Museum Berggruen – Neue Nationalgalerie presents Performance “Sebastian” by Miles Greenberg for the opening of the 60th Biennale of Contemporary Art

Neue Nationalgalerie

Museum Berggruen – Neue Nationalgalerie will present a new performance work by Miles Greenberg (Canadian, b. 1997) on the occasion of the opening of the 60th Biennale of Contemporary Art. Co-curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Lisa Botti, Greenberg’s durational performance, Sebastian, forms a dialogue with the iconography of Saint Sebastian at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, as well as with Venice’s storied blackamoor motifs. This piece, as opposed to a linear narrative, shall be presented as open ritual over the course of eight hours at the historic Palazzo Malipiero on Thursday, 18 April 2024, from 12:30 to 8 pm.

This piece is a portrait of Saint Sebastian. I have been thinking about European canon and these recurring characters from various mythologies, and how I can respond to this exercise of depicting religious and mythological figures that has recurred throughout western art history. It's this perpetual struggle that artists who work in performance tend to run up against, being relegated to the side; it’s like we run parallel to art history and can never at the center of it. Meanwhile, in Venice, we’re surrounded by Caravaggio, Botticelli, Bernini, who are all sort of reprising over and over these important mythological figures who, in many ways, define us. I think it’s natural that contemporary performance be a viable continuation of that.

Somewhat similarly, I’ve always been fascinated by how Black people are depicted, in classical Italian art, particularly in Venice because you have these ubiquitous blackamoor motifs in the architecture who are largely anonymous yet are constantly present. You have depictions of African slaves or soldiers or noblemen and women whose heads are door handles, or who carry the legs of tables or chairs, or who hold up a vase. They hold the city it together, in a way, yet recede into the architecture. They’re yet black with this sort of ebony patina, usually handsomely decorated, but often chained to their positions. They’re like three-dimensional silhouettes. I remember visiting the Ca’ Rezzonico Museum, where there are these incredible figures by Andrea Brustolon that I was very deeply affected by – maybe part inspiration and part trauma. I was probably thirteen years old or so, I was fascinated with how they had no identity, no origins ... Every European figure had a story and a name attached to them, meanwhile these figures, they didn’t. I think that alienation and that kind of silence and mystery is something I held onto in my way of reappropriating the Black figure.

Saint Sebastian has this dual significance of also being a codified icon to queer artists, past and present. I’ve always had an obsession with him as this figure depicted at this threshold of ecstasy attained through pain or transcendental state.

Miles Greenberg (excerpts from a conversation with Klaus Biesenbach for Interview Magazine ahead of the performance)

The body of Miles Greenberg is being filmed by four survey cameras, which are mounted on robotic arms for the entire performance duration. The gaze of the cameras adds a contemporary symbol of the iconic arrows to Saint Sebastian.

The performance Sebastian is a continuation of a piece Miles Greenberg started at the Louvre in 2023, commissioned by Donatien Grau.

Sebastian at Palazzo Malipiero is co-curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Lisa Botti.

Sebastian by Miles Greenberg is kindly supported by Museum Berggruen, Berggruen Arts & Culture, Cerruti, Villa Eugénie, Slobodan Randjelović and Jon L. Stryker and Thomas Rom Foundation

On the occasion of the exhibition “Elective Affinities. Works from Museum Berggruen – Neue Nationalgalerie in Dialogue with the Collection of Gallerie dell’Accademia,” (24 March to 23 June 2024):

  • Gallerie dell’Academia, Campo della Carità, Dorsoduro 1050, 30123 Venice
  • Casa dei Tre Oci on Giudecca island, Fondamenta Zitelle, 43, 30133 Venice

The exhibition is curated by Giulio Manieri Elia and Michele Tavola (Gallerie dell’Accademia), as well as Gabriel Montua and Veronika Rudorfer (Museum Berggruen) and kindly supported by Mario Codognato and Berggruen Arts & Culture Venice.