The Complex of National Identity at the 54th Biennale di Venezia
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The Complex of National Identity at the 54th Biennale di Venezia

Of the Venice Biennale exhibitions I have attended throughout my years as a museum professional, the most recent installment fell especially flat. This was true of the main exhibition ILLUMInazioni, organized by veteran Swiss curator Bice Curiger, and the myriad national pavilions curated independently by participating countries and located in the Giardini and many off-site venues throughout Venice.

Philippe Parreno’s slight and almost pathetic marquee of lights over the entrance to ILLUMInazioni seems to announce it all: a Biennale in malaise, full of deflated artistic gestures and impotency. The sense of “artistic stultification” — to appropriate language used in the Biennale’s exhibition guide to describe Maurizio Cattelan’s hundreds of taxidermy pigeons that line the ceiling and rafters of the Arsenale — was pervasive.

That said, Cattelan’s installation is one of the few highlights, along with other familiar works by many established artists, including Urs Fischer, Sigmar Polke, Rosemarie Trockel, Monica Bonvincini, and Christian Marclay. Marclay presented The Clock, the 24-hour epic film work that follows the appearance of time in thousands of sampled films, each clip corresponding to the real time of the audience viewing it. The work recently commanded lines around the block when it was exhibited in New York and London. In Venice, a visitor can sit comfortably on couches and be lost for hours uninterrupted in the orchestrated cacophony of Marclay’s edit. I was especially fortunate to arrive at precisely high noon.

Installation view of Maurizio Cattelan's "The Others"

On the journey home, I found myself continuing to contemplate the 2011 Biennale with curiosity and intrigue. Was my overall impression a generational one? Did my memory of past biennales that had more impact reflect a sense of nostalgia not relevant to the current moment? Still,what stood out for me were not those few signature works in the main exhibition but rather the general impression derived from my tour of the national pavilions, especially those situated in the Giardini. There I found successive examples of artists who reflected in their entries a decided ambivalence—even dismay—about what it means to represent one’s country in such a highly visible international arena.

This ambivalence displayed itself in a variety of ways, including anger, frustration, and an abiding sense of powerlessness, as well as marked restraint. In the Romanian Pavilion, a collective of intergenerational artists spray-painted statements of protest along the interior walls of the pavilion, and on the exterior scrawled lists of reasons for or against participating in the biennale, ranging from the grandiosely political (“Venice Biennale Is A Choking-On-Money Mercantilist Fossil”) to the banal and personal (“We Have Nothing to Wear To The Opening”). The Egyptian Pavilion commemorates the new media artist Ahmed Basiouny, considered a martyr of the revolution in Egypt as he was killed while demonstrating against the Mubarak  regime on January 28. The pavilion shows documentation of Basiouny’s 30 Days of Running in the Place, which the artist made in 2010, before anyone could have anticipated the revolution. He measured the sweat he produced while running on the spot and transformed that information into code visually represented on large screens — a kind of a metaphor for the power of motion and digital forces to activate movement and change. This footage is combined with video the artist himself shot of the early days of demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The national pavilions that I saw which best present artists who successfully navigated the complex terrain of the representation of nationhood are the U.S. and Poland. Both countries include new works by artists familiar to Walker audiences, including Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, who represent the U.S. with a series of performative installations titled Gloria, and Yael Bartana, an Israeli/Dutch artist who represents Poland with a trilogy of films made between 2007 and 2011 titled …and Europe will be Stunned. At the Walker, Allora’s and Calzadilla’s was a part of the 2003 exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age (curated by Philippe Vergne with Douglas Fogle and Olukemi Ilesanmi), and the following year they undertook a micro-broadcasting project, Radio Revolt: One Person, One Watt; Yael Bartana was one of 16 artists included in 2007’s Brave New Worlds (another global survey curated by Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond).

The 60-ton overturned military tank of Allora and Calzadilla’s Track and Field is positioned dramaticallyin front of of the U.S. pavilion building. The sculpture is outfitted with a functional treadmill that a U.S. athlete periodically runs on, activating the tank’s treads and resulting in a clanging and screeching that dominates – superpower like — the Giardini. The strategy of ironic juxtaposition—between military prowess, money, and athleticism—carries through other works in Gloria. Among the most poignant is Half Mast/Full Mast, a video installation which captures well the Biennale’s mood of quiet disdain and resounding ambivalence about the political realities and policies impacting our world.

The boldest entry by far is Yael Bartana’s three-screen film installation. Her controversial entry marks the first time a non-Polish national has represented the country. Tackling the complex subject of Jewish identity in the post-World War II Europe and Poland, Bartana (of Polish descent and the grandchild of Holocaust victims) creates a disturbing filmic narrative that traces the rise and fall of the fictitious leader of the Jewish Resistance Movement in Poland, a political group that calls for the return of 3.3 million Jews to the land of its forefathers. Appropriating the symbols and rhetoric of different forms of national and political extremism, Bartana draws parallels between aspects of Zionist and Third Reich propaganda  and alludes to current tensions in the West Bank and throughout the Middle East.

These entries bring the complex structure of national representation at the Venice Biennale squarely into question. While the declaration of nationhood may have made sense at the inception of the Biennale di Venezia over 100 years ago, are such distinctions necessary, productive, or even relevant to artists now? Bice Curiger’s impulse to create “Para-Pavilions” — that is, temporary pavilions throughout the main exhibition, which were designed by artists to host the works of other artists of varying national origins and practice — provides an intriguing alternative to the tradition of national pavilions. It is my hope that in the future a new model such as this will be further developed to keep this massive international survey relevant as a barometer of the complex times in which we live, and artists’ responses to an aggressively dynamic world.

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