Why Christine Macel’s effort to question Venice Biennale’s inherent nationalism was not enough?

 

Reflections on 2017 Venice Biennale, 26.10.2017
(edition 2, 22.12.2017)

 

This might not be a new topic, but everyone is now talking about the inherent nationalism within Venice Biennale. The question is whether we should figure out how to solve it or rather abandoning it all together? To begin with, a simple observation can show us that Africa is missing from the architecture of the Giardini. (1)

“While several histories of the Biennale have been written, almost nothing meaningful has been said about the architectural infrastructure of this institution…This infrastructure consists of thirty-odd national pavilions, which were built (and often rebuilt or refaced) in a staggered fashion over the course of the twentieth century. Each of these is owned and administered by a nation, and both the architecture and the artwork exhibited therein are inevitably bound up with a projection of national identity” (2)

Unarguably the main theme of Biennale in 2013 was climate change. In 2015, the theme shifted slightly toward postcolonialism and critic of nationalism by selecting Okwui Enwezor as the head curator. This year, in 2017, Christine Macel showed us another way to question the national structure of Venice by incorporating her own pavilions within Arsenale and Giardini, therefore degrading the dominance of the existing western nations in there. She is choosing an affirmative method and calling her La Biennale “VIVA ARTE VIVA”, and then negating itself by referring to Deleuze’s phrase “art is not about communication, but it is an act of resistance.” (3)

Nonetheless, the indisputable facts remain that Macel was the first women who curated a La Biennale, and 103 out of 120 of her artists were first timers to the Arsenale. She undermined the male-dominated history of La Biennale for the first time. (4) She created the term trans-pavilions for the seven made-up pavilions divided between Arsenale and Giardini. The other aspect of her work that is important to mention is the deliberate degradation of what is commonly known as La Biennale’s High-Art and its usual fanciness (in some cases even with wittiness and irony). This gesture is admirable since, in recent years, feminism has become a powerful and visible force against nationalism and state violence as well as domestic violence. I see this gesture, as a subtle anti-capitalist move that results in balancing the powers and opening more spaces for international unrepresented artists.

Macel believes that the process of plurality is achievable not through reduction but through addition. She mentioned this in the same interview with Andrew Goldstein:

“My point is to question and also play with these national pavilions, with a bit of irony. They are very much criticized because they reproduce a sort of a geopolitical history of the world, which is very true, and on the other hand, how could you imagine getting rid of them when their number has increased since the ’90s to 85 pavilions this year? It shows how successful this organization has proven to be, and it allows lesser-known or small countries to have a huge visibility. The word ‘trans-pavilion,’ like ‘transnational’ and ‘transgenerational,’ is a wink at these debates.” (3)

However, it seems that she does not have a good understanding of postcolonialism. The process of creating additional pavilions does not necessarily create visibility for unrepresented countries around the world. This method is what writer and art critic Hettie Judah assesses in an article titled: “A Series of Rogue Pavilions Wrestles with the Venice Biennale’s National Structure”. (5)

Throughout the years we have seen many attempts to spoil the inherent nationalism within the Biennale. A good example is the fictive state pavilion “NSK State in Time” which originated by a group of artist from Yugoslavia in 1992. (6) This year, NSK State in Time was present as a pavilion in Venice. It issued passports for all visitors who came to the pavilion, as a symbolic gesture to unify all visitors from different countries under one stateless nation. Although, almost all of visitors were members of the art world. (7)

Another symbolic gesture during the Biennale was in 1997 when Sislej Xhafa appeared in Venice as the Albanian Clandestine Pavilion. He was wearing the national football team uniform of Albania with a flag. He described this gesture as “a politics of interruption.” (5) This year, he was part of Kosovo pavilion with an exhibition titled Lost and Found in response to the plight of families whose relatives have been missing since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999. (8) The opening of the exhibition was followed by a delegation of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports alongside ambassador of Kosovo in Italy and Albania’s minister of culture. (9)

Figure 1: Sislej Xhafa, Padiglione Clandestino, 1997. Stealth performance. photo via bidoun.org

This year, we saw similar attempts such as “Absence of Path” (an installation that imitated passport control or a state office issuing identity cards within Arsenale), Pavilion of the Earth, Pavilion of Research, University of Disaster, works by Kananginak Pootoogook, and others. However, the idea to criticize the nation-states through plurality does not work if we exclude the contemporary separationist movements around the world. The Vienna based collective XXXX ism TMC, consisted of Anna Ceeh, Iv Toshain, and Matthias Makowsky, created a gorilla action during the opening month of the Biennale that was perceived as part of the exhibition, yet it was an ad hoc movement of 10 artists dressed in riot control police standing in front of the Biennale. (10)

Figure 2: Painting by Kananginak Pootoogook

 

During the past few months, while La Biennale was open to the public, we saw two huge independence movements that fixed the eyes of the world; Catalan referendum and Kurdistan referendum in Iraq. “The modern international system is built, in part, on two ideas that turned out to be in tension: borders are sacrosanct and people determine their own political status.

