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The Eurovision of the Artworld: the 60th Venice Biennale and the Crisis of Nationalism

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The night before I left for Venice, I was having dinner with a group of friends of friends who aren’t really in the “Artworld” art world. They’re activists, mostly from Latin America, who run a cultural center that assists migrants in Barcelona and were helping my partner and I with some immigration paperwork. “What exactly is the Venice Biennale?” one of them asked. 

“It’s basically Eurovision, but people take it really seriously,” their partner answered before I could. 

We all laughed. Eurovision—for those American readers not in the know—is the long-running, extremely campy annual pop music tournament that an entire continent of gays loves to (ironically?) watch and pretend we care about with the same intensity heterosexual Americans do with sports things like the Superbowl or whatever “the Superbowl of Basketball” is.

Eurovision was launched at the height of the Cold War and adolescence of the European Union, with the extremely quaint ideal of uniting the continent through some friendly, very over-the–top competition. Mostly, we all love Eurovision because it’s a chance to laugh at the very idea of nationalism over drinking games revolving around sequined outfits and pyrotechnics. 

Jeffrey Gibson's makeover of the US pavilion
Mounira Al Sohl at the Lebanese pavilion

But the Venice Biennale was founded in 1895, when national boosterism was inexorably tied to imperial ambitions—each Western country trying to prove who was the most “civilized” and therefore qualified to subjugate and pillage the rest of the planet. And people still take it deathly seriously. 

I tend to think nationalism or patriotism is pretty silly at best and absolutely terrifying at worst. It’s also a bit outdated for so many people in the artworld like me—“Third Culture Kids” born into families who emigrated from different countries to another in the 20th century, and now live in a third that’s neither one of several possible “ancestral homelands” nor whatever our often-arbitrary, messy birthplaces might be. I always joke that everyone should be born in the Duty Free store in the Frankfurt or Singapore airports and be from nowhere. 

After all, nearly every bloody conflict raging on Earth can be traced back to the truly terrible idea people had to carve up the world into tidy little ethnostates following the collapse of a superpower—say, the Soviet Union, or British or Ottoman Empires, or any of the other colonial powers that divided up whole continents. Defining who does or doesn’t belong on one side or another of a border and then fighting over the natural resources within those borders seems, to me, to be a pretty dumb way to manage a planet. And I really don’t like the idea that individual artists must serve as a representative of their place of birth or “identity group” as a whole.

 

New signage for the Danish pavilion
Inuuteq Storch at the Danish/Greenlander pavilion
Valeria Montti Colque at the Chilean pavilion
Valeria Montti Colque at the Chilean pavilion
Fliers dropped by protestors at the Giardini

So the theme of this year’s Venice Biennale, Foreigners Everywhere, was right up my alley. The main exhibition (see my review here) focuses on works by indigenous or immigrant artists—two qualifiers that at first seem like opposites, but in reality both reflect a condition of “otherness” from whatever the dominant identity within a nation state might be.

Reading both the news and countless artist bios in Venice these past few weeks, the distinction as to whether groups of individuals had crossed borders or borders had crossed groups of individuals became less relevant (and often, looking at the Palestinian diaspora for example, not mutually exclusive). What matters in the output of artists or cultural workers is the complicated feeling of alienation or displacement that accompanies “otherness,” and how it can inspire creativity, resistance, hybridization, or curiosity and reflection.

At the national pavilions—most of which feel almost self-consciously embarrassed by the concept of nationalism—there’s an appropriately diverse set of strategies for addressing (or, in rare cases, avoiding) the legacies of colonialism and immigration from both traumatic or optimistic perspectives.

Denmark has ceded its pavilion to its colony Greenland (or Kalaallit Nunaat in the island’s native tongue) for a haunting solo show from the Copenhagen-based, New York-educated Greenlander photographer Inuuteq Storch. Brazil has turned its pavilion over to indigenous groups. Chile is presenting a solo show by Valeria Montti Colque, a Swedish artist whose Chilean parents fled to Stockholm to escape the brutal CIA-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Australia took home the Golden Lion prize with a somewhat dry but disturbing solo show by Archie Moore tracing his own aboriginal genealogy and government’s mistreatment of his people.

