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A Plight at the Opera

Picture sopranos in bikinis slathering on the sun cream as they sing about mass extinction. This is Sun & Sea (Marina), the surprise winner of this year’s Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Its curator, Lucia Pietroiusti, riffs with us on ecology, art and arias, and gives her ten rules of engagement for a world on the brink.


1. Climate crisis is emotional

For our entry, Sun & Sea (Marina) we recreated a crowded midday beach scene in an empty military complex with deckchairs, towels and ball games. Actors and singers had to wear swimwear, put on sun cream, puzzle over the crossword, scroll on their phones – anything they’d do at the beach. There were hailstorms that day in Venice, and it was so cold that our opera singers’ teeth were chattering, but they sang on, with lyrics like ‘Song of Complaint’ in which a woman wonders at the lack of snow over Christmas. Another character sings: ‘This year the sea is as green as a forest. Eutrophication! Botanical gardens are flourishing in the sea. The water blooms. Our bodies are covered with a slippery green fleece. Our swimsuits are filling up with algae.’ Ironically, we had to beg electric heaters from a nearby church. On that first day, only 17 people came to see the performance.

Forty-eight hours later, there was a huge queue and four thousand people came through the doors, many staying for an hour. It was then that I started to suspend all my emotions, and enter a different state of consciousness. People were queuing for hours in the rain, and when they left, I would watch them holding each other’s hands, tears in their eyes, clutching their heart and talking about things that belonged to the realm of life, rather than the experience of art.

The entire opening week I just remember being met with ever-increasing waves of faces, everyone praising the work, and I was only able to respond with the words: ‘Thank you so much.’

At the end of the week, when we heard our entry for the Lithuanian Pavilion had won, I started jumping, and at that very moment the bells of the church next door started ringing, and one of the artist’s husbands started crying, and then we all cried together.

One character sings, ‘This year the sea is as green as a forest. Eutrophication!’

2. For the love of art

Once we’d won the Golden Lion, the muteness I felt began to open up like a flower. The feeling became a real sense of love, when it bloomed finally, that still holds me up. It was the sum of all the love and focus and care that we had put into the work, and the amount we received back from the audience.

I’ve always worked in both the live and the discursive field of the arts. I feel like ideas and emotion can be very connected. There’s that small jolt of feeling you get when you read something complicated in a piece of literature that is so beautiful you have to read it out loud. You have to let it inside you physically and let it out again. It’s an almost erotic feeling for me. I really do live for those moments.

So many people came up to me to say the work made them cry that I made a joke of it – ‘I think the art world is having a nervous breakdown’


3. Singing about nothing and everything

So many people came up to me at the Biennale to say the work made them cry, that I made a joke of it – ‘I think the art world is having a nervous breakdown.’ It made me ask: ‘What is it that we all hold at the back of our throat, that a tiny gesture can unleash such a reaction?’ We did almost nothing, just sang some songs about nothing – and about everything, of course, the ordinary juxtaposed with the cataclysmic. In a hazy beach scene, the singers sang songs for the end of time, of everyday lovers’ tiffs, concerns about a swimsuit made cheaply in China, overconsumption and impending environmental disaster. For me, the artwork tapped into a general sense of anxiety, stemming from environmental anxiety.


4. Only connect

When I think of ecology, I don’t think only of carbon dioxide emissions or species extinction, I consider what is it to be ecological. What does it mean to be connected to one another, other species, other plants and the whole planet? It means we need to consider what effect one’s actions have at a distance, and to not feel above other species, but to feel a part of them. We need to realise that when we die, our body will be eaten by trees and mushrooms. We are born out of, enmeshed within and in relation with the ecology that surrounds us. I am breathing the air that is being made by the plant next to me, and I will return to that environment that we mostly feel so disconnected from. In my role as Curator of General Ecology at the Serpentine Galleries, I try to embed ecological themes and principles across the institution by thinking about the structure as a whole.

You don’t need to take a hallucinogenic like ayahuasca for plants to speak to you

5. Plant intelligence

You don’t need to take a hallucinogenic like ayahuasca to experience the sensation of being an ecological being, or for plants to speak to you in a particular way. You don’t have to have some kind of transcendental experience in order to have a transcendental sense of the co-existence of us and other species.

Since researching plant intelligence and plant sentience, I discovered the ways that ancient mystical knowledge was incredibly connected to plant knowledge. So much of this was forgotten, largely because the ‘witches’ – women who knew about plants – were burned, and it took science to ‘rediscover’ plant knowledge that was once part of traditions held inside a mostly feminine realm. Once I discovered that, I started to relate to plants, so I don’t feel alone anymore, with these living beings.

