Ecological Crisis Echoes Through the Church of San Lorenzo

VENICE — Tongan artist Latai Taumoepeau’s installation “Deep Communion sung in minor (ArchipelaGO, THIS IS NOT A DRILL)” features a collection of rowing machines designed to practice the motions of a Venetian gondolier. Surrounded by scaffolded raked seating, the machines face the baroque altar that divides the two cavernous spaces in Venice’s Church of San Lorenzo, home to TBA21–Academy Ocean Space. While the machines are not in use, a quiet chanting can be heard, inspired by the Tongan traditional choral ritual of the Me’etu’upaki, which translates as “dance” (me’e); “standing” (tu’u); “with paddles” (paki). The chanting is amplified when visitors activate the machines; the more people join in, the louder it becomes. 

The piece is designed to raise awareness of the dangers of deep-sea mining in the Pacific. Indigenous Pacific Island people are among those most impacted by the climate crisis; they are already encountering the devastating effects of sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and species loss. Taumoepeau comes from a lineage of Tongan deep-sea navigators who for generations have safeguarded the myriad species of fish, coral, and seagrass that inhabit the surrounding ocean. Her installation is a call for collective care and ecological responsibility on both local and global scales.

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Installation view of Latai Taumoepeau, “Deep Communion sung in minor (ArchipelaGO, THIS IS NOT A DRILL)” (2024) in Re-Stor(y)ing Oceania, Ocean Space, Venice

“Deep Communion sung in minor” is one part of Re-Stor(y)ing Oceania, curated as a call and response by artist Taloi Havini. The “response” to Taumoepeau’s work is architect Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta’s “The Body of Wainuiātea” in the adjoining exhibition space, which encourages viewers to participate in a more contemplative capacity. Instead of paddling, members of the public are able to step onto an earthen brick platform and take one of 16 seats, positioned in relation to the sun’s rising and setting.

The interpretive materials introduce visitors to Oceanic vocabulary, primarily Tongan and Maori. These terms are presented in the original language, followed by the English or Italian translation in brackets, alluding to Havini’s foregrounding of Indigenous Pacific beliefs as holistic systems with much to teach us. 

Heta’s installation draws on the Māori concept of Tikanga, an untranslatable term that suggests a system of customs, behaviors, and ethics encouraging balance between human beings and our environments. The artist is a Māori, Samoan, and Tokelauan leader and advocate for legal and social reform, creating spaces in which oppressed or forgotten narratives can come to the fore, such as those of Indigenous and female voices. Here, visitors are invited to become part of the discussion, sitting in a circle symbolizing togetherness and equality. 

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Installation view of Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta, “The Body of Wainuiātea” (2024) in Re-Stor(y)ing Oceania, Ocean Space, Venice

One problem with participatory art is that visitors can be too self-conscious to join in, particularly without explicit encouragement. When I visited, however, members of a boys’ basketball team were exerting themselves with youthful zeal on Taumoepeau’s gondolier machines, enthusiastically amplifying the sound until it reverberated powerfully through the space. After they left, the space reverted to the reverential hush inspired by the ecclesiastical setting — and the installation lost much of its vivacity. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a program of performances and children’s workshops. Yet most of the time Taumoepeau’s installation and Heta’s complementary piece, both meant to be activated by participants, will be left untouched and feel perhaps somewhat incomplete. Although both installations are substantial, they are dwarfed by the vastness of the Church of San Lorenzo, and thus lack immediate visual impact.

Nevertheless, the exhibition covers important ground, platforming compelling ideas around Indigeneity and climate change that may be unfamiliar to some viewers. Given the opportunity to both sit quietly with the show’s complex ideas and experience the works brought to life by performance or participation, visitors should come away with a powerful sense of the devastation faced by Pacific Islanders — and the beauty of the beliefs and ecosystems that may soon be lost. 

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Installation view of Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta, “The Body of Wainuiātea” (2024) in Re-Stor(y)ing Oceania, Ocean Space, Venice

Re-Stor(y)ing Oceania continues at TBA21–Academy Ocean Space (Campo San Lorenzo, 5067, Venice, Italy) through October 13. The exhibition was co-commissioned by TBA21–Academy and Artspace, produced in partnership with OGR Torino, and curated by Taloi Havini. 

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