There are just three weeks to go before the opening of the Venice Biennale and artist Angela Su is supervising the whirl of activity that is transforming the Hong Kong pavilion in the Italian city into her realm of Gothic fantasy. The old residential building that has served as Hong Kong’s pavilion for biennale’s alternating showcases of art and architecture every year bar one since 2003 is the opposite of a neutral, white-cube gallery. Sometimes its character and history just doesn’t gel with what its temporary tenants have in mind. “A crumbling brick wall is too distracting,” says Su, Hong Kong’s representative at the world’s biggest and most influential contemporary art exhibition of 2022. One of the rooms will be draped in red fabric, and another, where the video of a new performance work is projected, will be lined with sound-absorbing panels. Meanwhile, technicians are building a giant swing 4 metres (13 feet) high and a circus ring in the outside courtyard to set the stage for “Arise”, an exhibition about Lauren O., an imaginary American anti-war activist in the 1960s who believed she had the magic power of levitation. Su is best known for her human hair embroideries inspired by medical drawings, pseudo-documentaries based on historical research, and endurance performances. She has been producing compelling, visceral stories about the troubled, the freakish and the persecuted for a decade. The schizophrenic Rosy Leavers (2017) was part of a project to challenge the authority of psychiatric orthodoxy and an exploration of whether it is possible to upload our consciousness to cyberspace . The psychopathic murdering cyborg in Berty (2013) allowed for a no-holds-barred exploration of the blurring of the line between human and machine. Su makes sure the audience always feels the experience: through a video of her own back being tattooed with lines from the Bible ( The Hartford Girl and Other Stories (2012)) or through a body horror novella that was part of 2013 work Berty , for example. Definitely people are curious about what’s happened in Hong Kong. And it is important for people to see what we can produce in Hong Kong at this international showcase Freya Chou, curator In “Arise”, biennale visitors will see a video of her bound and suspended 5 metres above the ground as she embodies the plight of the imaginary Lauren O.’s accomplices, who are arrested and detained. The inspiration for the work was the 1967 March on the Pentagon protest in the Uited States against the Vietnam war, she says. At one point, the protesters started chanting and using mock rituals to try to levitate the building that represents US military might. “The action was so powerful. It was an exorcism of evil and it demystified the authority of the military,” Su says. Artist William Kentridge channels history for Hong Kong show As Freya Chou, curator of “Arise”, explains, levitation is an interesting metaphor for being suspended between two opposing forces and trying to find a balance. “The time we are living in is not just binary. We are looking at the coexistence of different voices,” she says. She points out that Su’s reference to the 1960s gels with the historical theme of the biennale’s main exhibition, titled “The Milk of Dreams” after a 1950s book of fairy tales by the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. “People are desperately trying to figure out how we imagine a future. It’s becoming more important to understand history. A lot of international shows seem to want to go back to history, including the main pavilion in Venice that uses Surrealism as a starting point,” she says. “That aligns with our exhibition, which looks at a historical moment to answer contemporary questions.” The image of Su being tied up and the exhibition’s theme of political activism naturally draws one to contemplate the upheaval in Hong Kong, where many activists have been jailed for participating in 2019-20 protests and where civil liberties have been curtailed by censorship and a national security law introduced by the Chinese authorities to restore order in the city. “Definitely people are curious about what’s happened in Hong Kong. And it is important for people to see what we can produce in Hong Kong at this international showcase,” says Chou. Filipino uses his own hair to make portraits Su says she is determined to get her message across in a time when fear and cynicism have given birth to a culture in China of “lying flat” – passive resistance by doing nothing. “My work, superficially, is not about Hong Kong but you can still sense what I feel about the city and how I turn to speculative fiction to convey that,” she says. The title of the exhibition, a command recalling the raising of Lazarus in the Bible, encompasses Su’s wish to puncture the helplessness, cynicism and apathy that has swept over Hong Kong and other parts of the world. “ It is important to have empathy. It is important to take action. Any small gesture can have a snowball effect. Otherwise the world won’t change for the better. Don’t lose hope,” she says. “A ngela Su: Arise, Hong Kong in Venice”, a collateral event of the 59th Venice Biennale, will be held at the Hong Kong Pavilion in Campo della Tana, Castello, Venice (in front of Arsenale entrance) from April 23 to November 27.