VENICE: “I am very sorry we are being overpowered by Denmark, but at least we are at peace with the United States,” said Bice Curiger, “for now.” The 54th Venice Biennale opened to the public on June 4 with an award ceremony followed by an open debate.
Curiger, the biennale’s director, was sitting on an outdoor stage in a fine turquoise frock, trying to introduce the speakers to her right and left. The atmosphere in the Giardini della Biennale, the grass and gravel gardens where much of the event unfolds, was nothing if not chaotic and carnivalesque.
An overturned army tank topped with a treadmill was lying like a beached whale in front of the U.S. pavilion, part of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s exhibition “Gloria.” Every 15 minutes, a runner climbed up for a jog as the machine kicked into mad, futile action, making a terrible, clunking racket.
Just as the tank quieted down, the Danish pavilion erupted into a rambunctious post-punk dance party, with music booming off a newly erected wooden deck. This, too, was part of an artwork, titled Pavilion for Revolutionary Free Speech, by Thomas Kilpper.
In a way, the noise provided the perfect preamble to a conversation about the biennale’s national pavilions and the extent to which they had become anachronistic.
Founded in 1895, the Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious event of its kind. It began as a single, freeform exhibition of mostly Italian artists with a few foreign talents thrown in.
Belgium built the Giardini’s first national pavilion in 1907, and there are now 29 country-specific buildings there. Scores more are scattered across the city or clustered in the Arsenale, the old shipyards of Venice, whose name comes from dar sinaa, or place of manufacture in Arabic.
A total of 89 countries are participating this year, the highest number to date. It could have been 91 – Lebanon and Bahrain pulled out at the last minute – but that still would have been less than half the countries in the world.
The national pavilions are not only anachronistic; they are also antithetical to how the art world works, with its nodes of globalized activity gathering and dispersing around biennials, art fairs, exhibitions, academies, residencies and workshops. As Curiger remarked, “We live in the art world, which can seem supranational. Artists can live in Berlin without realizing they’ve emigrated to Germany.”
In truth, the Venice Biennale is like any other art event, only bigger. The international exhibition promises unrivaled exposure for artists established and emerging. The collateral events are a test of curatorial fortitude and public relations prowess.
The national pavilions, however, have a peculiar afterlife that lingers after the biennale ends – not in the effervescence of the art world but in the retrograde yet stubbornly robust states from whence they came. The national pavilions are often used, said Hassan Khan, the president of this year’s jury, “to play cultural politics back home,” and there is, he added, “something dangerous about this.”
A Cairo-based artist and musician, Khan is intimately familiar with the case of Egypt, where contemporary art plays into cultural politics like an extreme sport. Plans for this year’s Egyptian pavilion were scrapped and redrawn in February, after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
As it stands, the Egyptian pavilion is one of the most emotionally wrought exhibitions in Venice, paying tribute to Ahmed Basiony, an artist and musician who was killed by snipers in Tahrir Square.
Curated by Aida Eltorie and Shady El Noshokaty, “Thirty Days of Running in the Place” is a five-screen video installation that randomly shuffles documentation from one of Basiony’s performances with footage he shot during the protests in Tahrir. Although it runs the risk of capitalizing on a colleague’s death, it comes across as a powerful and ominous exploration of what the body will endure.
That said, the sensitivity with which the pavilion was made has already shattered. Back in Cairo, a bitter and acrimonious battle is under way between the biennale team and state bureaucrats, with both sides slinging accusations of misdeeds ranging from the petty (catalogue details, hotels bills) to the profound (honoring the revolution or hijacking it for personal ends).
Sometimes national pavilions are notable for having no impact at all. By the time Lebanon’s fist and only pavilion opened in June 2007, the Lebanese Army was fighting Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared, and no one in the local art community or beyond was much concerned with modest, thoughtful exhibition in Venice.
Still, the national pavilions persist, in part, because of their potential to test the art world’s utopian proposals in the political, social and economic muck of everyday life.
“Artists and curators have two fears,” said critic and theorist Boris Groys. “One is to be backward and not contemporary. The other is to be trivial and banal. Artists want to be different. You can look at artworks as the production of identity but also as the production of difference.
“If you see the work of the Polish pavilion,” he continued, “there is a surplus of meaning there. You can look at the national pavilions as a chance to do something more politically charged.”
Indeed, the Polish pavilion is an audacious political provocation, given over to the exhibition “And Europe Will Be Stunned,” by Israeli artist Yael Bartana. Bartana’s trilogy of films imagines the formation of a political party whose mission is the return of more than three million Jews from Israel to Europe.
Based on the notion that “there are no chosen people,” the films follow the creation of the party, its rhetoric and its visual symbols (many of which have disturbingly fascist overtones). The Jews return to stun Europe with their hard work, cultivation and collective spirit. They build a kibbutz less stunning than monstrous, with separation walls and watchtowers, all emblems of a paranoid security panic and a highly militarized mindset.
In the final film, the leader of the movement has been killed, and his memorial turns into a forum debating his legacy, with two emissaries from Israel taking the stage to argue that returning to Europe is foolish because the Jews will never be secure anywhere but Israel.
The catch is that Bartana’s films are only part of the work. More than a fanciful conceit, “And Europe Will Be Stunned” involves the formation of an actual political party (open to all), and the publication of the wondrously titled “Cookbook for Political Imagination,” which frames Bartana’s endeavor as a experimental form of a collective psychotherapy, tackling prejudice, resentment, history and myth, and deconstructing the mechanisms of propaganda along the way.
One of the contributors to the book describes the movement as the next logical step after post-Zionism – the de-territorialization of the Israeli state and the reclamation of Jewish history and culture wherever it has been lost or wiped away. “It is even conceivable,” he writes, “to rename Israel ‘Palestine.’”
If Bartana is serious, then her work is playing a game far more consequential than cultural politics back home. Her proposal – rife as it is with tricky ambiguities and allegories – uses the démodé model of the national pavilion to take a position and launch a volatile idea. Mad, improbable, insidious and to some even obscene, Bartana’s project nonetheless captures art’s capacity to re-imagine and rework the world.
To end the debate before the American tank began clattering again, Khan sounded a cautionary note. “The art world isn’t going to solve any problems,” he said. “Of that I am sure.”
True, but for an art work to raise uncomfortable questions might be a good place to start.
The 54th Venice Biennale continues through November 27. For more information, please see www.labiennale.org.