Talking Venice Biennale w/ William Huffman

Posted by Mia Nielsen, May 09, 2017
 Kananginak Pootoogook

Untitled (2009) by Kananginak Pootoogook

Ahead of this year's Venice Biennale, our head curator, Mia Nielsen takes a moment to chat with William Huffman of Dorset Fine Arts on this year's debut of Inuit art on a global stage.

What is your favourite Venice Biennale memory?
Ah, I remember it well, it was my first time! And like lots of those other first-times, it’s the one you remember the most, even though it might not have been a favourite! I began my affair with La Biennale in 1997, Germano Celant was head honcho, the theme was an all-encompassing Future, Present, and Past, Rodney Graham rocked the Canadian pavilion – and there was a round-the-clock bombing campaign over Sarajevo! How’s that for non-sequitur? Upon arrival in Venice, I became immediately and regularly distracted by a rumbling overheard. With genuine innocence, I asked a Biennale staffer in the Giardini, what was going on. His simple answer, “American warplanes going for airstrikes to Yugoslavia.” Benvenuti a Venezia! From Base NATO Aviano about 100 kilometres north of Venice, US fighter jets were delivering their payloads to the embattled city. It was such a profound and troubling moment for me that I co-edited two volumes of a periodical entitled Metro: Chronicles in the First Person about art and conflict – both issues deeply inspired by that singular Biennale memory.

What is your favourite pavilion?
Let me pull a thread from above and tell you about the curious case of the Yugoslavian pavilion that same year. With air force overhead, I discovered that, what was to become the former Yugoslavia, had a pavilion in the Giardini; a quite big one, actually. Circumstances being what they were, a visit was in order. The space was unlocked and empty, save for the remnants of its previous installation – some picture hanging hooks and name cards dotted the walls. But the eeriest discovery was a hand-written sign taped to a door, which read, “pavilion closed due to war”. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite pavilion, but by far the most remarkable and unforgettable!

 Kananginak Pootoogook 2

Untitled (2009) by Kananginak Pootoogook

What makes this year special at the Biennale? In addition to the Inuit artists, can you please chat a bit about Geoffrey Farmer’s trip to the Dorset?
This is an important Biennale for me, aside from being my 10th go-around at the event and 20 years since my first one, it’s also the first time in the event’s 122-year run that a Canadian Inuit artist has been included. Cape Dorset’s Kananginak Pootoogook is amply represented in the Arsenale with 10 works on paper drawn from five North American collections. My organization, Dorset Fine Arts, is agent to the estate of Pootoogook, so we’ve been working hard to ensure that this milestone is sufficiently celebrated. Now my Arctic connection doesn’t stop there! Earlier this year, I accompanied Geoffrey Farmer to Cape Dorset, acting as Sherpa while he conducted reconnaissance for his project currently in the Canadian pavilion. I don’t want to give it away, but I can tell you that the installation includes some pieces of community history – you’ll have to see it to figure out what I mean. It’s such a thrill to see Cape Dorset and its creativity embedded in this year’s Biennale and gratifying to have played a small role in making it happen!

Which artist (or collective) do you think should represent Canada in the future?
That’s a tough question to answer; there are so many artists whose work is strong enough that they should have an opportunity on the Biennale platform. But it’s a tough proposition even for the best of them! I think that the event scope and scale can (and has) reduced some brilliant work to irrelevance. Quite recently Geoffrey Farmer even said that representing Canada at La Biennale is an impossibility – and he’s been tasked with doing just that! Interestingly, I think that’s a very useful piece of advice! Seeing the mission as impossible is exactly how to pull it off – La Biennale di Venezia demands that artwork be nothing less than spectacular, intense and exciting. Which is, huh, kinda’ perfect since that’s a beautiful description of Venice itself!

William Huffman is an arts administrator, curator and educator. His current fulltime gig is with Dorset Fine Arts, the Toronto division of Cape Dorset’s West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative.

Follow @thedrakeart on Instagram to see the Venice Biennale through Mia’s eyes!

Posted in: Art

Tags: art  cape dorset  drake art  inuit art  venice biennale