Discordant noise fills a white-walled exhibition space. An electric guitar twangs, noise reverberates through the room, and lights overhead flash. A man with shaggy greying hair sits on a music case facing the wall, his body bent over his guitar, as eerie images flash on a floor-to-ceiling LED screen.
He reaches down to adjust a guitar pedal, tweaking the sound, the room plunged into darkness for a moment as guitar fuzz rings out. At the same time, disorienting images flicker on the screen for a fraction of a second: images of war, intricate still lifes, empty city streets, police in riot gear, a skeleton being dug up, a medieval painting of a severed head.
This is Melbourne artist and noise musician Marco Fusinato's DESASTRES: a solo performance spanning 200 days of squalling, droning, amplified guitar, currently taking place in a gallery in Venice.
It's one of the most visceral and confronting works at this year's Venice Biennale, one of the major events on the global arts calendar.
What is the Venice Biennale and why should I care?
The Venice Biennale is one of the largest exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. It's also the oldest 'biennale', dating back to 1895.
Held, as the name suggests, every two years, it showcases artists from across the world to a global audience (of around half a million, in recent years) — kind of like the Olympics of art, but less competitive.
Instead of lots of prizes, there's just a handful: the prestigious Golden Lions and a Silver Lion.
It largely takes place in the Giardini, in its Central Pavilion or in devoted national pavilions, and in the Arsenale, a converted shipyard nearby.
Does Australia have its own Pavilion?
Yes! The Australia Pavilion is a cube-shaped structure made of concrete and steel, with an opaque black granite facade, located within the Biennale Gardens (parklands originally created by Napoleon Bonaparte).
It's kind of like Australia runs a gallery in Venice — except it's only open six months of the year.
It is exclusively for the presentation of work by Australian artists at the Venice Biennale, and is one of only 29 national pavilions at the Biennale, joining countries like Argentina, Canada and Iceland.
Each edition, a different artist and curator are chosen to represent Australia.
Australia first exhibited at Venice in 1954, with the work of Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale and William Dobell.
But Australia only opened its own pavilion in 1988 – which has hosted artists like Patricia Piccinini (2001), Fiona Hall (2015) and Tracey Moffatt (2017).
Who chooses the Biennale artists?
This year's Biennale is curated by artistic director Cecilia Alemani — surprisingly, the first Italian to lead the international art exhibition.
Outside of Italy, she is best known as the chief curator of New York's High Line — a popular public art project set on the historic rail line-turned-public park in Manhattan.
Alemani does not control which works make up the national pavilions (that is decided by each country), but has curated the Arsenale and Central Pavilion spaces, under the theme The Milk of Dreams. Her part of the Biennale asks questions about transformation, and people's relationships with each other, with technology, and with the planet.
Who chooses the Australian artists?
DESASTRES was chosen as Australia's entry into the Biennale following an open call for applications from teams of artists and curators. These proposals were assessed by an independent panel: artist Julie Gough, and curators Rhana Devenport, Juliana Engberg, Kelly Gellatly and Aaron Seeto.
Since 2001, the majority of artists have been represented by two major commercial galleries: Anna Schwartz Gallery and Robyn Oxley9 Gallery.
Before 2017, Australia's representative at the Biennale was chosen by an appointed external commissioner — often a prominent arts philanthropist. The change caused controversy, with some donors withdrawing funding from the event.
Who is Marco Fusinato?
Marco Fusinato, 57, is an artist and musician who creates provocative installation works that overwhelm the senses.
He is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery.
As Browning explained: "Marco Fusinato doesn't want you to like it so much as feel something when you walk into one of his exhibitions. Think prickling hairs, sonic boom, dizzying white light and dilated pupils."
He added that he is inspired by underground music and conceptual art communities, and artists including English grindcore band Napalm Death and Japanese doom metal band Corrupted.
"There's so much going on in the underground that's powerful, vital, important," he said.
Fusinato is the son of Italian migrants to Australia; his parents moved to the south-east suburbs of Melbourne in the 60s, from their home in the foothills of the Dolomites, 100 kilometres north of Venice.
"Doing the Venice Biennale has really made me think about returning to exactly the same place my parents migrated from, to represent the country they migrated to," he told Art Works.
What is DESASTRES?
DESASTRES combines performance with a large-scale visual installation consisting of stacked amps and an LED wall.
