VENICE: During the Gulf War of 1990, the Kuwaiti sculptor Sami Mohammad developed an irregular heartbeat. One of the most prominent artists of his generation, Mohammad had become famous for a series of emotionally charged works in bronze, marble and plaster – such as “Hunger,” “The Challenge” and “The Rush” – which conveyed tragedy and resilience in the modeled, chiseled exertion of strained, sculpted bodies.
He was less known for his unabashedly nationalistic sculptures of the 11th and 12th emirs of Kuwait – Sheikh Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah and his brother Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah – but those were precisely the works that made his heart jump on hearing the news that Iraq was invading his country.
Iraqi soldiers were hunting for a Kuwaiti sculptor to make a statue of their then-president, Saddam Hussein. Like few others, Mohammad had the experience and expertise to do it.
“I feared I’d be caught and was haunted by images of me working on [the] statue,” he told an interviewer earlier this year.
If the Iraqi soldiers found him, and he refused to do the job, they would kill him, he recalled. If he complied, the Kuwaitis would kill him. Mohammad couldn’t win. His heart froze. Like so many others pushed or compelled into exile, he collapsed with anxiety and escaped.
This is just one of the many strange, sad and wonderful stories woven into the subtle body of Kuwait’s first-ever national pavilion for the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most prestigious exhibition of international art, which opened its doors to the public last week and remains on view for the next six months.
A product of 19th-century thinking and heavily influenced by the popular form of world’s fairs, the Venice Biennale has become something of a structural anachronism in 2013.
There are now hundreds of perennial art exhibitions like it being staged around the world, including the biennials of Cairo, Alexandria, Sharjah and Istanbul. All of them appeared in the wake of Venice – which was founded to measure Italian art against that of the day’s foreign (and colonial) powers – but most of them have long since abandoned their progenitor’s notion of national pavilions.
Only Venice holds fast to that model, with the individual exhibitions of singular nation-states propped up on either side by a sprawling, blockbuster group exhibition and a hearty program of parallel, collateral events.
This year, there are 88 national pavilions, down from 89 in 2011, but up significantly (from 77) in 2009. Most of the permanent pavilions are located in a spread of public gardens, the Giardini. Just over a dozen more, either newly permanent (Argentina, the UAE) or temporarily rented (Lebanon, Turkey, Bahrain), are to be found in the spaces of the city’s former shipyards, known as the Arsenale – from Dar al-Sina in Arabic.
Despite the dense web of historical, cultural and economic ties that bind the Arab world to the city known as Al-Bundukiyya (the subject of Emily Jacir’s biennale project that was inexplicably scrapped in 2009), the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf have never been very well represented at the biennale.
Only Egypt has a permanent pavilion in the Giardini, and this year the exhibition there is a travesty. Seeing the same name in the slot for artist and curator is never a good sign, but Khaled Zaki’s mediocre, self-selected bronze statues signal a particularly lamentable retreat for an initiative that took real risks last time around. For 2011, Egypt’s state-run fine arts sector had allowed “the youth” (admittedly a problematic generational distinction) to dedicate the pavilion to the ongoing – if now unraveled – revolution via the work of Ahmed Basiony, who was murdered by a sniper on his way to Tahrir Square.
Saudi Arabia’s inaugural pavilion in 2011 hasn’t been repeated, though Lebanon and Bahrain both managed to pull their pavilions together after last year’s eleventh-hour cancelations.
The UAE is back for the third time, with a high-tech installation by Mohammed Kazem that replicates the sense of being lost at sea.
Iraq is back for the second time with a tender group show of eleven artists, which seems more like a feel-good gesture about being there than a brave or serious push to use the time and space of the biennale to do something bold.
Though not officially a national pavilion, Palestine has its own collateral event, by now a custom, with an exhibition titled “Otherwise Occupied,” featuring work by Bashir Makhoul and Assa Deebi.
The pavilions of Lebanon and Turkey, featuring film and video installations by Akram Zaatari and Ali Kazma, respectively, are powerful and sophisticated, exploring the politics of borders and bodies, damage and care, resistance and desire. Both do justice to the contemporary art scenes of their originating cities, Beirut and Istanbul.
The sleeper hit of the summer among the pavilions from this part of the world is Kuwait’s pavilion, nimbly curated by Ala Younis. It features a curious installation delving into the heart-stopping history of Mohammad’s statues, alongside a ruminative, achingly lonely series of photographs mounted on light boxes by the artist Tarek al-Ghoussein.
Younis’ sensitive excavation of Mohammad’s work allows for some searching self-criticality on nationalism and modernity from within the pavilion itself. Ghoussein’s “K-Files” represent a seamless and gorgeous continuation of his staged self-portraiture series, working in a mode he calls performance photography.
Like earlier works shot along the borders of Palestine or the interior wastelands of the UAE, Ghoussein’s images explore existential themes of presence, absence, longing, belonging, destruction and reconstruction, whether by war, low-burning conflict, restless capital or emotional unmooring.
The diversity of styles and subjects evident across the regional pavilions suggests that the capacities of all these different art scenes have reached a benchmark in terms of maturity and professionalization, both good and bad things together. That said, most of North Africa is still missing. Syria’s pavilion seems wholly unrelated to any known reality.
“The Ideological Guide to the Venice Biennale,” a provocative independent project by the artist Jonas Staal, digs into the history, politics and logistics of each and every pavilion.
Downloadable as a fine smartphone app, the work suggests the organization of the national pavilions may seem totally off, but is in fact an accurate mapping of contemporary political power.
As such, and given the spiky contributions of writers both named and anonymous, Staal’s guide is an invaluable companion to the biennale. Yet where objects, artworks and projects, such as Mohammad’s statues, still have the potential to surprise you with the stories they have to tell, you can take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy the show.
The 55th Venice Biennale remains on view in venues throughout the city through Nov. 24. For more information, please see www.labiennale.org.