Masthead

BACKSTAGE BIENNALE

Veronica Green and Sean Duxfield talk about their experiences working at the Venice Biennale

Image. Katharina Grosse “untitled trumpet”

W.E. You have both been involved with New Zealand’s participation in the Venice Biennale over the years Can you give us a run-down of what roles you have had and some of the things you were responsible for?

S.D. Prior to setting up our company in 2014 we had both been working independently on various projects at the Venice Biennale.

Veronica had worked for Creative New Zealand managing the New Zealand Pavilion on the ground in Venice for many years.  This began in 2009 with the double artist presentation of Francis Upritchard with “Save Yourself” and Judy Millar “Giraffe, Bottle, Gun”. In 2011 she worked on Michael Parekowhai’s “On First Looking onto Chapman’s Homer” and again in 2013 with Bill Culbert’s “Front Door Out Back.

She also managed the exhibition “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest,” at the 2014 Biennale of Architecture on behalf of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Over the years she has helped with selecting the venue and negotiating lease agreements with the owners, installation, condition reporting, training the attendants, supervising staff, managing the day to day running of the pavilion, and ensuring the exhibition ran smoothly, looked great over its duration and that those people on the ground in Venice had everything they needed. 

V.G Sean was also involved in Bill Culbert’s “Front Door Out Back” in 2013 initially as technician assisting with the installation and then as an attendant. It was through this exhibition that we met and formed our company (McGregor Wright Services Ltd) in 2014.

It is named after the very first dealer gallery in NZ, a business my family now owns, after it closed its doors back in 2013. We thought it would be a great way to continue a business that began in Dunedin in 1879 (some 16 years before the first Venice Biennale) by translocating it into the world’s most important contemporary art event and changing how it operated.

We provide exhibition support services to participants at the Biennale in whatever capacity they require, no matter how big or small the task. Our first project together was the de-installation, packing and transportation of the New Zealand Pavilion, – David Mitchells “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest at the Venice Biennale 14th International Architecture Exhibition. During the show we had also been contracted by Victoria and Melbourne University to find accommodation for their staff and to organise catering for six functions during a symposium they held.

We soon realised that there was an opportunity to utilise the wide range of skills and experience we have between us and Veronica’s local knowledge and contacts but that we needed to look beyond New Zealand for projects if this was going to be viable. We started asking around and meeting companies already offering a similar service in Venice to see if we could become potential collaboration partners and/or sub contract to them.

The following year things just took off and we quickly found ourselves booked for nine projects for the 56th Venice Biennale of Art.

One of the most significant projects was assisting Katharina Grosse and her team with the installation of her fabulous work” Untitled Trumpet” in the curated show in the Arsenale. This was no small task as the show required that we bring in 40 m3 of soil and drape over 200m of fabric, then set about spray painting it without standing on the delicately painted soil. Shortly after the show opened weeds started sprouting up out of the soil and at the curators insistence we removed the new growth each week using a special pair of long pincers.

We converted a shop in Via Garibaldi for a French glass artist, fitted out a warehouse in Zattere for nine artists from Dubai and installed three shows for a prestigious Italian gallerist. We then trained up a wonderful team of attendants to manage three collateral event pavilions. These were Grisha Bruskin “An Archaeologist’s Collection” Roberto Sebastian Matta “Sculture,” and Antonio Clavé “Alchimia della Material”.

We were involved with Simon Denny’s “Secret Power” exhibition at the Marciana Library, providing a local guide for a patron’s tour and then hired by Te Papa Tongarewa to de-install and pack up four works they purchased from the show, and assisted with the customs clearance and freight logistics to get them back to New Zealand.

Last year we were hired by the NZIA as Exhibition Managers for “Future Island’s” at the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture. Our involvement has been across the entire project from start to finish where we helped source the venue, negotiated the lease, advised the creative team, and packed the show, co-ordinated the freight, undertook the installation, trained and managed the volunteer attendants. During the show we organised events, catering, tours, filming, and accommodation and undertook regular maintenance to keep it looking its best. 

We managed the de-installation, freight, logistics and documentation for a student exhibition from Auckland University called “Zoon Politikon” and a project by Massey University lecturer Simon Twose at Palazzo Mora. Some of our other collaborations were the de-installation of Russian Architect, Bernazkoni “Matrex” in the Arsenale and the installation of “In Mondo Di Han Meilin,” at Ca Foscari University. 

Dottore Emilio Vianello, CEO Teena Pennington, Commissioner Tony van Ratt, Veronica Green & Sean Duxfield.

W.E. ​New Zealand is a young country and relatively small player in terms of participation at Venice-in your experience do you think we make much of an impact?

