Vincent J. F. Huang is representing the tiny Polynesian nation of Tuvalu at the 55th International Art Exhibition in Venice. His environmental message is already making a splash in the Venetian lagoon.
Based in Taipei and London, Vincent J. F. Huang has devoted most of the last decade to creating art works with strong environmental messages. For several years he has been attending international congresses on global warming. It was at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Convention in Copenhagen that Huang first learned about Tuvalu.
"The delegate from Tuvalu made a very touching speech. At the end he was crying. His country's story caught my attention and I started to research the nation."
The smallest and poorest of the Commonwealth countries, the tiny nation of 12,000 inhabitants, located in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Hawaii, is destined to be the first country to disappear because of rising sea levels resulting from global warming. Huang immediately embraced their cause, helped by the fact that Tuvalu is one of the few countries that diplomatically recognizes Taiwan.
Art with an agenda
Since 2009, the artist has created several projects which have brought attention to Tuvalu's plight.
"They invited me to do the Venice Biennale because the art I've done has been helping the islands express the crisis they are facing, and their government has appreciated my contribution in assisting them in getting international media attention."
Huang has visited Tuvalu twice, producing various artworks locally. Last year, he helped put the nation in the spotlight at the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha with his "Animal Delegates" project, featuring polar bears, penguins and Tuvalu turtles.
"It's too late for this tiny fishing community. They produce almost zero carbon emissions but they're going to lose their nation because of emissions from developed countries."
The exhibition's title reflects Huang's message that our destruction of a distant island is also our own.
His largest installation, In the Name of Civilization, is a colossal oil pump transformed into a killing machine, with a petrol pump beneath it. A turtle sits on the back of the oil pump under a guillotine, the Wall Street Bull hangs helplessly from its hind legs at the front. Visitors are invited to activate the gas pump as they would when filling their cars. As they do so, the oil pump is activated: the guillotine comes down to gradually decapitate the turtle and the bull's tongue hits the ground. An indictment of First World capitalism, the gauge on the pump registers a rise in sea levels each time we consume more of the Earth's resources.
Other exhibits include Prisoner's Dilemma: a sculpture of the Statue of Liberty, down on her hands and knees. She begs forgiveness from sacrificed terracotta penguins depicted in photos on the walls around her. "The US always want to be world leaders in everything except addressing the climate change crisis."
Modern Atlantis Project is an aquarium containing models of landmarks like Taipei 101 and Big Ben, and iconic historical symbols such as a Greek Nike and Michelangelo's David. They lie underwater, overgrown with plants, fish swimming in between them. "It's a metaphor that Nature will start to bite back and occupy human civilization."
To reach the installation you have to walk over a carpet of rubber Tuvalu turtles with shoe-prints on their shells and a device that triggers a screaming sound every time they are stepped on. At the entrance is a life-size penguin entitled Naked Truth. Huang's explanation is simple: "You see his pink skin because global warming has made him so hot that he has taken off his overcoat."
It is the first time Tuvalu has participated in the Biennale and their designated exhibition area is in Forte Marghera, a historic military area on the mainland, now used for contemporary art. The rich natural habitat and its location on the Venetian Lagoon offer a lot of parallels with Tuvalu itself, says Huang:
"Venice is also a sinking city, which makes the presence of a Tuvalu pavilion at the Biennale particularly significant. It's not only the problem of a tiny faraway island, it's a problem right here too."
But he does perceive another, less positive parallel: of all the national pavilions, theirs is the furthest away from the main locations - namely the Giardini and Arsenale areas - where most of the public will flock in the coming months.
"I think this is also a metaphor - how Tuvalu is always far away from the major world forces: in the climate change debate, on the political stage, but even at the Venice Biennale."
Nevertheless, Huang hopes many will be enticed away from the bustle of the main pavilions to visit the peaceful location of his works.
The Venice Art Biennale is open from 1st June to 24th November, 2013.