing climate change in a global conference and treaty.” 8 The work, and subsequent New Life works (among them New Life Residency, at Manifesta 8 in Murcia, Spain in 2010) reflect an ongoing examination of the socio-political frameworks within which people live and interact; they share what Claire Bishop sees as the aim of participatory art, to “restore and realize a communal, collective space of shared social engagement.”9
Large-scale critical hosting initiatives form only a part of Wooloo’s practice, which operates at the intersection of art and the social. As they contend in a 2011 interview, “It’s by no means always the case that an activist intervention makes sense in the context of an artistic event. That energy is often put to better use elsewhere. You always have to ask: Why here? Why in the middle of all this art?”10 Of their less explicitly activist works, perhaps the clearest precedent for Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) is Two Years’ Untouched Garden (2011), which Wooloo created for the 6th Momentum Biennial in Moss, Norway. Like their work in Venice, the work in Moss constituted a single, sophisticated gesture: the request that the lawn in front of Galleri F15, where Momentum takes place, not be cut for a period of two years, until the following biennial. The work, which Wooloo calls a sculptural intervention, was a response to the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program, which pays selected developing countries to stop cutting down their forests as a means of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. In the first REDD agreement, Norway was to pay $1 billion to Indonesia to reduce its deforestation to one million hectares; yet Norway, the host of Momentum and a major producer of oil, invests roughly $20 billion annually in its own oil industry. Wooloo explains, “Norway earns enormous amounts from the further pollution of the planet, while simultaneously using a fraction of this income to pay a poor nation to put its own development and industry on hold.”11 Two Years’ Untouched Garden draws attention to this hypocrisy, indicting REDD as a policy which reinforces the systemic inequalities of global capitalism. The inaction at the core of the work is intended as a critical mirror of official inaction on climate change.
In Moss, local protests prevented the work from taking place at all, prompting the municipal administration to pass a law requiring that the lawn continue to be cut weekly.12 Two Years’ Untouched Garden exists in, and was displayed as, the documentation and ephemera of this minor political process. Two Years’ Untouched Garden and Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) constitute a somewhat different mode within Wooloo’s broader social practice: small and poetic, almost entirely depopulated, the two works move toward an æsthetics of refusal. They are premised on an understanding of refusal as an activist strategy, an “opening of space for alternatives to the realities being contested” – foremost, to the dominance of capital.13 Wooloo’s twelve drifting coconuts evade any singular meaning and deny commodifiable representation; the openness and apparent simplicity of the artists’ gesture – to observers or participants, to discourse – allow for a multiplicity of meanings and associations to emerge. The apparent inaction at the center of both works is political, a refusal of the processes of acquiescence and commodification which regularly accompany the exhibition of contemporary art at an international biennial.
The removal of the artists themselves from the work is of political significance as well. Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) begins with a small gesture by Wooloo, but continues to exist largely on its own, according to water currents and chance. Their absence is in part a political stance, signifying Wooloo’s ambivalent position on the administration in the Maldives: the current government came into power in February 2012 under dubious circumstances; the previous president, Mohamed Nasheed – the nation’s first democratically elected president and a vocal climate activist under whom the Maldives Pavilion was initiated – and others consider it a coup.14 The current political situation in the Maldives is problematic and unclear, with evidence of corruption, lack of transparency, and violence. Shortly after Nasheed was removed from power, the Maldives was suspended from the Commonwealth’s human rights and democracy watchdog, pending investigation.15
Wooloo’s work consciously holds itself apart from this situation: Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio) is not located inside of the pavilion itself (nor is any documentation of it), but outside, almost hidden within the broader context of the Biennale and the city. The structure of the work reaffirms the premise of Wooloo’s engagement: a refusal to inhabit the actual Maldives Pavilion and thus legitimize the current government of the Maldives, but a commitment to reimagining the structures in which the people most affected by climate change are those who lack the political and economic power to represent their plight.
In Maldivian Coconuts (Capriccio), as in all of Wooloo’s work, “art and the social are not to be reconciled, but sustained in continual tension.”16 Crucially, the work provides no answers, whether to problems of climate change, political complicity, or the injustices of global capitalism. Rather, it operates at the intersection of these systems, offering a subtle provocation, a coconut drifting through the center of Venice, a possibility.
1 Jon Henley, “The Last Days of Paradise,” The Guardian, 10 November 2008 (Web: accessed 8 June 2013).
3 “Venice’s 1500-year battle with the waves,” BBC, 17 July 2003 (Web: accessed 9 June 2013).
4 Henley, “The Last Days of Paradise.”
6 Jim Tice, Erik Steiner, Allan Ceen and Dennis Beyer, “The Vedutismo Tradition,” University of Oregon, 2008.
7 Christian Skovbjerg Jensen & Wooloo, “Everywhere Else Than Here,” Imagine Being Here Now Reader (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2011), 160.
8 Daniel Boese, “New Life Copenhagen,” Artforum, April 2010.
9 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso, 2012), 275.
10 Christian Skovbjerg Jensen & Wooloo, “Everywhere Else Than Here,” 150.
11 Ibid., 147.
12 Matthias Neumann, “The Art Work That Never Happened – Wooloo at the Momentum Biennial in Moss,” Free Pass Project, 8 November 2011.
13 Ann Deslandes, “Sustaining Refusal: Autonomous Activism and Aesthetic Reflexivity,” The Politics and Aesthetics of Refusal, ed. Caroline Hamilton, Michelle Kelly, Elaine Minor and Will Noonan (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), 7.
14 “Maldives ex-president to face trial,” Aljazeera, 1 October 2012, (Web: accessed 9 June 2013).
15 Peter Griffiths, “Commonwealth suspends Maldives from rights group, seeks elections,” Reuters, 23 February 2012 (Web: accessed 9 June 2013).
16 Bishop, Artificial Hells, 278.