Best of 2013 – #Hashtags: The State of Art: Bangladesh, Portugal, Greece, and Palestine at the Venice Biennale

Continuing our Best of 2013 series, today’s pick comes from co-founder and former managing editor Julie Henson, who explains her choice: “The Venice Biennale is the Olympics of the art world. An event of this scale always manages to reflect the state of the artworld in both intended and accidental ways — drawing parallels between complex relationships such as nationality and race, or economics and globalization. That’s why I fell in love with this article on the Venice Biennale. The context of cultures as they cross boundaries in an event as oversaturated and unapologetic as the Biennale is fascinating. I am pleased to read about projects that aren’t from the countries with ultimate socioeconomic prowess, but instead, read an assessment focused on the interactions between art, politics, and nationality. To me, that’s what Daily Serving really has to offer.” This article was written by Anuradha Vikram and originally published on November 4, 2013.

#politics #statehood #borders #biennials #nationalism

The Venice Biennale is fundamentally shaped by its founders’ belief in statehood. Each nation-state secures its site, much like an embassy, and asserts its self-image through the choice of curators and artists. Four pavilions at the 2013 Biennale demonstrate how the notion of the nation-state is constructed and deconstructed in the face of contemporary global pressures. For Bangladesh, the pavilion is a platform to assert a distinct national identity and to distract from tensions prompted by multinational, neocolonial actors. For Portugal, the pavilion is an emissary transporting national essence across geographical borders. For Greece, the pavilion is a catharsis for anxieties about an unstable economic and political system. For Palestine, the pavilion is a non-site reflecting the nebulous identity of a stateless people. Art serves politics in each exhibition, whether representing patriotism, diplomacy, reckoning, or refusal.

Dhali Al Mamoon. Elimination, 2013. Installation. Bangladesh Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Photo by the author.

Dhali Al Mamoon. Elimination, 2013. Installation. Bangladesh Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Photo by the author.

Bangladesh’s pavilion hosts a group show, Supernatural, that features eight Bangladeshi artists, two international artists, and a collaborative project by the Charupit Art School. The show is commissioned by Francesco Elisei, an Italian who is also responsible for the current and 2011 Costa Rica pavilions, and curated by another Italian, Fabio Anselmi, who curated the 2011 Syrian pavilion. The Bangladeshi artists Mokhlesur Rahman, Mahbub Zamal, A. K. M. Zahidul Mustafa, Ashok Karmaker, Lala Rukh Selim, Uttam Kumar Karmaker, Dhali Al Mamoon, and Yasmin Jahan Nupur are all members of a collective, the Chhakka Artists’ Group. They are joined by Gavin Rain of South Africa and Gianfranco Meggiato of Italy. The works are a broad mix of modernist painting and sculpture, multimedia works, installations, and folk art. Very little holds them together materially, stylistically, or thematically. Large-panel paintings by Mokhlesur Rahman sit adjacent to gleaming geometric abstractions in bronze by Gianfranco Meggiato. The paintings invoke the folk figures and rural landscapes of an idealized Bengali past, while the sculptures are quintessential mid-century European modernism of the sort that has come to be identified with corporate architecture. A mixed-media sculpture installation by Dhali Al Mamoon has a creepy vibe that doesn’t gel with the adjacent cheerful, naïve paintings from the Charupit School. Mamoon’s work is a mountain of matted black hair atop a circle of pale feet that poke out from beneath, with hands suspended from above. Ambiguous and menacing, it is among the show’s best works as it occupies a space that is neither nationalistic nor nostalgic.

Bangladesh is the poorest of the South Asian nations and the only one to field a pavilion at the 2013 Biennale. Unlike its neighbors Pakistan and India, who did not participate this year, Bangladesh does not have an established gallery scene or a crop of international art stars. As a population-dense nation with a historically high poverty rate, it would seem Bangladesh should have other priorities than to rent a costly Venetian venue to showcase its regional artists and those from other countries. However, the nation has recently seen rapid development in its urban areas and increased international interest thanks to its abundant, cheap labor supply. Its government has been criticized in the wake of industrial disasters that resulted from poor oversight of labor conditions. The Biennale pavilion is clearly intended to promote an image of Bangladesh as investment-worthy, contemporary, and international. However, it may have done the opposite. The show is a hodge-podge of two decidedly old-fashioned aesthetics: that of the nationalist modernism found in state venues in South Asia, and that of the decorative modernism found in tourist galleries in Italy. Neither approach does much to situate Bangladesh at the forefront of contemporary art discourse.

