Tuvalu is a small nation comprised of several very small islands and atolls. It gained its independence from the UK in 1978, and their current prime minister is Enele Sopoaga. The main islands are Vaitupu and Funafuti. Funafuti is the capital, and the only island with an airstrip. Tuvalu is extremely isolated, they get 2 planes in per week, each only able to hold 30 passengers, which come from Fiji. The population for all islands total is under 10,000. Four years ago, their population was closer to 10,600 people; unfortunately, encroaching water levels and soil salination has forced many people to emigrate to New Zealand or Australia. Their only export are dried coconut kernels, which are becoming more difficult to grow, due to the severe soil salination. Their main donors are the EU and Taiwan.1
The small island nation is known mainly due to its centrality on the subject of climate change. It has been listed as the first country that will sink if sea levels continue to rise. Tuvalu has been likened to a canary in a coalmine, due to its marginalized people and the world’s lack of concern that these islands are suffering from rising sea levels.2 The nation has become a place of zero emissions, and is active in all the global conferences on climate change.
The people of Tuvalu were originally Polynesians who migrated to the islands. Their traditional arts include: textile work with fans and mats, handicrafts made from cowrie and other shells, along with crocheting. Tuvaluans still practice their native dance, and continue their heritage while assimilating contemporary culture.
Tuvalu’s pavilion is located in the Arsenale, and 2015 was the second year it participated in the art show. 2013 was its first year; the artist Vincent J.F. Huang was the artist for Tuvalu for both years at the Biennale. For both events, Huang chose to bring attention to Tuvalu’s plight as sea levels continue to rise.
Crossing the Tide is the name of the exhibit for the 2015 Biennale; Huang flooded the pavilion and created walk-ways that one must cross. The bridges are supposed to be slightly submerged, the idea being one’s feet would get wet while crossing; unfortunately, due to the artificial tide Huang created, most visitors did not get wet feet. This is Huang’s first conceptual art piece. Additionally, throughout the Biennale, various performances took place, both during open visiting times and also when the pavilion was closed; this provided an interesting collaboration with other artists, who used Crossing the Tides within their own work. Videos of one such collaboration, and a time-lapse video of how visitors experienced the space are located on a youtube channel, so one may understand the experience of the pavilion. Examples of some performances are: dancers-both improvisational and ballet, musical accompaniments—such as string quartets, and solo violinists, etc., as well as videography—including filming some of the above-mentioned performances.
Crossing the Tide is meant to connect Venice to Tuvalu, and vice versa, as both locales face growing problems due to rising sea levels. Staying within their environmental lens, Tuvalu’s pavilion at the 56th Biennale is the only country to go completely paper-free.
Artist Vincent J.F. Huang was chosen to represent Tuvalu in 2015, primarily due to his close working relationship with the island nation since 2010. The success of Tuvalu’s pavilion is dependent on the viewer’s understanding of the country’s currently perilous position. The installation was not accompanied by any physical explanatory material, i.e. the catalog and all brochures, pamphlets, etc. was not on-hand. While the space was easily accessed by visitors, the conceptual nature of the installation means many visitors would need to be informed on Tuvalu’s sinking islands, and have some concept of how Huang’s piece was meant to be perceived. In addition, it is clear from visitors who visited the pavilion that most people’s feet did not even get very wet, if at all. It seems the concept may have been loftier than what Huang was able to execute.
Reasons above notwithstanding, Tuvalu’s pavilion contained an interesting, thought-provoking installation. Other artists used the installation as background, or setting, for their own pieces; this implies that other artists found the work compelling and visually appealing enough to incorporate. Regardless of how each individual visitor engaged, understood, or appreciated Crossing the Tide, it seems evident that the piece was successful on multiple levels. The amount of publicity this pavilion received, up to and including, securing a place in the Arsenale, also eludes to the success of the pavilion. Overall, I found the pavilion to be quite successful, captivating while remaining aesthetically pleasing.
Huang studied in three schools, the first was located close to his birthplace, the Taichang University of Science and Technology. Subsequently, Huang received his MFA at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, Scotland. Finally, his third school, China’s CEIBS or China Europe International Business School, where he studied business and finance, as a backup plan.
Huang’s art is classified as eco-art or “green art.” In 2009 he created the work Suicide Penguins; it hung off Millennium Bridge in London. It is a comment on global warming, etc. The artist has been very involved within ecological circles, attending many conferences. He was inspired to work with Tuvalu after the 2009 climate conference held in Copenhagen. Huang subsequently went to Tuvalu in 2011, where he created Dry Mermaid.
Huang exhibited at Taipei MOCA; he presented a recreation of the 2013 Tuvalu Biennale pavilion, including a TV screen displaying his Dry Mermaid. Outside the museum stands Huang’s Merrill Lynch Bull that has been strung up on an oil rig.
Not all of Huang’s exhibitions are temporary; he maintains a permanent exhibit in Sydney, Australia at ArtSpace. His Modern Atlantis consists of miniatures of famous structures, sculptures, and other cultural landmarks and allowed the corals to naturally take over and grow where they liked. He has created many iterations of this, each one having slight differences in the objects. In fact, there was another one that was included at the Taipei MOCA exhibit.