SPACES to Commission and Curate US Pavilion at 2023 Venice Biennale Archittetura; Lauren Yeager Among Exhibitors

Artist Lauren Yeager is one of five artists chosen by SPACES to be part of the exhibition Everlasting Plastics, at the US Pavilion in the 2023 Venice Biennale. Photo by Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Arts Prize.

Lauren Yeager has a lot of plastic in her studio. “I have basically been doing a mad sprint to gather as much material as I can before the weather breaks,” she says. “Volumetric, plastic consumer stuff. A lot of coolers. I am always finding coolers. You can’t avoid that, really.”

Yeager’s race is on, because a proposal by SPACES Gallery has been chosen by the US State Department: The organization will be commissioner, and executive director Tizziana Baldenebro with her colleague Lauren Leving (who is curator at moCa Cleveland) will curate the exhibition to be presented at the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale Archittetura May 20 through November 26, 2023. Lauren Yeager is one of five artists included.  The path to the world stage was straightforward: The State Department has an annual open call.  As executive director of SPACES, Baldenebro applied.

Works of Lauren Yeager at Abattoir Gallery, 2022. Photo by Field Studio.

According to a press release, the proposed exhibition “Everlasting Plastics will present a series of works, ranging from sculptures to installations, which collectively invite visitors to reframe the overabundance of plastic detritus in our waterways, landfills, and streets as a rich resource.”

“As the climate crisis becomes a tangible reality, our daily objects must be agents of change,” Baldenebero said. “This exhibition brings together a range of practices that are examining, salvaging, and upending a global calamity.”

Yeager has a long-established practice of upending perceptions of plastic waste, recontextualizing forms to echo architectural features, reframing value, and appreciating forms for themselves. Similarly, the other artists Baldenebro and co-curator Leving have chosen for the exhibition have practices working with cast-off and common material, especially plastic, to make beautiful or even useful new things, and to confront the challenges of doing so.  The other artists to be featured in the US Pavilion are Xavi Laida Aguirre (founder/director of the architectural design practice stock-a-studio, and assistant professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Simon Anton (co-founder of the Detroit-based, experimental design group Thing Thing, which creates machines—extruders, injection molders, and others—that can remanufacture waste plastic into new products), Ang Li (an architect and assistant professor at the School of Architecture at Northeastern University whose practice investigates the material afterlives of the contemporary building industry), and Norman Teague (a Chicago-based designer specializing in custom furniture who works with common, locally-sourced building materials to create works that relate to the culture of the client and/or community). All the artists are connected to the industrial Midwest, especially Chicago and Detroit. Baldenebro and Leving got to know their work via studio visits and exhibitions in recent years. 

Commissioning and curating the US pavilion is “probably the biggest thing [SPACES has] ever done,” said Baldenebro in a phone call in mid-October, just before making the news public.  In addition to the exhibition in Venice, it will involve public programming, engagement of young artists and curators, and eventually bringing the exhibition itself to Cleveland for presentation at SPACES. Baldenebro says to support all this, in addition to a $375,000 grant from the State Department, SPACES will endeavor to raise another $1 million.

Works of Lauren Yeager at Abattoir Gallery, 2022. Photo by Field Studio.

Venice Primer

Presented originally in 1895, the Venice Biennale Arte is the oldest and maybe the most important international art exhibition in the world.  The organization behind it, The Biennale Foundation, also presents biennial events celebrating music, theatre, film and dance. Since 1980, it has presented the Biennale Architettura in years alternating with the Biennale Arte. The exhibitions are presented in the Arsenale and Biennale Gardens in Castello (a neighborhood of Venice). For each biennial, the curator of the main exhibition is appointed by the Biennale Foundation and chooses the overall theme. For the Biennale Archittetura in 2023, the curator is the Ghanaian-Scottish architect and novelist Lesley Lokko, who founded both the African Futures Institute in Accra, Ghana, and the Graduate School of Architecture in Johannesburg. She has taught in the UK, in the US, Europe, Australia and Africa. For the 2023 biennale, Lokko chose as a theme The Laboratory of the Future.

In addition to that main exhibition, the formal Biennale also includes thirty national pavilions, which are owned and programmed by participating countries. The first of these was built by Belgium in 1907. The US Pavilion is a Palladian-style structure built in 1930—a red brick building with stone details, including four Doric columns and wings that frame a central courtyard. Since 1986, the US Pavilion has been owned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, of New York. Lauren Yeager’s work will be presented in the courtyard: prominent, central, right up front.  

A Woman to Watch

For anyone who saw her installation in the 2018 FRONT Triennial, it will be easy to picture Yeager’s work in that space. The roots of her current practice go back at least to 2015, when –for an exhibit at the Cleveland Institute of Art called Women to Watch, she stacked 32 five-gallon paint buckets one inside the next, fitting them up tight against a ceiling beam to echo the form and function of a pillar. Like much of her work, the paint bucket pillar thoroughly embraced its context, essentially putting the whole room on view.