 

Jeffrey Gibson at the US pavilion
Jeffrey Gibson at the US pavilion

With my unease about nationalism, I almost feel guilty as a person who happened to be born in the US saying that “our” pavilion is one of the best. Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson is (embarrassingly) the first indigenous artist to represent the United States at the biennale. And his solo show the space in which to place me is so very good it almost makes up for a century of that oversight. 

Outside, the white palladian architecture of the pavilion has been given a technicolor makeover, reclaiming the eurocentric aesthetics imposed across America post-colonization. A series of cadmium red empty pedestals in the forecourt reference toppled statues, creating a playground for visitors to climb and monumentalize themselves. Inside, intricately-beaded figures employ both traditional craft and queer aesthetics, incorporating protest pins from civil rights movements. Geometric paintings evocative of weavings incorporate urgently timely text such as “THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO PEACEFULLY ASSEMBLE”—a right quite a few Americans need to be reminded of these days.

Jeffrey Gibson at the US pavilion
Jeffrey Gibson at the US pavilion
The United States Pavilion, Jeffrey Gibson (outside)

The entire exhibition is a feast for the eyes, and it’s impossible not to smile when you get to the last gallery. A video projection features a kaleidoscopic grid of indigenous women gleefully, triumphantly dancing to the song “Sisters” by The Halluci Nation featuring Northern Voice. It reminds me of old Bollywood musicals from the heyday of disco, and is the perfect joyful coda to a show that made me feel so much more optimistic than I had expected. 

Rather than a narrative about oppression, Gibson has created a celebration of resistance. If we’re unsure of what “American identity” looks like, it might be a pluralistic struggle against a very fucked-up government and its dark history. The US may not have an actual democracy, but its faith that one day it might has served as fuel for a hell of a lot of cultural output. Music, art, and adornment have accompanied most protest movements in the US, and the space in which to place me reminded me that alone is something to celebrate. As the great American activist Emma Goldman once (probably) said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”

 

Ersan Mondtag at the German pavilion
Yael Bartana at the German pavilion

The Australian pavilion won the coveted Gold Lion, but the German Pavilion was hands-down the most talked-about of the vernissage week, for better or worse. Curated by Çağla Ilk, the experience of the two-person show Thresholds really begins outside, where Turkish-German artist Ersan Mondtag has blocked the structure’s neoclassical entrance with a landslide of dirt from his grandfather’s native Anatolia.

This intervention is what many a preview viewer spent a decent chunk of their visit experiencing, because the lines for this pavilion—even by Venice standards—were insane. (A running joke all week was that, despite attempting to shrug off nationalist sentiments, Germany proudly, effectively recreated the experience of its capital’s famed nightlife: waiting in a seemingly endless line in the rain.)

Eventually, small groups are ushered into the dark pavilion, where the first work they encounter is Yael Bartana’s “Light to the Nations,” a model starship suspended overhead in its own gallery with dramatic lighting. It has a monumental gravitas and mystery—an appetite whetter for what’s to come.

 

Yael Bartana in the German pavilion
Ersan Mondtag in the German pavilion
Yael Bartana in the German pavilion

The central gallery is dominated by a multi-story structure evoking an adobe boat, which houses Mondtag’s work, its prow facing an enormous projection of Bartana’s epic video “Farewell.” In “Farewell” dancers twirl and lock arms, awaiting the arrival of the starship to whisk them away to a better world, or perhaps “promised land,” as the work is loaded with references to Jewish mysticism.

Like much of Bartana’s oeuvre, the piece’s politics are open to interpretation while brazenly tangential to current events. The Israeli artist, who also lives and works partly in Berlin and Amsterdam and showed in the Polish pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, has been necessarily cautious in her criticisms of Israel’s right-wing leadership. In contemporary Germany, any protest of Israel can lead to harsh censorship and career-threatening exclusion from both state and private institutions.