Joana Vasconcelos. Trafaria Praia, 2013.  1960 motor-driven steel passenger ferry. Dimensions variable. Portuguese Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale.  Courtesy of the artist and the Transtejo – Transportes Tejo, S.A., Lisbon. Photo by the author.

Joana Vasconcelos. Trafaria Praia, 2013.
1960 motor-driven steel passenger ferry. Dimensions variable. Portuguese Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Courtesy of the artist and the Transtejo – Transportes Tejo, S.A., Lisbon. Photo by the author.

The Portuguese pavilion takes a novel approach to the problem of pavilion space, which is notoriously expensive and difficult to find for countries that are not grandfathered in to the Giardini. Artist Joana Vasconcelos has created a massive installation in fabric and LED lights within the cabin of a cacilheiro commuter ferry, a ubiquitous symbol of the city of Lisbon. The boat, a modest emblem of middle-class industriousness, shares the shoreline of the Venice lagoon with multistory yachts owned by Europe’s flashiest oligarchs. Stepping into the boat becomes a border crossing into a space that is distinctly Portuguese, despite being located in Italian waters.

Joana Vasconcelos. Valkyrie Azulejo, 2013. Handmade woolen crochet, fabrics, ornaments, polyester, LEDs and electric system. Dimensions variable. Portuguese Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Courtesy of the artist and the Transtejo – Transportes Tejo, S.A., Lisbon. Photo by the author.

Joana Vasconcelos. Valkyrie Azulejo, 2013. Handmade woolen crochet, fabrics, ornaments, polyester, LEDs and electric system. Dimensions variable. Portuguese Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Courtesy of the artist and the Transtejo – Transportes Tejo, S.A., Lisbon. Photo by the author.

Vasconcelos’ main installation in the ship’s cabin evokes an undersea craft fair, with every surface covered in crochet and quilting. The space is dark, save for the glow of LEDs that weave throughout. The blue-lit darkness is dreamlike, comforting, morose, and distinctly feminine. It complements the fado music—similarly woman-driven, mournful, and enveloping—that plays through the ship’s onboard PA system. A stage is set up to host a series of programmed lectures and performances rooted in Portuguese culture. The boat’s exterior is lined with traditional white azulejo tiles with blue graphics that are associated with Portugal’s Baroque period architecture. (In keeping with Vasconcelos’ stated interest in examining cultural touchstones from the perspectives of gender, class, and nationality, it bears noting that this Arab-influenced tile motif is a remnant of Portugal’s Moorish past.) At scheduled intervals, the boat unmoors and ferries visitors around the lagoon, thereby making the shared seafaring history of Portugal and Venice tangible in the present.

Stefanos Tsivopoulos. History Zero, 2013. Installation and three-part film. Greek Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Photo by the author.

Stefanos Tsivopoulos. History Zero, 2013. Installation and three-part film. Greek Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Photo by the author.

In the case of the Greeks, arguably the originators of the modern nation-state, national identity is both deeply rooted and very much in jeopardy at present. Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ installation History Zero takes up the question of what comes after economic collapse. Rather than dystopia, Tsivopoulos proposes that the decline of the Eurozone will lead to new freedoms. In the pavilion’s foyer is a series of didactic panels that describe different economies based in barter or ad hoc currencies. These include the high-tech, such as bitcoin, and the low-tech, such as cattle. (The latter, the text explains, give their name to the Indian “rupee” and the English “fee.”) The title History Zero speaks to the re-setting of expectations in the wake of the grand European currency plan’s failure in Greece. What irony to think that this nation, from whose legacy all of Western Europe claims its cultural legitimacy, could be cut out of the community of Europe. Tsivopoulos uses the international platform of the Biennale to push for a more progressive relationship to economies, one driven by people rather than the reverse.

