by Sukanya DebPublished on : Jul 04, 2022
Curated by Reem Fadda with Assistant Curator Rotana Shaker, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale features a large-scale installation, titled The Teaching Tree by multidisciplinary artist Muhannad Shono. The Teaching Tree takes up the length of the pavilion, an installation made of palm leaves or fronds covered in black pigment, accompanied by a metal structure and pneumatics that animate the 40-metre-long sculpture. The title is a reference to the role that knowledge and resilience play in the relay of human history, conveyed through the immersive installation. Inclined towards a naturalistic view, the large formation, through the incorporation of pneumatics, expands and contracts, as if breathing, gesturing towards the continuation of life and all its forms.
Shono’s interest lies in the element of the line as an informing feature and gesture, towards a definition of human creativity and expression, and is extended through this meditation on form and structure. The art installation bristles in movement as it creates a sense of life, through its consideration of knowledge and matter, that are ultimately passed on. The artist also takes inspiration from the Islamic figure Al-Khidr, who is known in history as a traveller and imparter of knowledge or wisdom. The name Al-Khidr comes from the word akhdar or green (in colour), also a masculine name in Arabic, a reference to green being the colour of abundance, which came to be as a result of the messenger-prophet’s presence. He is also known as a messenger and a protector (especially of seamen), though there are many aspects of the historical figure that are elusive. In the Quran, for example, Al-Khidr is never mentioned by name but described as the Servant of God, primarily known through his encounter and travel companion to Mūsa or Moses, where he sets certain truths into motion.
Through a series of exchanges between the two religious’ figures, and a path that is led by the Servant of God or Al-Khidr, Mūsa is to realise that actions that seem cruel are sometimes led by the will of mercy, and the transfer of knowledge that takes place between the two is one that is a lifelong teaching, rather than something that can be implemented in haste. It gestures to the unknowability of action and thought, while at the same time teaching one the dichotomous relationship between scepticism and faith. Taking this story into consideration, and understanding the figure of Al-Khidr as one that is elusive yet imparting certain knowledge, invites us to take a look at The Teaching Tree anew.
In conversation with STIR, Muhannad Shono describes the conceptual project as being “an expected traditional and abundant symbol of a country, broken down and reimagined, becoming surprising, new and unexpected,” where the title refers to “lessons learned from the past. Teachings that were given, but not accepted… [and] from those rejected lessons, new lessons grew.”
The Teaching Tree extends from the doorway of the KSA Pavilion into a cascading form as it runs through the space, elevated as it reaches almost outwards through the window and pole-like structures that frame it. Rather than a personification, the installation becomes a reference to ‘Mother Nature’ that is always in flow, perhaps even in conversation with indigenous agricultural and cultural practices, in cognisance of ecological tremors that shake and shape the past, present and future. Made of plant matter, the sculptural installation refers back to the green that is performed by the reference to Al-Khidr, organic and living in nature, breathing as the movement takes place through technological intervention. However, the black colour of the installation, allows the audience to brood towards a darkness of unknowability.
There are questions that come up in consideration of The Teaching Tree, its scale as being fundamental as well as the consideration of viewer and conceptual impact. The artist’s previous works have included a consideration of narrative, structure, conveyance and the line being at the core of creative production. His work is seen through the lens of technological performance, drawings, large-scale installations and so on. In the multimedia work On Losing Meaning (2021), Shono considers the line through the role of automatic generation of gesture, comparing it to our understanding of language.
The Teaching Tree can be considered to be a monolithic structure, singular in its nature, that devours the space it creates. It is the combination of nature with technology that creates the ephemeral structure that is yet rooted in the longevity of time. Cycles of regeneration are contemplated upon, as the title of the work itself nudges the viewer to think along the lines of generative or generational thinking that is relayed across time. New beginnings are gestured towards, but the elusive blackened nature of the structure, makes the viewer question what these new beginnings might entail. The work becomes a symbolic presence personified by the title, apart from its monolithic nature, that looks towards futurity as repetitions of the past but not entirely encompassed.
Shono’s practice is defined by a long familial history of migration, and the materials and technologies that he adeptly adapts to in order to grow his artistic practice, it is clear that he is not intimidated by scale whether small or large. One can also speculate as to why he refers to the figure of Al-Khidr, a traveller himself, and the one who imparts certain truths as they are filtered through history, considered to be immortal in certain sects of Islam. What does immortality mean in this context of being one who inspires and imparts knowledge that is not necessarily classified as ‘wisdom’? What is the permanence of knowledge and how does one grow it, collectively or individually? Creating an interference through his sculptural installation at the Venice Art Biennale, the artist disrupts the flow of knowledge taking from the exhibition flow, and asks one to instead contemplate the loss of it and how it can be regained.
Delving into an understanding of migration through generations, allows us to think of the knowledge that is passed on, as an accumulation, besides arriving from different locations. In conversation with Shono around the rejection of taught materials, ideals and framings in the face of the processual nature of teaching and being taught, the artist responds, “Those new lessons needed to be expressed. Those teachings from the past were asking me to not create or imagine new possibilities. That lesson was rejected, and what I learned is how vital it was to do the opposite, to resist those lessons by continuing to create and manifest the imagined world.”
The imagined world that is utopic in nature becomes a bountiful presence against the pathologies of history. Resistance becomes a way of devising new utopias that are respondent to contemporary being and politics. Pedagogical devices become a way of stratification as well as contain the potential for disruption, which is what we see The Teaching Tree producing. The scale of the installation stands as critique as well as a revitalisation of the structure of human knowledge transference. The category of knowledge itself comes under question as does wisdom, while stories take the form of a stream of thought that is to be adopted, rejected or reappropriated in order to emerge through the new bastion, perhaps it could be critique, against the monolith of tradition.
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice. 
Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year’s edition of the art biennale.
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Sukanya Deb
Sukanya is a writer and curator based out of New Delhi. At Terrain.art, where she is Assistant Curator, her work revolves around developing online and offline exhibitions in conversation with artists, and working particularly towards instituting the Digital Marketplace. She finds herself currently dwelling on/in disruption as technique, (memory, utterance, articulation), and re-thinking exhibitory formats.
Sukanya is a writer and curator based out of New Delhi. At Terrain.art, where she is Assistant Curator, her work revolves around developing online and offline exhibitions in conversation with artists, and working particularly towards instituting the Digital Marketplace. She finds herself currently dwelling on/in disruption as technique, (memory, utterance, articulation), and re-thinking exhibitory formats.
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