A Series of Rogue Pavilions Wrestles with the Venice Biennale’s National Structure

Artists and curators question the Biennale's nation-state design at a time when populist and nationalist politics are on the rise.

Koyo Kouoh, 2017. ©Antoine Tempé

As we get closer to the Venice Biennale I’m reminded of the Ad Reinhardt cartoon where a fool, dressed in a suit and hat, points obtrusively at a Cubist painting, laughing: “Ha, ha. What does this represent?” The painting points back with a scowl, asking the man, who falls back in shock, “What do you represent?”

This same question comes to mind each time an email informs me that this or that artist is representing this or that country for the Venice Biennale. To be selected is an honor—what artist would reject a platform like Venice. But what exactly does it mean to “represent” a country? And what does it mean for a country not to be represented by an artist? Or for an artist not to have a country to represent? And what associations does national stewardship carry at a time when nationalism is on the rise?

This year, questions around national and post-national art will be explored in several different projects in and around Venice’s famous art event. Programs range from the scholarly African Art in Venice Forum—an event that brings to the fore why only seven of the 54 countries in Africa are represented in the Biennale—to the rebel NSK State Pavilion.

There are also nationally funded initiatives such as the British-backed Diaspora Pavilion, a platform aimed at diversifying the national pavilion structure, and ATARAXIA, a salon program featuring talks, events, and artist meals curated by Cameroonian-born exhibition maker Koyo Kouoh. This salon will investigate, among other things, Switzerland’s fabled neutrality and independence.

“The whole program of ATARAXIA asks how you can be in a state of calm and stability when everything is crumbing around you,” says Kouoh. “I have always asked myself how a country like Switzerland comes seemingly untouched and unharmed through the horrors of the 20th century, and achieved such prosperity and wealth. They think they achieved this because they worked so hard, but it’s a collective national illusion. Switzerland is a country of myths, and I wanted to deconstruct them.”

For Kouoh, the issue of national representation at Venice is a “tricky, double-edged sword.” This sentiment is echoed by David A. Bailey, co-curator of the Diaspora Pavilion: “Venice is one of the oldest Biennales, and it’s based on colonial nationalism,” he explains, comparing the enclosure of the permanent pavilions within the Giardini to a “gated system,” with new independent nations relegated to showing outside of it. For Bailey, that “double-edge” comes for countries wanting to buy into the concept of national representation at the Biennale, but wishing to distance themselves, simultaneously, from colonial history.

The Diaspora Pavilion also centers on a mentorship program led by artists of international status including Isaac Julien and Yinka Shonibare MBE. While the term “diaspora” was once associated with the migration of black and Jewish peoples, Bailey uses the term in a broader sense. “We’re all basically diaspora children now,” he says, citing the British TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” for contributing to a sense of national identity that acknowledges and embraces complex origins. (The crass reportage on this year’s Turner Prize nominees—described in one headline as an “Obscure Multicultural Pick & Mix”—suggests that some progress remains to be made.)

You don’t have to look hard to find links between the ugliness of nationalism, and the idea of “national representation” at the Venice Biennale. The first national pavilion—that of Belgium—was built in 1907, during the reign of Leopold II, who at the time still lay claim over the Congo, present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. Artists and curators have since acknowledged the darker associations of certain pavilions; for example, Hans Haacke’s Germania (1993) smashed through the marble floor of the German Pavilion commissioned by Hitler in a re-design some 60 years before. Additionally, in 2015 curator Katerina Gregos took on the Belgian Pavilion’s own colonial history as subject matter for the exhibition in that year’s Biennale.

Back in 1997, the (now New York-based) Kosovar Albanian artist Sislej Xhafa appeared in Venice as the Albanian Clandestine Pavilion. Dressed in the national team’s football strip with a flag sticking out of his backpack, he toured the Giardini in an action that he later described as “a politics of interruption.”

Sislej Xhafa, Venice 1997. Image courtesy the artist and Bidoun.

Sislej Xhafa, Venice 1997. Image courtesy the artist and Bidoun.

This year Xhafa returns to the Biennale, presenting an installation dedicated to the dead and disappeared at the Pavilion of Kosovo. “In one sense things haven’t changed, it’s still my practice to use art to question; for me it isn’t so much about artistic statements but political ones. What has changed is that I’m representing a new, young country, the place of my birth,” explains Xhafa. “At the Biennale, as elsewhere, we can see the complexities of exclusion and inclusion. We live our lives in states of legality and forced illegality.”

The spectacle of the Biennale overall, with its swarm of migratory art world creatures, embodies one part of a discomforting two-tier system—between the geographically fluid liberal elite that chooses to ignore borders, and the migrants fleeing war, oppression, fragmented economies and environmental crises, who are made to feel the presence of borders so very keenly.

Interceding somewhat between these two bodies is the NSK State-in-Time, a virtual, utopian state without territory founded in 1992 by a group of political art collectives acting under the banner of Neue Slowenische Kunst. This year NSK will open an “embassy” Pavilion at Venice, issuing passports to the State-in-Time, and exhibiting responses to a statement that asks Europeans to acknowledge the role they played in the events that led to the mass displacement of people in our time.

“Migrants are still mostly the people the art world has to step over in order to get into its art venues,” writes the NSK Collective, which at Venice, includes the curator Charles Esche and artist Ahmet Ogut. “However, there is a call from some artists to build bridges of understanding between the art world and the lived conditions of migrants. The danger is this can come across as transgressive entertainment for the post-national, global elite.”

The State-in-Time Pavilion will open on Thursday with an inaugural lecture by Slavoj Žižek, whose words also appear in the pavilion’s newspaper. Writing in 1993 the philosopher offers a utopian ad-absurdam conclusion to the conundrums of art and national identity: “As far as art, according to definition, is subversive in relation to the existing establishment, any art which today wants to be up to the level of its assignment must be a state art in the service of a still-non-existent country.”

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