Sonia Boyce feels the path to freedom at the Venice Biennale
In Room 5, Poppy Ajudha performs her blues-infused acappella song “Demons,” while in Room 6, award-winning singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram improvises “Feeling Her Way.” After recording the song, Tikaram recalled the feeling of liberation she found in the process of vocal improvisation in which “the only limit is your imagination”.
Imagining what it means (and what it feels like) to be free is at the heart of Sonia Boyce’s project for the Venice Biennale. On some level, this refers to the stopgap measures we are all taking in the wake of the COVID pandemic lockdowns, when breathing freely in close proximity to others and singing together uninhibited in public spaces became prohibited activities.
On another level, the question of whose breath and whose life is valued and worth protecting has taken on renewed meaning and significance following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, after millions of people witnessed the murder of this innocent black man by a police officer. officer in Minneapolis. Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the world.
Standing in front of a screen in Boyce’s installation, watching and listening to one of the singers perform, the viewer becomes aware of the sound of another, spilling over from an adjacent space. The music passes from one room to another. The voices mingle and interact, without restraint. The freedom they enjoy as musicians, improvising and experimenting with sound cannot be limited to the architecture of a separate space. Alone or rehearsing together, Adjudha, Dankworth, Tikaram and Jernberg intertwine.
“What does freedom look like?” is a question Boyce implicitly asks himself through the work. Boyce’s project for the Venice Biennale asks a deeply political question about what freedom means beyond the narrow definition of individual freedom: a freedom that must take into account our relationship to others and is expressed within the framework of a collective effort.
Boyce’s interest in this issue goes back decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she became fascinated with the work of Brazilian artist Lygia Clark and how she went from making art objects that could be bought and sold to the production of experiential and participatory works of art that have been taken up in a clinical setting. “By working exploratory with people, she was helping them deal with traumatic experiences,” Boyce observed in an unpublished interview with curator Katherine Stout in 2005.
“[Lygia Clark] explored how we can make ourselves more free. Of course, this raises a political question about the agency we take as individuals and collectively, rather than always feeling circumscribed by a situation or a system. Or what do we want to do with this situation and how can we push the boundaries of this.
Clark’s example prompted Boyce to move away from his early large-scale pastel and mixed-media works to create works that revolved around interaction, participation, and improvisation. Singing, speaking and the human voice took an increasingly central place in her practice as she explored the different ways we communicate and connect with each other as well as the barriers to communication.
This is also important in relation to the history of people in the black diaspora, for whom singing and speaking out have often been acts of political and performative resistance.