S.D. Yes we both think so. Venice is the oldest and (arguably) still the most prestigious international platform for showcasing contemporary art. It even pre dates the modern Olympics by a few years. From May to November the Biennale attracts close to 500,000 visitors over its 6 month duration along with most of the world’s most influential art commentators, critics, curators, collectors and taste makers.

Over the past 12 years Creative New Zealand has invested a lot of time and energy establishing and maintaining a presence in Venice and we think it is important to keep building on that momentum. A lot of people have worked very hard to get us to this point and this year will be the sixth time that New Zealand has attended.

Presenting a show 18,500 km away in a city where English is a second language and water-only access is hard enough, let alone having to convince the rest of the country that this is an important thing to do and the best platform available on which to do it.

The dividends seem to be paying off for our artists and if you look at the trajectory of those sent to Venice it would be hard to argue that they have not have benefited in some way from that opportunity.

This year is the first time that we have not shown in a standalone pavilion and CNZ have managed to secure a space in the Arsenale, a naval area where the Venetians built their sailing fleet. It was a strategic decision to create a more visible presence and Lisa Reihana's “Emissaries” exhibition will sit beautifully in this context alongside Argentina, China, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey in the Arsenale. 

New Zealand Ambassador Patrick Rata, Veronica Green and Sean Duxfield.

W.E. As you have been in on the ground roles is there much interaction between the different ‘teams’ from different countries? Do you hang out together and is there much of a collegial atmosphere, particularly during your install period?

S.D. It might sound glamorous but make no mistake; working on the biennale is hard work, with long hours and high stress. We are yet to work on one that hasn’t been chaotic. With so much at stake and the world watching there is huge pressure on the artists, curators, commissioner, funding agencies and technical staff to get it right. The days are long and no matter how well you think you are prepared for it there is always the unexpected. There are not many hardware stores around and they close for 3 hours every day after lunch, usually at exactly the time you need something!

As such there is a lot of socialising at the end of the day. For a lot of people the bars near the Giardini and Arsenale are a natural gathering place where a sea of black clothed people wearing the tell-tale identification lanyards around their necks spill out of the bars and onto the pavements to share stories, reconnect and unwind.

V.G. Venice can become very small very quickly and if you are wearing a lanyard or clutching a tote bag chances are that someone will spark up a conversation to see what you are working on or who you are working for.

Behind the scenes various countries set up Facebook pages for people working on the Biennale so that workers can meet up and summon that collegial atmosphere and stay connected. The Maldives pavilion always run a bar during installation and vernissage week in the lower back part of their venue and there is a fiercely contested table tennis competition between technicians on outdoor tables outside the Giardini.

There are strong Anzac bonds with both countries reciprocating invites to their functions and it goes without saying that the offer is always there if either country needs a hand.

The pavilion itself becomes an unofficial embassy during the Biennale where people often just pop in to say hello and connect with other New Zealanders.

W.E. Venice can be a pretty crazy place. Can you paint us a picture of what it’s like during the Biennale?

V.G. Colourful chaos and a tale of two world’s simultaneously colliding, one as oblivious of each other.

On one hand you have a sea of tourists wearing headsets being herded around Venice’s main attractions in a semi-trance like state following their tour guides loftily hoisted colourful flags so as not to get lost. These people are trying to cram as much into a single day as possible before reboarding gigantic cruise ships and heading off. Then there are the families and couples taking gondola rides or newlyweds posing for photos in San Marco square or on the famous arched bridges.

Navigating their way through the tourists at high speed are people there for the biennale racing along hot concrete in high fashion clothes, wearing trainers and designer sunnies. These lanyard-wearing people have cell phones glued to their ears, clutching maps and are racing to the next show or to a rendezvous point to quickly recharge over a spritz or espresso and rest their shoulders from the weight of tote bags bursting with catalogues and giveaways.

There is an overwhelming sense of FOMO, door-list desperation and exhaustion. The parties are legendary and everyone has a great time because it is exhilarating and exciting. The big question each day is usually what shows did you see and what would you recommend? Oh and can you recommend a good restaurant?

W.ECan you tell us about some of your most memorable moments over the years working on the biennale? And describe some of the colourful characters you’ve met?

V.G. The thing about Venice is that it never fails to surprise you. Just when you think you have seen it all there are moments that just take your breath away. Whether it is the sheer beauty of the place and its buildings sometimes you turn corner and astounded by what you see. This could be a gigantic passenger ship literally metres away or some peculiar object making its way by barge along the canal.

Some memorable moments for us were Brian Eno’s Cartier sponsored roof top opening at the Conservatory of Music. Watching patrons of the Gagosian Gallery filing one after another into a constant stream of water taxis, talking with Okwui Enwezor about how to suppress the weeds growing in the Katherine Grosse installation at the Arsenale, meeting with Alfons Hug (ex-curator of the Sao Paulo biennale) and two Colombian artists in a small two table café while surrounded by heavily armed guards while we discussed possible venues for their project.