Within the pavilion plays a three-part film that follows three archetypal characters’ relationships to money. The first shows an African immigrant collecting scrap metal in the streets of Athens. He pushes his shopping cart full of refuse through post-industrial wastelands and quiet city streets. Stopping at a garbage bin, he makes a remarkable find—a trash bag filled with money, folded neatly into piles of paper flowers. He furtively makes off with his haul, leaving the shopping cart behind. In the next film, we meet a sharp young artist who walks the city with his iPad, taking photographs. His trendy black coat and stylish haircut suggest privilege, but he seems to be drawn to mundane and neglected places. Traversing the city, he comes across the abandoned shopping cart full of scrap. He responds to the discovery of this discarded material as one who has found a hidden treasure. The third film follows an older, wealthy woman, an art collector. She is surrounded by cutting-edge contemporary art, including several figurative sculptures by Pawel Althamer (which are similar to works shown in the Arsenale exhibition). Money is clearly no object to her, so much so that she has decorated her home with bouquets of origami flowers made from Euro notes. She removes and discards a bouquet, replacing it with another, as if the paper flowers had rotted. In each sequence, our assumptions about the location of value in specific materials are called into question. Other affective and speculative valuation systems are proposed and explored through these narratives.

Bashir Makhoul. Giardini Occupato, 2013. Mixed media installation. "Otherwise Occupied," Liceo Artistico Statale di Venezia. Photo by the author.

Bashir Makhoul. Giardini Occupato, 2013. Mixed media installation. “Otherwise Occupied,” Liceo Artistico Statale di Venezia. Photo by the author.

If the Bangladesh, Portugal, and Greece pavilions are shaped by the concerns of their respective nations, the exhibition of Palestinian artists Aissa Deebi and Bashir Makhoul is defined by the absence of a state. “Otherwise Occupied” is not an official pavilion sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, but rather a collaborative project between artists and curators at the American University in Cairo, Jerusalem-based Palestinian art space Al Hoash, and the Winchester School of Art at Southampton University, UK. The absence of a recognized nation-state may be an ongoing problem for Palestinians, but here it creates the opportunity for a transnational partnership that calls the very purpose of the state into question.

The works of the two artists further problematize the idea of the state as a relevant and meaningful construct. Israel, a nation defined by (contested) borders and (enforced) linguistic and religious hegemony, is shown to be an oppressive construct in the work of Aissa Deebi. His film The Trial is a dramatization of testimony by Palestinian Marxist Daoud Turki given to an Israeli court that convicted him of espionage. Turki’s words challenge the notion of a state as antithetical to the cross-cultural, collectivist, and worker-centric values of Marxism. He states, “I have an internationalist view, and as such, I do not see any boundaries between me and my fellow Jews.”[1] The actors in Deebi’s reenactment are repeatedly interrupted by authority figures that perform their jurisdiction in a passive-aggressive manner by loudly placing and removing a glass of water in the scene. This ostensibly compassionate gesture becomes a means to disrupt the flow of ideas and dissipate the intensity of Turki’s words. Bashir Makhoul complicates the landscape of the Giardini itself, home to the established pavilions of the dominant national actors at mid-century. In the courtyard of the Liceo Artistico Statale di Venezia, where the exhibition is housed, he invites each visitor to decorate and personalize a cardboard box, which is then placed in the Giardini Occupato as a shadow pavilion. This is the Giardini reimagined as a provisional architectural space populated by homeless, stateless entities. In both works, the assumed links between statehood and identity are questioned, not only as they relate to the Palestinian people, but as they apply to nation-states on the whole.

The Venice Biennale remains the largest and most comprehensive international gathering of contemporary art worldwide. Nonetheless, its influence is waning as smaller, more versatile biennials such as Sharjah, Istanbul, and Manifesta attract increasing international audiences to each round. These newer biennials are able to be more responsive to changing attitudes about nationality and culture in an interconnected and seemingly borderless era. Venice, a city built on seaborne international trade, will have to unshackle its Biennale from nationalist perspectives in order to keep up.

The 55th Venice Biennale is on view through November 24, 2013.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.


[1] “Statement given by Daoud Al-Turki in the courtroom, where he summarizes his position toward Israel and the political motivations that led him to organize Al-Shabaka ‘The Network.’” http://www.aissadeebi.com/2013/06/03/statement-given-by-daoud-al-turki-in-the-courtroom-where-he-summarizes-his-position-towards-israel-and-the-political-motivations-that-led-him-to-organize-al-shabaka-the-network/

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