As one of the most popular art events in the world, the Venice Biennale has been influencing cultural trends since it was first established on the eastern edge of the City of Bridges in 1895. It was no small decision, then, for curator Ralph Rugoff to choose the precarity of contemporary life as the theme for the 58th Venice Biennale, held in 2019. In May You Live in Interesting Times, 90 countries reflected on the ominous theme within their independent national pavilions with varying levels of success.
Sun and Sea, an art installation that occupied the entirety of the Lithuanian Pavilion, conveyed the urgency of the climate crisis through visual arts and performance. Created by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, Sun and Sea transformed the pavilion interior into an artificial beach composed of over 25 tons of sand, on top of which a cadre of bathing suit-clad performers took turns singing the causes and consequences of climate change in operatic fashion. Overall the effect is more in line with an Olafur Eliasson piece than Snarkitecture’s plastic Beach installation, which also toured the U.S. in recent years.
“The bathers sing of airplanes and piña coladas, of the Chinese sweatshops that made their swimsuits,” wrote the New York Times of Sun and Sea. “A mother on a beach chair wishes for her son to visit the Great Barrier Reef before it’s gone, and twins in identical bathing suits imagine life after death via 3-D printing.” Few who attended were surprised to learn that the installation would later receive the 2019 Golden Lion, the festival’s most prestigious award, for its all-encompassing yet simple response to the Biennale’s theme.
The installation’s visuals and message were such a success, in fact, that Sun and Sea will be revived as a series of temporary exhibitions across the United States. Its first stop will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City, where it will be on display from September 15 through 26 within the 250-seat Fishman Space. The beach will then travel to several other cultural spaces across the country, including Arcadia Exhibitions in Philadelphia, the Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles.
Sun and Sea has gone through several changes between its debut in 2017 at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius and its installation in Venice, for which its lyrics, originally written by Grainytė, were translated from Lithuanian to English. This second version will be modified as little as possible as it is quickly installed and uninstalled across the country within spaces of varying sizes and accommodations. Its combination of leisure aesthetics, exemplified by the typical ephemera of a typical day at the beach, and the plain language of environmental activism will hopefully continue to send a clear message to American audiences: Despite our natural inclination to sit back and watch the climate crisis unfold, we cannot get too comfortable.