Despite the distraction of what everyone else is doing and the people with international reputations that you sometimes meet the moments that are truly meaningful have been ones that remind us of home.

For both of us that ability to stand tall as a New Zealander and draw on our own culture and traditions is pretty hard to beat. There is a feeling of immense pride that distance amplifies and when the Te Waka Huia procession wound its way from Judy Millar and Francis Uprichard’s venue through to Saint Marks square. This culminated in a breath taking performance that enthralled the locals and moved people to tears.

Another of these moments was watching visitor’s different emotional responses to the piano recitals that occurred during Michael Parekowhai’s exhibition. We got chills down our spines when we heard the sound of the conch shell and call of the karanga as our Ambassador, Commissioner, creative team and Venetian dignitaries paddled along the canal in gondolas to a palazzo for the opening of the New Zealand pavilion of Architecture. 

W.E. What are you both currently working on in the lead-up to Lisa Reihana’s presentation at this year’s biennale?

S.E. & V.G. Things always get busy at this time of the year and we have had numerous requests for assistance at this year’s art biennale. These range from painting, laying timber flooring and installing a show in a warehouse space for a group of artists from Dubai to building a 40 metre wall in a magnificent palazzo for an Italian dealer gallery.

We have also been approached to manage a couple of pavilions and provide the exhibition attendants and just last week we were asked to assist a French artist that is doing a complex AV installation in the curated show at the Arsenale.

We are project managing the logistics and installation of Nathan Pohio’s “Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun!” project at Documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany and have just received and emptied a 40ft container that contained the ‘Future Islands’ exhibition in it which we will be helping tour around New Zealand.

W.E. Sean, you work at Christchurch Art Gallery with Jenny Harper who was previously the New Zealand commissioner of the Venice Biennale. Do the major institutions play a big role in New Zealand’s participation at the Venice Biennale?

S.D. They play a huge role, and this cannot be understated. I would argue that none of the past biennale presentations could have occurred without institutional support of some kind.

Jenny Harper played a key role in getting the biennale back on track after some less than favourable media coverage back in 2005 derailed things. Luckily our GM at the time ‘saw the value to the organisation’ of having our Director spend time outside of her gallery role to work as Commissioner for the biennale. He understood the importance of this event and the opportunities that might come from it, both for the organisation and for those staff that were a part of it.

Venice provides a wonderful professional development opportunity for people working in the arts in New Zealand to be part of an international project, an opportunity they might not otherwise have in the course of their daily duties.

In the year I worked on Bill Culbert’s “front door out back” project our director, curator, graphic designer, photographer and workshop technician all contributed in some way to the successful delivery of the show.

The exhibition attendants program is a popular and highly contested role which receives upwards of 100 applications each time from people in the arts and museums sector. This program relies on the support of institutes to then allow their staff time off to work as ambassadors at our pavilion. 

This year it is Auckland Art Gallery’s turn to provide similar support to what the Christchurch Art Gallery did in 2013. They are official ‘presenting partners’ and were first to premier Lisa Reihana’s “in pursuit of Venus [infected]”. Their Director, Rhana Devenport is the Curator and they are sending technical staff over to assist with the installation of the show.

Te Papa Tongarewa is also in behind this year’s biennale as ‘key partners’ and have supported in some way in every year that New Zealand has participated. They support on the basis that they have the option to purchase a work from the show and have acquired pieces for the collection from almost all of the past biennales.

I would also like to acknowledge the role that the patrons and gallerists play because you simply cannot present a show in Venice without their hard work, generosity and support. The biennale really is the result of a group of people who truly believe in what CNZ are trying to achieve in Venice getting in behind our artists and allowing them a unique opportunity to shine at one of the most prestigious art events in the world.

W.E. Veronica, you lived in Venice for a number of years. How did you find moving back to New Zealand?

V.G. Once we established and recruited some great local staff for our company it allowed me the flexibility to be away from Venice more often. With high speed internet and Skype you can be still very connected to what is going on without physically needing to be there.

The Biennale demands that I spend at least half of each year in Venice but despite this I have been coming back to New Zealand for a few months every summer since I have been away. Even after living in Venice for 10 years I still consider both places home and I want to continue to be able to live in both places as and when the work requires it, to have the best of both worlds, a never ending summer of sorts.

When I am not working on exhibition projects I am a practicing artist with established markets in Europe, Asia and America so it doesn’t matter so much where I am based because I can paint anywhere. Admittedly I don’t have the influence of 2,000 years of Italian history in my peripheral each and every day when I am here but there are things to inspire and draw upon wherever you are in the world.