The curatorial text reads, “while ‘Light to the Nations’ is based on Jewish traditions, the grand endeavor transcends religious, ethnic, national, state, and tribal boundaries. It offers a future to all humanity while acknowledging a certain hubris inherent in its biblical reference.”

Perhaps that acknowledgement of hubris is why the starship in the video—a somewhat clunky CGI—is so much more obviously an artifice than the tantalizingly camera-ready model that lures viewers in at the beginning of the show. There is no planet B, as the adage goes. Humans have to get over their shit here on Earth before they turn it into a smoldering wasteland while quibbling over whose god might be there to greet them in/on the next world. 

Bartana’s work necessitates (and deserves) an investment of precious art-viewing time from visitors. So a panic set in for me when I turned around to discover yet another line snaking around to the entrance of the adobe pavilion-within-a-pavilion. During this wait, there’s really nothing to look at besides the dimly-lit brown walls and occasional mirrored windows on the curved surface, which reflect the queue back, suggesting that perhaps all that awaits within is another wait. The exhibition’s pacing is probably the only curatorial decision I take issue with. Why not give us something to look at between these awe-inspiring climaxes?

The first floor of Mondtag’s installation holds archival material and text related to the life and death of the artist’s grandfather, who emigrated to West Berlin and found work in an asbestos factory, which led to his death in the early 90s. I so wish that material could’ve been installed linearly where viewers were waiting to enter instead, because I felt guilty spending any time with it knowing there were hundreds of people impatiently queued-up outside.

Up a spiral staircase, the show picks up in intensity once again. Mondtag has installed a disorienting domestic space. Uniformed performers roam from an oddly-proportioned bedroom to a filthy bathroom and dilapidated kitchen. In the “prow” of the apartment, thinly-curtained windows provide glimpses out onto Bartana’s “Farewell,” overshadowing a retro tv tuned to a dead channel. Occasionally the performers lay on the floor, or begin chanting. Everything is covered in dust.

Ersan Mondtag in the German pavilion

After reading about asbestos, the musty smell of the space feels overwhelmingly sinister. A final flight of spiral stairs leads to the structure’s rooftop, where more performers in dowdy uniforms chant. An older man lays naked, wrapped in a sheet, while a younger man performs some sort of ritual implying care. All the while, the esoteric dance and starship video are visible ahead. 

After what seemed like an eternity in the dark labyrinth of Thresholds It was a total overload of conflicting/complimentary stimuli. I felt more than I could cognitively analyze, and that’s refreshing. I later checked my Instagram stories and realized I spent about two hours with the German pavilion, between waiting and viewing time-based works. Would I do it again? Yes.

 

John Akomfrah in the British Pavilion
John Akomfrah in the British Pavilion

It’s perhaps unfortunate that the British pavilion is so close to the show-stopping German pavilion, because I don’t think the similarities (long waits to enter a labyrinth of time-based media) did it any favors. But British artist John Akomfrah’s solo show Listening to the Rain is something I so badly wanted to like. Organized into “Cantos,” each room contains a multichannel video installation referencing music, water, colonialism, and environmental injustices.

In one room, text explains that seductive videos of flowing water are about flooding in Bangladesh. In other rooms, there are references to writers including Ezra Pound or Rachel Carson, video incorporating archival photos of the burnt-out-cars that might be references to infamous ethnic clashes in Belfast or Liverpool, musical instruments, and footage of children being sprayed with pesticide. 

The work is alternately sleek and upsetting, but I am not convinced that as a whole it works effectively as either a didactic or aesthetic experience. Akomfrah seems to have attempted to present a mea culpa on behalf of the British Empire, but trying to organize such an encyclopedic amount of content into five overlapping Cantos of multi-channel video was perhaps too ambitious. That’s not to say there aren’t informative or beautiful or moving moments—I just had a hard time connecting the dots I felt very much instructed to connect. 