Every morning, Fusinato takes up residence in the gallery space and improvises experimental noise music, while standing with his back to the audience and staring at a 17th century painting of a decapitated head.
"[Facing away from the audience] takes away .. the need or the desire to entertain. I can just really focus on what I'm hearing and letting it take me somewhere," Fusinato told The Art Show.
As he plays, the walls of noise, saturated feedback and intense, dissonant frequencies trigger random imagery on the LED wall – images that Fusinato sourced by searching the word 'disasters' in English, French and Spanish.
Fusinato's playing also triggers the rate at which images appear on screen — from a rapid-fire of 60 frames per second to just one per day.
Why is Fusinato doing this?
"That's why for me it's an exciting thing, because every day is different."
Fusinato created the work during Melbourne's lockdown.
"I wasn't able to be in my studio. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, using my imagination," he told Art Works.
He took inspiration from the experience of 19th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, who was banished to a farmhouse after he went deaf.
It was there that Goya created a well-known series of etchings titled The Disasters of War — from which DESASTRES takes its title.
DESASTRES uses images and sound to play with the viewer's sense of time, thanks to the work's durational nature, the way sounds stretch out or condense, and the ways images recur and interrelate.
Alexie Glass-Kantor, the curator of DESASTRES, told Art Works: "[Marco is] interested in how time can be used as a material, and how through time, there are moments of crisis or eruption or encounter."
Have I seen Marco Fusinato's work before?
You might have: he has exhibited widely in Australia and abroad — from Venice to Perth; from Sao Paolo to Sydney; from Singapore to Melbourne.
Fusinato was part of the 2015 Venice Biennale international art exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor.
His work, From the Horde to the Bee, was, as he told Art Works, "designed to use the power and prestige of the Venice Biennale to launder money and get it across the country to an anarchist squat in Milan, which houses an incredible collection of critical and militant publishing [the Primo Moroni Archive]".
Stacked neatly on a table were 10,000 books, a collection of work from the 60s to the present. The audience could pay 10 euros for a copy, leaving the money on the table. In the last minute of the exhibition, Fusinato and members of the anarchist squat jumped on the table and filled garbage bags with the money.
He recalls wandering the streets of Venice with the bags, hopping from bar to bar: "It was like we'd done a bank heist," he told Art Works.
Other notable past works by Fusinato include his graphic series Mass Black Implosion, which he started in 2007 and has exhibited in Melbourne and Sydney, in which he takes scores for famous avant-garde compositions (by John Cage and Iannis Xenakis, for example) and draws a line from every individual note to a vanishing point on the page – thus creating an idea for a new work, where every note would be played at one time.
He explained in Artpulse in 2013:
"The original scores are some of the best examples of applied musical thought, and my template equalises each one to a moment of singular impact. This idea of amplification/collapse is central to what I do. It's a way of getting to the point in the most direct way. Everything becomes evident in the process. It's a way of bringing everything down to its essence."
In Constellations (exhibited in 2015 in Singapore and 2018 at the Biennale of Sydney) he invited audiences to hit a massive white wall in the gallery space with a baseball bat. Six microphones and an amplifier hidden inside the wall amplified the sound of each impact to around 120 decibels.
Fusinato told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2018:
"It was frightening watching the aggression of people as they unleash … You really get a sense of how people are feeling and how they behave especially in a space which is usually so passive."
What do people think of DESASTRES?
In The Washington Post, Sebastian Smee declared DESASTRES one of the three best pavilions at the Biennale, writing: "The sound is intense, the imagery stark but elusive, the overall effect like a virtuosic heavy metal drum solo, urgent and austere."
In contemporary art magazine Ocula, Stephanie Bailey wrote: "People either love or hate this pavilion, I was told … At least they felt something so strongly as to articulate a thought."
Art Works asked visitors to the Australia Pavilion about their experience. One described the work as "very powerful, hypnotic, a little unsettling, but brilliant".
Another described the work's "powerful imagery" and the way it "evokes strong emotions": "The guitars … kinda serve as a soundtrack or a score for this horrible picture show that you're watching — it's really amazing."
Glass-Kantor told Art Works that she and Fusinato are not interested in predetermining what viewers think about DESASTRES.
When is the Venice Biennale?
The Venice Biennale opened on April 23 – and it runs until November 27.
Not in Venice? You can watch footage from Marco Fusinato's DESASTRES.