Philanthropist to Inaugurate ‘Oceans Pavilion’ in Venice

Artists, scientists, and activists met for a tropical convention in Jamaica.

Philanthropist and art collector Francesca von Habsburg’s Vienna-based foundation, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, (TBA21) is planning a long-term “Oceans Pavilion” in Venice that she hopes will be launched during the next two years, hopefully as early as the summer of 2017, for the 57th international Venice Biennale subject to the conservation of the church be agreed upon with the city of Venice. The Venice Biennale “is where the world of art moves to and where we can really genuinely articulate the oceans as a nation-state,“ Von Habsburg explained at the end of an ambitious five-day meeting in Jamaica. The conference, organized by TBA21 director Markus Reymann, was part of “The Current,” a three-year fellowship program, which aims to explore pressing ecological and social issues. Artists, scientists, activists, and anthropologists were brought together during the tropical convention (which marked a milestone of Von Habsburg’s three-year project) for a program of lectures, workshops, and performances to explore the subject.

“We have got permission from city of Venice to take on this building and to maintain a cultural program in there on a regular basis,” Von Habsburg said about Chiesa San Lorenzo, a huge old church she has found near the Arsenale, the site of the central exhibition of the biennial, where, if all goes according to plan, TBA21 would be able to mount exhibitions and offer programming throughout the next 10 years.

The lease is in exchange for a restoration project, details of which are still to be determined. The church has been closed to the public for more than 20 years, though Mexican artist Ariel Guzik did an installation there when he representing his country in 2013. The restoration project would be in close collaboration with the Ufficio del Patrimonio de Venezia and other Venetian authorities.

“We are working on getting the financing together to restore it,” she added stating that negotiations were still underway. Von Habsburg said she felt it was vital for TBA21 to have a permanent venue in Venice, as far as anything can be permanent in the sinking city.

Von Habsburg confided that she is hoping to collaborate with Neri Oxman, the TED talk star and MIT Media Lab professor known for her work in “material ecology,” a term she coined to define a concept that calls for using design principles inspired by nature to transform the environmental impact of the design and construction of objects and buildings.

Von Habsburg, 57, founded TBA21 in 2002 in Vienna and helped build its reputation as an incubator for category-defying projects with a focus on policy, politics, and social good with artists like Olafur Eliasson, Ernesto Neto, Kutlug Ataman, and Amar Kanwar. Since 2015, TBA21 has turned its attention particularly to environmental projects.

The red-headed heiress’s earlier transformation from Euro royalty it-girl into a serious patron of the arts has been well-chronicled—The New York Times compared her to “another art-crazy heiress,” Peggy Guggenheim. She shared the news of the Oceans Pavilion as she spoke of her more recent transformation into a dedicated marine conservationist.

“The more time you spend out there, you connect more and more,” she said during a one-on-one interview with artnet News, the doors and windows of her art-strewn living room open to the sapphire colored water of Port Antonio, Jamaica, where as a child she learned to swim, to SCUBA dive, and to care about marine life. “It just became more and more personal to me.”

Artist and TBA21 Fellow Laura Anderson Barbata of Mexico City preparing for a performance. <br>Photo: courtesy TBA21.

Artist and TBA21 Fellow Laura Anderson Barbata of Mexico City preparing for a performance.
Photo: courtesy TBA21.

The Oceans Pavilion and the Triennium project are meant to bridge Von Habsburg’s twin passions. “The [TBA21] foundation was my baby and something I created, but as my passion grew for the environment and particularly with a focus on the oceans, it just was tearing me apart; I just felt like ‘I don’t have enough time to do both!’”

Much of what TBA21 is doing now, she explained, is “a means to give form and structure to something that otherwise was just two worlds that were sort of occasionally colliding, but not being very productive.”

Von Habsburg looked longingly out to the sea where swimming below were some of the artists, curators, designers, scientists, activists, anthropologists, technologists and policy-makers from Jamaica and from around the globe who’d joined the conference. Several spent the morning snorkeling and diving just off the shore, including a director of The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Oskar Metsavaht, the Brazilian fashion designer, filmmaker and artist. Most had also spent several days conferring in in the courtyard of Kingston’s new contemporary art center space in the patchy shade of an almond tree that, when the wind blew dropped its big, dry leaves to the ground like paperbacks, startling the crowd.


Several days of a convening of artists, designers, scientists and activists from around the world took place in the shade of an almond tree in the courtyard of Kingston’s newest art center.
Image: Courtesy of TBA21

“Artists have the potential to start revolution; revolutions don’t start in the sciences,” said The New York-based National Geographic Explorer and TED Talk star Dr. David Gruber. “So there’s a lot of power in bringing these two groups together.” Gruber presented collaborative musings along with Brazilian-German artist Janaina Tschäpe on the last day to an engaged crowd that included dozens of Jamaican teenagers who hope to study science and biology. Gruber said that his participation wasn’t as important as that of the artists. “I don’t think a group of scientists alone can do much—I mean, we’re just too nerdy!”

London-based artist Nabil Ahmed was excited to be invited by TBA21 because his work explores contemporary eco-politics. He presented his long-term project on environmental conflict and politics in and around West Papua, on the western half of the South Pacific island of New Guinea, a region to which the sea-faring vessel Dardanella had recently ventured. Ahmed says he was attracted to the idea of being “part of a radical curatorial experiment” and the “opportunity to take part in a conversation that moves among practices, disciplines and intersecting geographies and politics.”


Francesca von Habsburg discusses philanthropy with participants in a break-out session in Kingston, as part of TBA21’s Triennium project.
Image: Courtesy of TBA21

Gathered around and then taking turns at the mic were also curator Ute Meta Bauer who had planned much of the programming; Paris-based British artist Lucy Orta; and the artists Laura Anderson Barbata of Mexico City and Armin Linke of Berlin and Milan, both of whom are art fellows with TBA21.

Von Habsburg presided over them for five days both with urgency of purpose and a warm yet casual grace: buying a dozen coconuts on a whim from her favorite street vendor for a van-load of the visitors; audibly muttering “for fuck’s sake” when a snippet of climate-change news shared by a presenter got her down; offering her own half-drunk drink when someone was thirsty; or not objecting a whit to the whiff of weed in the air.

She’s pleased that the events of the week in Jamaica as well as her planned program for Venice avoid what she calls “this kunsthalle rhythm,” by which she means where “the production of your foundation becomes very systematically the same as any other institution, public or private.” Her voice wearied as she cited her fatigue with the rigmarole of exhibitions every few months. “Then you have your catalogue,” she said.

“Where’s the point of being a private collector,” she asked, “if you can’t reinvent the world you live in or at least adapt it to your liking and to your rhythm and to the things you want? “ She brightened as she looked out again towards the blue waters below.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Francesca von Habsburg was working with Neri Oxman. Von Habsburg is hoping to collaborate with Oxman.

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