Corazon Miller walks through New Zealand artist Dane Mitchell's installation at Biennale Arte 2019 in Venice, uncovering some of the wider themes at the international art exhibition

It could be the list to end all lists.

Two million items long – all things that have vanished from the world, some because of human activity. Travel to Venice in the next six months and you'll be able to see - and hear - the names of those things lost from the world, among them reptiles, mammals, invertebrates, islands, lakes, ocean habitats, national parks and world heritage sites.

It's the work of New Zealand artist Dane Mitchell, New Zealand's representative at the prestigious biennial art exhibition and it's called Post hoc. During the next six months, items from 260 categories of vanished things will be printed on scrolls of paper. These sheets will slowly fill the cavernous space of the old library at the Palazzina Canonica on the banks of Venice's Riva dei Sette Martiri.

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It will be the only tangible, visual representation of the millions of lost, invisible and redundant entities Mitchell has uncovered. Many who see it read it as a political statement on the environment but making the work seems a more organic than contrived process.

Says Mitchell, in true artistic fashion with the philosophical underpinnings of his thinking unfolding: "I don't think it suggests a moral lesson, not for me."

The lists of extinct entities begin to unfurl as part of Post hoc.
The lists of extinct entities begin to unfurl as part of Post hoc.

What led to the creation of Post hoc, Latin for "after this", were ideas about nature, unseen things and the power of speech.

"I had this realisation I was dealing with things that vanish. But in actual fact we are surrounded by gone things that are more visibly invisible than we might give them credit for," he says. "Vanished languages or former national anthems, lost borders or voids in space - all absences that are in our presence."

It took Mitchell two years to compile the list of now-absent objects. There was no algorithm, no team of statisticians - just Mitchell, three research assistants, Google spreadsheets, html and a text-to-speech program.

The list is comprehensive but it is not, and may never be complete, not least because there's a constant flow of new losses.

"It's ungraspable because the extent of loss is much greater than my lists."

A visit to Post hoc begins in the Palazzina Canonica's gardens - themselves a location for which the initial purpose, as a home for the Institute of Marine Science, is gone. A tree is the first thing to draw the attention because it initially seems to be a part of nature - until it becomes evident that it's not.

One of the seven
One of the seven "trees" that are dotted around Venice as part of Dane Mitchell's Post hoc exhibition.

Rather it is a man-made telecommunications tower, transmitting recordings of Mitchell's list. These recordings, to be heard via seven such "trees" scattered around Venice, originate from a concrete-walled room on the right side of the main Palazzina Canonica building.

It houses an echo-free chamber with a computer that feeds the audio transmissions to the trees - bringing to life each vanished thing, one by one, for eight hours a day across the biennale's duration. Go into the building, climb the stairs – and pause to think about all the people who, across dozens of years, have also done so – turn left and you'll come to an old library, slowly being filled by the written lists.

Mitchell's work slots neatly into the context of Venice, a Unesco heritage site spread across 118 small islands and 50,000sq m that themselves are at risk of disappearing because of rising tides and pollution.

"[The high waters] have a significant impact on the morphology and landscape consideration of the lagoon due to the erosion of the seabed and the salt marshes," a Unesco report reveals in the impassive language of official-ese.

A walk through Venice shows beauty and ugliness in equal parts: its narrow canals marred with plastic and rubbish that float across the water's surface and litter the cobbled streets. Director of the Institute of Marine Sciences, Rosalia Santoleri, says art serves to bring these issues to light.

"It is a good way to spread knowledge often limited to the scientific community."

She lauded Mitchell's work, which also included lists of extinct marine species the institute had provided. Likewise, Regina Frank, an artist from Germany, was one of the first to see Post hoc and described it as fascinating in the light of climate, economic and ecological problems.

"These problems are too far away in space and time ... we don't really think about it that much as it doesn't touch us," says Frank. "But art touches people on all different levels ... because it visualises the problem."

Environmental and political themes are widespread at the exhibition, which itself has the title May You Live in Interesting Times. It includes art from 89 nations.

Canada is represented by Inuit artists' collective, Isuma, which highlights the impacts of mining on indigenous people in the country's north. The film One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk comes at a time when local concerns about the proposed expansion of mining activities are rising.

For France, Laure Prouvost's Deep See Blue Surrounding You/Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre hints at humanity's mark on the environment. Her surrealist multimedia work includes a sculptural metaphor of an octopus' belly filled with blue water swimming with plastic, old cellphones, paper and other rubbish.

Inside an earth-house pavilion, biennale newcomer Ghana showcases the cultural diversity and beauty it's uncovered in the postcolonial era with its exhibition Ghana Freedom. Meanwhile, Japanese artist Mari Katayama, who was born with a cleft left hand and club feet, puts herself at the centre of a series of photographs challenging conventional views of beauty.

Biennale curator, Ralph Rugoff, says the exhibition focuses on artists who "challenge existing habits of thought. In an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in 'interesting times'."

Questions are often at the centre of the work on show at the Venice Biennale. In 2015, it was Christoph Buchel turning a church into a mosque; in 1990 a picture of the Pope, implicating the Catholic Church in the Aids epidemic. This year, Buchel is the repeat offender, with his installation of a fishing boat that capsized between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015, resulting in the deaths of at least 700 refugees.

Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Buchel brings to the 58th Biennale di Venezia BARCA NOSTRA, the fishing boat that sank between Italy and Libya.
Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Buchel brings to the 58th Biennale di Venezia BARCA NOSTRA, the fishing boat that sank between Italy and Libya.

It sits, with its rusty blue and red hull, casting a shadow over the Arsenale waterfront, as part of the Swiss-Icelandic artist's Barca Nostra - Our Boat project. The same waterfront it looms above was once the place where Venetian ships, setting sail to trade with other nations or fight wars, started their journeys.

The Art Newspaper listed Barca Nostra - Our Boat as one of the worst pieces at the exhibit, other critics raised questions about its appropriateness at an art exhibition. However, Cettina Saraceno, spokeswoman for Comitato 18 Aprile, an association established to remember those who died in the tragedy, told the New York Times it was a "valid project".

Mitchell's work has also hit the headlines, albeit for less controversial reasons. It's listed by many as a "must-see" at the biennale. Lead curator Dr Zara Stanhope says for an artist there isn't a much better response than questions and debate.

"I don't believe art is about teaching people lessons, it's more to raise people's curiosity."

Lowdown
What: Biennale Arte 2019
Where & when: Venues throughout Venice, until November