Maybe I also felt a bit icky about the fact that high-end auction house Christie’s and luxury goods purveyor Burberry partially bankrolled a show about injustice. (An increasingly common arrangement as state funding for the pavilions doesn’t keep up with cost. Sotheby’s and a variety of other private funders also mostly sponsored the US pavilion.) I’m always a bit mistrustful of exhibitions that present political work without a clear call to action within an unchallenged system that’s so tied to hierarchies or capital.

On opening day, for example, everyone in the pavilion—mid discourse about imperialism—dropped what they were doing when Princess Beatrice arrived to give her a special VIP experience of the show. I didn’t know who Princess Beatrice was, but apparently she’s a Very Important Person because she’s the daughter of the guy who got his royal titles stripped for cavorting around private jets with serial pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. A few meters away, a grainy black and white video of her grandmother, the late queen, waving from a motorcade might’ve otherwise symbolized a “goodbye” to a dynastic system that brutally subjected half the planet. But I guess not quite yet.

Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) at the Dutch pavilion
Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC) at the Dutch pavilion

I felt better about curatorial decisions with a more concrete rupture from the cycle of colonialism and exploitation. The Dutch, for their part, lent their pavilion to Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, an art collective of Congolese plantation workers. CATPC makes sculptures using clay soil from the surviving old growth forests of the Congo, where Dutch/British multinational Unilever is one of the primary land owners.

The works are shipped to Amsterdam, where they are cast in materials such as palm oil or cacao—the cash crops the DRC has been deforested to export—and sold to collectors. The proceeds from these sales are used by the collective to buy back and restore land in their community. It’s one of the all-too-rare examples of the art world in the Global North doing something with tangible, reparative impact in the Global South—showing art objects beyond a nod to mere representation.

 

Ronald Morán in the Bolivian pavilion

Everyone was a little more cynical about Russia’s decision to lend their pavilion to Bolivia—a gesture that seemed uncharacteristically magnanimous for the nationalistic pariah state. The more I talked to South American friends about it, the more we all suspected it was likely one of many obsequious acts to curry favor in a region with anti-US sentiments and deep deposits of lithium and other resources that Russia desperately needs now that it’s largely cut off from Western supply chains.

Bolivia, though, turned around and offered the space to indigenous groups both within and beyond its borders—which those groups often don’t recognize as legitimate. The resulting show is a bit uneven, but maybe that’s kind of the point. One of the standout artists is Ronald Morán, whose sumi ink drawings of barbed wire are lovely. Morán uses a medium so often associated with landscape to render what’s become a near-ubiquitous component of the built environment in Latin America, demarcating both national boundaries and private property.

Guerreiro do Divino Amor in the Swiss pavilion
Guerreiro do Divino Amor in the Swiss pavilion
Super Superior Civilization by the Brazilian-Swiss artist Guerreiro do Divino Amor

In a competition to prove what country is most “over” nationalism, the Swiss Pavilion might be the winner. The famously neutral and polylingual country where Foreigners Everywhere go to bank in secret is presenting Super Superior Civilization by the Brazilian-Swiss artist Guerreiro do Divino Amor, who gleefully lampoons the idea of national identity with a razor-sharp wit. So many countries would like to view themselves as “The New Rome,” and here the artist’s own pantheon of contemporary goddesses preside over the ruins of Western Civilization. 

Lambasting the neoclassical architecture that’s supposed to universally reference “authority,” do Divino Amor collages government buildings, tacky McMansions, churches, and office buildings into a column-and-pediment filled landscape mid-apocalypse. Looming over a backlit digital print of this hellscape, a holographic drag queen serenades viewers with an opera—perhaps a lamentation for a world sliced-up and exploited by nation states and global capital. 

And maybe she is the best visual metaphor for business-as-usual at previous international biennials: artists and culture workers as drag queens, performing an exaggerated version of identity for a bottomless-mimosa-swigging public, desperately hoping they’ll shove a tip in our bras while we lip synch their national anthems.

Or maybe even a Eurovision hit or two.

 

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