Her practice includes an abundant, dry sense of humor. For a 2016 installation and performance at the Waterloo Arts Festival, she created a store, named for its inventory of cast-off plastic objects: Balls, Combs and Necklaces. As CAN observed, she staffed the counter, clear-eyed, straight-faced, deadpan: Balls, combs, and necklaces for sale. She’d take any reasonable offer—but it had to be a reasonable offer. None of this lowball stuff. She had a friend working the counter with her, but she had to kick him out. He kept breaking character.

In 2018 she was one of the artists selected to participate in the inaugural FRONT Triennial, and offered a major installation of sculptural forms created from cast-off consumer objects: Sculpture Bases.  As Brittany Mariel Hudak wrote for CAN at the time, the installation was “a wry examination of how fine art, in particular, sculpture is presented. Known for using a characteristically dry humor in her conceptual work, here Yeager is questioning where ‘sculpture’ ends and the sculpture base begins.”

“FRONT was definitely important in my artistic development,” Yeager said. “Just in the challenge of it, and having to produce—and having the freedom to produce—on that scale and that platform.”

Throughout her practice, the persistence and ubiquity of plastic has been a constant. The materials are all salvaged. Her allusions through form to important artists of the twentieth century, such as Constantin Brâncusi, put the durability of the material in historic context.

In 2021, recognition and opportunities came to Yeager in quantity: She won an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She was the guest artist at Sculpture Milwaukee. She won the Cleveland Arts Prize. Yeager’s exhibition, Longevity, presented by Abattoir Gallery, just closed in early October this year. Considering the evolution of her work, Abattoir director and 2018 FRONT Triennial curator Lisa Kurzner said, “We were all really happily surprised at how the mass of her work grew, and I think that was an effect of having worked outside (during Sculpture Milwaukee), articulating things in massive ways, still with an eye toward art history. I think she has this art historian through-line in her brain, and that is the menu she uses to shape whatever story she is telling.”

For the US Pavilion in Venice, Yeager says she is considering the courtyard context, imagining six to nine different works or groupings, “a sculpture garden kind of effect at human or a little bit larger than human scale.”

The pressure is real: The work has to be ready—armatures and all—to load onto a cargo ship in February.

Evolving Together

Baldenebro’s observation that the exhibition will be “the biggest thing” the organization has ever done can be put in context by noting some previous US Pavilion presenters. For the 2022 Biennale Arte, Simone Leigh: Sovereignty—was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. The most recent Biennale Architettura (2021) was organized by the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Most of the presenting institutions have been universities and major city museums, with much larger budgets and staffs than SPACES has. This is the first time an Ohio institution has been the commissioning organization.

It was during one of those recent exhibitions—Dimensions of Citizenship, organized by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago in 2018—that Baldenebro and Leving both were exposed to the Venice Biennale and the process of creating its exhibitions.

“I was a student (at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago/SAIC) and participated in a class called Designer, Artist Citizen, Site, which was a partner program with the US Pavilion for the exhibition. That was my first opportunity to engage in the process. It was not until I moved to Cleveland that I met Lauren, who in a funny twist of fate had been exhibitions manager at an artspace in Chicago called Wrightwood 659, and they were the first presenters at the Dimensions of Citizenship pavilion. We were chatting in Cleveland, comparing notes, and we were only one degree separate from having encountered each other there in 2018.”

She says the relatively recent experience reinforces her desire to have students involved, and to make the process about learning and engagement, and “demystifying” the international event.  So the organizers are speaking with educational partners, including the Cleveland Institute of Art, the architecture department at Kent State University, and others. Eventually they plan to engage students of high school age.

The idea at the heart of the Everlasting Plastics proposal has its roots in that time. Baldenebro says while at SAIC and during her tenure at MOCA Detroit, she noticed that a number of artists and designers of the region were working with waste materials in their practices. She saw it as an emerging trend.  “I wanted to get a better sense for what it was about these materials that fascinated people, especially coming from a region that has such an industrial core and relationship to polymer production,” she said. 

Hell Yes

It is difficult not to think of the project in terms of Cleveland’s trajectory in the art world. Boosting the region’s profile is one of the goals often stated by FRONT Triennial founder Fred Bidwell while arguing his case to create the international exhibition here. Reflecting on that, he said SPACES as a US Pavilion commissioner for the Venice Biennale is “a cool answer to the headline FRONT got from FORBES [when Art and Travel writer Chadd Scott wrote about FRONT] earlier this year: ‘Cleveland: The Next Venice?’

“Hell yes,” Bidwell said. “Cleveland is going to Venice.”

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