Venice Biennale 2024: Nordic pavilion explores mythmaking amid ‘canon’ controversy

<span>Lap-see Lam is leading the Nordic countries’ entry for this year’s Venice Biennale.</span><span>Photograph: Mattias Lindbäck</span>
Lap-see Lam is leading the Nordic countries’ entry for this year’s Venice Biennale.Photograph: Mattias Lindbäck

Amid a polarising debate taking place in Sweden over what constitutes culture, the artist behind this year’s Nordic pavilion at the Venice Biennale hopes her multilingual opera staged on a Chinese dragon ship will act as a sort of riposte.

Lap-See Lam, a Swedish artist with Cantonese roots, is leading the Nordic countries’ offering at the international exhibition, which opens on 20 April, with a multidisciplinary artwork.

The work takes place within a structure of bamboo scaffolding bookended by the dragon head and tail of a former restaurant ship, which protrude from either side of the pavilion.

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Created in collaboration with the Finnish textile artist Kholod Hawash and the Norwegian composer Tze Yeung Ho, The Altersea Opera explores displacement and belonging through mythological water creatures. It features an audiovisual installation inspired by the Red Boat Opera Company, the travelling opera troupe that popularised Cantonese opera in the 19th century.

This year’s biennale coincides with a heated discussion in Sweden about the creation of a contentious new “Swedish cultural canon”, commissioned by the centre-right coalition government.

The government has appointed Lars Trägårdh, a 70-year-old history professor known for criticising multiculturalism, to establish the canon.

The canon’s purpose, they have said, will be to establish “common frames of reference” within society. But critics say it would foster exclusion and stifle free speech, and is a contradiction at a time of cuts to arts funding.

The Swedish Academy declined to participate, describing the implementation of such a canon as “imbued with power and the exercise of power”.

The canon policy, which came out of an agreement between coalition parties the far-right Sweden Democrats, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, has prompted widespread debate in Sweden. The committee is due to report to the ministry of culture by August 2025.

Speaking from Venice, where she is installing the work, Lam, 33, said culture is not a “static myth” but something that needs to be “constantly reshaped”.

“There is not one way to understand Swedish culture,” she said. “The way that this project is reflective of that is how dynamic it is and how the project has been constantly developing with the different voices of the collaborators, and that is something that is constantly happening with the culture that is being made in Sweden, drawing influences from elsewhere.”

She added: “In Sweden, we have this self-image of what Scandinavian culture is. And that has to be constantly reshaped, that is very important.”

Describing the idea of a Swedish identity and culture as a “fiction”, she added: “That fiction is part of my practice a lot and how I try to use that as a way to reflect or rewrite that.”

As part of her research, Lam travelled to Hong Kong to work with master bamboo scaffolder Ho Yeung Chan. For centuries, bamboo scaffolding has been used to build temporary stages for performing Cantonese opera.

The artwork’s head and tail were salvaged from the Floating Restaurant Sea Palace, a 100-ft long, three-storey vessel, brought from Shanghai to Gothenburg in 1991, which travelled around Europe before ending up as a “horror house” at a Stockholm theme park, Gröna Lund, with its head and tail severed.

The installation uses a libretto centred on the Hong Kong mythological figure of Lo Ting – half man, half fish – who travels home from the north.

“We’re working both with the outdoor and indoor elements of the Nordic pavilion to create an installation and stage for The Altersea Opera where we are all passengers, visitors and collaborators.”

In 2022, the Nordic Pavilion was transformed into the Sámi pavilion, commissioned by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway, featuring artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna.

Gitte Ørskou, the director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which commissioned this year’s work, said the presence of belonging and longing in the work had led her to reflect on Nordic identity. “To be Nordic is not to be isolated,” Ørskou said. “To be Nordic is to be part of a much larger world where we see the outer world through our Nordic lens and how do we work with these expectations?”

Lam’s double perspective on Nordic culture and how east Asian culture is perceived within a Nordic context is very powerful, she said. “And transcends actually the idea of being Nordic or non-Nordic, but more: ‘what does it mean to belong somewhere? What does it mean to be longing after something?’”