The former was meant to put an end to war by discouraging invasion or separatist rebellion. The latter was meant to protect citizens from dictators or occupiers. But when a subset of a population decides to break off, those two principles collide.” wrote Max Fisher and Amanda Taub of New York Times. (11)

In a review of theories of nationalism Umut Ozkirimli notes that debates on nationalism have reached a more mature stage in the recent years:

“If ‘society’, a universal feature of human existence, is treated as a ‘nation-state’, then nationalism ceases to be a problem worth exploring, and becomes a humdrum part of our social life. It only returns as a topic of investigation when an odious form of nationalism threatens the integrity of ‘our’ society” (12)

Hannah Ellis-Petersen wrote an article about this topic and called La Biennale: “Art of the state”. She is questioning whether issuing passports instead of showing art by Tunisian pavilion and NSK is a satirical swipe at the refugee crisis, or does it reduce asylum seekers to mere spectacle? (13) Aside from that, the overall critic of the Biennale in an aftermath of “Brexit”, election of Trump, rise of populism/nationalism and entering into the post-truth era, has been the absence of politics from VIVA ARTE VIVA.

One of the problems with Venice Biennale is that even when we are talking about artworks and artists who criticize the nation-state, we still looking through the framework of the nation (by simply saying where the work was and what was it about). Even if these works were situated outside of the national pavilions, we are still talking about La Biennale. This is similar to a situation where the painting teacher in the art school tells you: “start writing a paragraph…and please don’t think about painting”. And, of course, not only the first thing that you think about is painting, but it influences the way you think or write. We can only talk about the impartiality of the La Biennale in a postcolonial context when the names of the nation-states are taken down from the buildings.

Christine Macel invited a diverse group of subjects to show their work. The exhibition as a whole was very colorful and geographically widespread. Yet, instead of inviting more politically engaged artists and collectives with works related to the contemporary struggles, she preferred conventional art objects. There was an overdetermination in inserting political text next to safe artworks, pavilion of color and majority of Arsenale was a good example of this strategy.

Figure 3: Anne Imhof, Faust, 2017 at German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2017 Image via mousse magazine, Photo: © Nadine Fraczkowski

Figure 4: The Pavilion of Kosovo opening in presence of international media, Photo via Republic of Kosovo Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport

Figure 5: Troops in Riot Gear a performative intervention by XXXX ism TMC at Venice Biennale 2017

 

 

Bibliography

1. Jaar, Alfredo. VENEZIA, VENEZIA. Altern Ecologies: Emergent perspectives on the Ecological Threshold of the 55th Venice Biennale. Helsinki : Frame contemporary art, 2016.

2. FOLKLORIC MODERNISM: VENICE’S GIARDINI DELLA BIENNALE AND THE GEOPOLITICS OF ARCHITECTURE. Robinson, Joel. s.l. : OPEN ARTS JOURNAL, Open Arts Journal. www.openartsjournal.org , ISSUE 2, WINTER 2013–2014 ISSN 2050-3679 .

3. Goldstein, Andrew. artnet.com. [Online] May 1, 2017. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/venice-biennale-curator-christine-macel-interview-942749.

4. Baratta, Paolo. labiennale.org. [Online] 2017. http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/2017/introduction-paolo-baratta.

5. Judah, Hettie. artnet. [Online] May 9, 2017. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/post-national-art-venice-biennale-2017-953204.

6. About NSK STATE IN TIME. NSK STATE IN TIME. [Online] May 11, 2017. http://nsk-state-pavilion.org/.

7. CHARNEY, NOAH. Venice Biennale, punk-style: The NSK State Pavilion, for “stateless individuals who are looking for new citizenship” . salon.com. [Online] May 14, 2017. https://www.salon.com/2017/05/14/venice-biennale-punk-style-the-nsk-state-pavilion-for-stateless-individuals-who-are-looking-for-new-citizenship/.

8. Artnews. [Online] http://www.artnews.com/2017/05/11/scenes-from-the-venice-biennale-day-3/dsc07020/.

9. Republic of Kosovo Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. [Online] May 11, 2017. http://www.mkrs-ks.org/?page=2,6,1538#.WfYD-hOCyCQ.

10. Pangburn, DJ. Troops in Riot Gear Deliver a Hidden Message in Venice . creators.vice.com. [Online] Vice, July 7, 2017. https://creators.vice.com/en_us/article/3knkb5/soldiers-riot-gear-hidden-message-venice.

11. TAUB, MAX FISHER and AMANDA. Catalans and Kurds Discover the Hard Truth About Secession. www.nytimes.com. [Online] September 29, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/world/europe/independence-movements-catalans-kurds.html.

12. Ozkirimli, Umut. Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction. 2nd. 2000-2010.

13. Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. The Guardian. theguardian.com. [Online] May 16, 2017 . https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/may/16/venice-biennale-refugee-crisis-nsk-tunisia.