The Venice Biennale and Representation of Nationhood
When travelling to Venice every two years with the intention to report on the Biennale,
the art critic runs the risk of doing less “art writing” than “travel writing”. This is not to excuse my own reflection in the form of a report, but to presume that it is not possible to review such a mammoth project based on a three-to-four-day visit. However, to be overwhelmed is all a part of the character of the Venice Biennale. No one has ever seen everything – especially when excessive amounts of visitors often obstruct views of the art works. Having said this, this year’s 54th edition of the Biennale features, apart from the main exhibition, some eighty- nine countries that are all vying for attention in numerous pavilions and external localities. In the “Giradini” as well as in the “Arsenale,” nations show their colors. It remains to be seen who stands the test of being remembered!
Breaking with the character of the nation
One of the most remarkable statements in terms of both the artwork itself and the nation presenting it is the Polish Pavilion, which displays the Israeli-Dutch artist, Yael Bartana. Her film trilogy, “…and Europe will be stunned,” addresses nationalistic and anti-Jewish sentiments still present in today´s Poland. The aesthetics of the film takes us back to the 1930s, when the fictitious “Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland” (JRMIP) was formed. While the movement called for Jews to return to Poland, it was also intended to become a model movement for “those for whom there is no place in their homelands – the expelled and the persecuted”. “There will be no discrimination in our movement. We shall not dig into your life stories, or check your residence cards or refugee status,” is how parts of the JRMIP-Manifest sound. Thus, the declared goal of Yael Bartana´s art project is to transform Europe and Israel fundamentally – and maybe even the entire Near and Middle East.
The Polish inclusion makes a strong statement by representing itself with a non-Polish Jewish artist through this film. This hijacks the idea of nation inherent in many of the national pavilions and external presentations. Like the Polish pavilion, the Danish also make a statement that is over-shadowed by the supranational. Artists from Belgium, Palestine, the USA, Greece, Iran, China and other countries have worked with different media, but all addressed freedom of expression; a subject for which the detained Ai Weiwei became a symbol at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Omnipresent were the red bags with the proclamation, “Free Ai Weiwei,” which numerous Biennale visitors carried around Venice.
The debate between art and politics could be viewed in many of the national pavilions. Some striking works were propagandistic and illustrative, while others, such as “Plan B” by Ayse Erkmen, one of Turkey´s best-known artists, was subtle. In this piece, an installation made up of pipes works as a system for the purification and reprocessing of dirty water. In view of the worldwide battle over this vital natural resource, the installation that fills the room and its setting are significant.
Two South Asian Countries, India and Bangladesh are among the nations featured for the first time at the Venice Biennale. While the former found a space at the centre of the “Arsenale”, the latter is located between the “Arsenale” and the “Giardini” at the Gervasuti Foundation.
Titled “Parables,” the two Italy- based curators, Mary Angela Schroth and Paolo W. Tamburella, have brought together five Dhaka-based artists whose works are clearly political. While Imran Hossain Piplu investigates the connections between fossils and weaponry in “The Utopian Museum” (2011), Kabir Ahmed Masum Chisty transforms himself in to the mythological figure of Medusa, thereby addressing the direct connection between power and brutality. Another step back in time – although not so far back – is Promotesh Das Pulak´s, “Echoed Moments in Time” (2011), which commemorates East Pakistan´s independence from West Pakistan in 1971. While the artist was only born a year later, he places himself in archival imageries, thus making himself a representative for the country’s freedom as well as its chaos. Critiquing the contemporary cultural practices of his country, Mahbubur Rahman tries to come to terms with his Muslim cultural values where “prejudiced feelings were instilled in me from a tender age” (Mahbubur Rahman). An installation where pigs clad in goat and cow skin stand in metal cages naturally reminds of the Muslim aversion to the pig and the acceptance of the cow. The sounds of slaughter playing in the background connect them with former works of Rahman, of which violence is an inherent part. Tayeba Begum Lipi´s concern is gender-oriented, addressing the country´s wedding culture in a split-screen video installation titled, “I wed myself” (2010). The artist acts, herself as both bride and groom. In the next room, Lipi has hung 30 bras made out of stainless steel razor blades. Her critical take on Bangladesh’s male chauvinistic situation, as well as her fellow artists’ provocative gestures towards the many contradictions of the country´s contemporary culture, that were brought about through a historical legacy, are courageous. They have to be viewed as an act of protest, letting the art world know that despite the non- existence of a Bangladeshi art market, there are artists at work struggling to be heard.
Unlike Bangladesh, India´s contemporary art has been exhibited globally and its market routinely breaks into the five-figure digits. This brings a responsibility to fulfil the expectations to represent the glorious nation. In his curatorial statement, “Everyone Agrees: It´s About To Explode,” Ranjit Hoskote opts for the trans-cultural nature of many of today’s artists and their works. Nevertheless, by trying to expand the idea of national representation, he naturally returns to the confines offered within the parameters of the Nation. To present the nature of contemporary India, Hoskote showcases four artists, whose work reaches beyond India´s national territory, therefore representing India as regionally and globally connected.
Zarina Hashmi, who was born in Aligarh in 1937, and lives and works in New York, can be called the silent star of this exhibition. Her 36-piece, “Home is a Foreign Place” (1997) – although not hung the right way – is indicative of her life, having suffered through the trauma of Partition and the consequent lifelong question of identity and belonging that this historical event embodies for a South Asian Muslim. The home, the map, the border, and the name have become components of overcoming her crisis of self-definition – a crisis perhaps shared by many other South Asians living in the diaspora. With their gold leaf textures, “Noor” (2008) and “Blinding Light” (2010) seem to respond tentatively to the dilemma of a life of travel.
Praneet Soi, born in 1971 and currently living between Amsterdam and Kolkata, her slide projection, “Kumartuli Printer” (2010/2011), along with the mural she created for the Biennale, expands the idea of an artist´s studio, thus responding to Zarina Hashmi´s nomadic life of implementing the figure as a victim in precarious situations.
Gigi Scaria (born 1973 and living in New Delhi) has installed a 3-screen interactive video installation, “Elevator from the Subcontinent” (2011). Upon entering this space, the visitor is taken on a ride through a variety of domestic interiors addressing many social and political inequities . The pre-occupation between the problematic facets of an Indian metropolis and the inequalities in terms of urban planning, a real-estate boom, and the promise of money, ultimately reaches out to the migrant.
The Desire Machine Collective (DMC), established by Sonal Jain (born 1975) and Mriganka Madhukaillya (born 1978), is based in Guwahati, Assam. They represent a critical voice from the rather remote and neglected northeast of India. Their 35mm film, “Residue” (2010/2011), is a virtual documentation of an abandoned thermal energy plant in the middle of nature. Through the slowness of the moving image, one is made to believe of a co-existence between the heavy rusty machinery and the beauty of nature. A constant machine noise reminds us of the exploitative character these oppositional modalities represent.
While the Indian pavilion was not convincing on a formal level, its artistic choice and content could be seen as a positive strategy to represent the unexpected. It opened up new horizons of reference for a trans-regionalism that could be seen - just like in the Polish pavilion - as a new model for the idea of Nation.