I think of plants as having personalities and having different needs. When people say a plant is erotic or wilful, they’re accused of anthropomorphising them, of projecting human characteristics onto a being that doesn’t operate the same way. I think the opposite and prefer to de-anthropocentre those very notions of eroticism and wilfulness. So instead of saying plants are like us, I say that we are not the only ones, we’ve just created the categories of the world to justify our position within it, in order to place ourselves at the top of the species pyramid.

For me, it is a very emotional thing. It also meant that at the beginning of the year, I swore to my house plants that I wasn’t going to let them die. I’ve never managed to keep plants alive before.

Being pregnant made me connect to bread yeast, ‘the mother’ where you can separate a piece and it will grow somewhere else


6. One body, two brains

My son is two years old. Being pregnant made me more intelligent. I don’t say it made me wise, for a reason. Wisdom refers to experience that you gain with age, but it involves falling out of the intellectual discourse. Pregnancy opened the doors to profound intellectual thinking for me, I’ve never felt so engaged. It gave me such insights, for instance, realising that there were two brains thinking in one body, or that every definition of the divine is of something that creates, and is held within the potential of birth.

It made me connect to the idea of bread yeast ‘the mother’ and the way you can separate a piece and it will grow somewhere else, and it becomes another yeast, but it all came from the same yeast. If you think of humans in the same way, we have always been one body, all the way back to the start, that just separated and grew, and that connects us to everything.

Having a child means you have to account for the fifty years after your life is over, especially when you start to love the little being, and you don’t know how the hell to explain the climate crisis to them.

This restricted mindset is the same that shuns queer kinship, or any other love relations that fall outside the evolutionary discourse of trying to reproduce your genes


7. A work of love

I believe the reason humans have a destructive relationship with the environment is linked to the same narrow thinking that makes us devoted to systems of economy that result in massive inequality in society.

This restricted mindset is the same that shuns queer kinship, or any other love relations that fall outside the evolutionary discourse of trying to reproduce your genes, and it needs to change. We’re not in competition with each other.

This notion of competition as the basis for evolution is so pervasive and persuasive, but even biology has now realised that co-evolution and collaboration are much more frequent in the evolutionary story than competition. As soon as you examine an individual you realise we are all a collaborative process, right down to the bacteria in the gut, we are a collaboration between species.

It’s not that competition doesn’t exist, but that things thrive together. It’s not separation from one’s environment that creates fullness or completeness, it is about being embedded into the wider environment. It all needs to be a work of love.


8. Strawberries should vote

My parents have always been very Freudian and devoted to a psychoanalytical interpretation of life. I do the same job title as my mum – even though the exhibition curating she does and the ecology curating I do are very different, but many of the ideas, many of the readings of feminist ecology that I’ve done, have been either learning from her, or in conversation with her.

I used to think my mother was mad. She’d say crazy things like ‘strawberries should vote’, and I’d think she’d lost it. I know she has a poetic and slightly weird way of saying things I didn’t really understand. I feel very connected to my dad, as he is one of the most sensitive and intelligent people I know, and he’s an artist. Together, it means from my parents I have the professional practice from my mum, and the notion that artists give an enormous amount of love and need a lot of care, from my dad.


9. A reminder: a fish tattoo

I have a tattoo of a fish on my arm, to remind me of the great affinity I feel for both fish and water. My sister is probably a fish now, she died in water.

In a perfect future I’d be opening ecology departments in every arts institution in the world


10. Activism or sensitivity?

I firmly believe that only government regulation has a chance of saving our future, but unless we embed a wider sense of ecology into our beings, things won’t change. Our society needs to become more responsive and sensitive to one another and to the environment, to the way things are creaking and moving around us. Art and poetry have always been vehicles for big inconceivable ideas, enabling us to see the issues more clearly.

I am incredibly ideas-led in my work in ecology, but I also find those same ideas can be heart-breaking and infuriating. In a perfect future, I’d be opening ecology departments in every arts institution in the world.


Lucia Pietroiusti is Curator of General Ecology at the Serpentine Galleries. See here for her upcoming programme of events in the autumn.

To hear more about past events focussing on General Ecology, listen to this podcast: The Serpentine Podcast: On General Ecology

In 2014, Lucia curated with Hans Ulrich Obrist the Extinction Marathon which covered myriad issues relating to ‘the sixth extinction’.

Sun & Sea (Marina), curated by Lucia Petroiusti with artists Lina Lapelyte, Vaiva Grainyte and Rugile Barzdziukaite.

The Lithuanian Pavilion is on show at the Venice Biennale until 31 October, performances on Saturdays. Find out more here.



Jo Craven

Susannah Baker-Smith