The Altersea Opera
Lap-See Lam, Tze Yeung Ho, Kholod Hawash

For the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, the Nordic Countries Pavilion invites us to embark on a journey aboard a spectral dragon ship which occupies the light and open architecture of Sverre Fehn’s meditative masterpiece in the Giardini of the Biennale, Venice.

The 38 metre long bamboo structure, which extends beyond the confines of the Pavilion, is book-ended by a huge and ornate dragon’s head prow and tail, which has voyaged from its mooring on the frozen waters of the Stockholm Archipelago to the Venetian Lagoon.

Conceived and conceptualised by Swedish artist Lap-See Lam, and realised in collaboration with Norwegian composer Tze Yeung Ho, Finnish textile artist Kholod Hawash, The Altersea Opera is a poetic exploration of the existential implications of displacement and belonging which veers between the real and the imaginary

Visitors become passengers as they cross the threshold into the skeletal vessel, powered by magical sails made of stories and filled with mythological water creatures trying to find their way back to the places of their past. A richly layered audio-visual installation, The Altersea Opera is inspired by the spirit of the Red Boat Opera Company – the travelling opera troupe which popularised Cantonese opera in the 19th century.

Lap-See Lam’s research for the creation of the opera’s dragon ship took her to Hong Kong, and she has worked closely with master bamboo scaffolder Ho Yeung Chan. For centuries, bamboo scaffolding has played an important role in the cultural and architectural history of the region, and has been used to build temporary stages for Cantonese opera, a celebrated art form in Guangdong province in southern China.

The dragon ship is inspired by Floating Restaurant Sea Palace, a three-storey vessel built in Shanghai and towed to Gothenburg in 1991. When the business failed, it took on an afterlife as a ghost ship at the Gröna Lund theme park, where Lam discovered it in a dilapidated state before it was moved to its present home in a remote boatyard.

At the centre of the installation, and brought to life by a film shot on board the Sea Palace, we find Lo Ting – half fish, half man – a figure from Hong Kong mythology reimagined across the passage of time through Lam’s script that tells the tale of his longing to return to a former home, Fragrant Harbour – only to find it transformed beyond recognition.

The haunting composition by Tze Yeung Ho, which combines extended playing techniques with baroque ornamentation, is performed with an eclectic array of instruments. The piece blends the libretto, written by Lap-See Lam (with contributions by Ivan Cheng as Future Lo Ting) with poetry, lullabies, and pop songs that draw on the artists’ diverse cultural histories. Kholod Hawash‘s textile works form a sculptural installation in the Pavilion. Her embroideries conjure a distinctive world of motifs, sewn stitch-by-stitch through jodaleia and tatreez (Arabic for quilting and embroidery), with elements from folktales and archaeological landscapes.

The Altersea Opera is curated by Asrin Haidari, Curator of Nordic Contemporary Art at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Sweden – through Moderna Museet – is the principal commissioner and manager of the Nordic Countries Pavilion 2024, in collaboration with the Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA) and the Finnish National Gallery Kiasma (Museum of Contemporary Art).

Moderna Museet invited Lap-See Lam to create an ambitious multi-modal installation. In collaboration with curator Asrin Haidari, Lam extended the invitation to Norwegian composer Tze Yeung Ho and Finnish textile artist Kholod Hawash, and an international ensemble of collaborators ranging from singers, costume designers and filmmakers to interpreters and a certified bamboo scaffold engineer.