Venice Bi­en­nale taps artis­tic angst dur­ing ris­ing na­tion­al­ism

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Colleen Barry

VENICE: With na­tion­al­ism on the rise, po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment is cen­tral to the artis­tic di­a­logue at the Venice Bi­en­nale, the world’s old­est con­tem­po­rary art fair, open­ing Satur­day.

From the main show, “Viva Arte Viva,” cu­rated by Chris­tine Ma­cel, to 87 na­tional pavil­ions in the Venice Giar­dini, Arse­nale and through­out the his­toric city cen­ter, artists are con­tem­plat­ing the world around them and giv­ing a voice to un­der­rep­re­sented pop­u­la­tions.

Ma­cel said artists “are able to re­spond to this mo­ment of com­plex­ity” even if art “should not be re­duced to politics.”

Here are some high­lights.


Ber­lin-based artist Ola­fur Elias­son’s “Green light” is an on­site work­shop where 100 mi­grants cre­ate lamps lit by green bulbs from simple ma­te­ri­als.

Vis­i­tors can en­gage with the mi­grants – for many a face­less, name­less cat­e­gory re­peated on the news – maybe pitch­ing in, maybe ask­ing their sto­ries.

Elias­son says be­ing a mi­grant is not an iden­tity, but a con­di­tion. “What we see is our­selves,” Elias­son said. “The mi­grants are a lit­tle bit like ac­tors in a play. Fair enough. But I am do­ing it on the con­di­tion that they are vol­un­teers. They are given a sub­jec­tive space, they are not be­ing ob­jec­ti­fied.”

An im­mi­gra­tion lawyer and psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­selor are among 90 vol­un­teers par­tic­i­pat­ing.

The project aims to help mi­grants learn skills, and build self-es­teem, while ex­plor­ing a plat­form that could be re­peated in other con­texts.


The Dutch pav­il­ion ex­am­ines the Nether­land’s self-im­age as pro­gres­sive and tol­er­ant, which has been put to the test dur­ing Europe’s refugee cri­sis.

One film ex­plores how the Dutch self-nar­ra­tive pa­pered over the dif­fi­cult as­sim­i­la­tion of mixed-race chil­dren of Dutch and In­done­sian par­ents af­ter In­done­sia’s in­de­pen­dence.

Artist Wen­delien van Olden­borgh dis­cusses the is­sues in short films. Be­cause the chil­dren en­tered the coun­try smoothly as Dutch cit­i­zens, vast dif­fer­ences in their ex­pe­ri­ences have been over­looked, from those who were aban­doned by their white fa­thers and impoverished, to the wealthy, well-ed­u­cated ar­rivals who still found bar­ri­ers to as­sim­i­la­tion.


Phyl­l­ida Bar­low’s show of sculp­tures for the United King­dom’s pav­il­ion ti­tled “folly” isn’t about overtly about politics, but that did seep into the work as the Brexit cam­paign raged around her.

“As I was making the work, I be­gan in April, be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, I had this sense of un­ease, melan­cho­lia re­ally, about this idea of oc­cu­py­ing the Bri­tish pav­il­ion and what it means to be Bri­tish … when it’s leav­ing Europe and I feel I’m Euro­pean,” Bar­low said.

She said the mood per­me­ated her sculp­tures, which while ro­bust “show fragility, and a sense of things be­ing un­easy.”


For the Hun­gar­ian pav­il­ion, artist Gyula Var­nai dis­cusses the “vi­a­bil­ity and ne­ces­sity of utopias” in his show ti­tled “Peace on Earth.” He uses many de­funct com­mu­nist sym­bols, in­clud­ing a re­pro­duc­tion of a large neon Peace on Earth sign from a build­ing in Hun­gary, to a rain­bow made of 8,000 pins bear­ing Cold War-era sym­bols.

Cu­ra­tor Zsolt Pe­tranyi said they asked them­selves “is it true, that we can just speak about dystopias, that there is not any pos­i­tive vi­sion?”

He re­al­ized that tech­nol­ogy has be­come utopia’s stand-in, “cov­er­ing the deeper prob­lems of to­day. Wher­ever you go, from China, to Africa, to In­dia, if there is a new kind of tele­vi­sion, a new kind of what­ever, ev­ery­body is cel­e­brat­ing it.”


With cin­e­matic tableaux, pho­tog­ra­pher Tracey Moffatt recre­ates scenes of “jour­neys, se­cret jour­neys, il­le­gal jour­neys,” in a se­ries called “Pas­sages” for the Aus­tralian pav­il­ion. The open­ing pho­to­graph fea­tures a mother grasp­ing a child seen through a fog look­ing out over the sea. “The baby is squirm­ing. The baby will leave her. She might be giv­ing the baby away for her pas­sage. There are many sce­nar­ios,” he said.

While the scenes bring to mind mod­ern-day mi­grants, Moffatt said “for me it is old fic­tion. A fake old film. It is a cel­lu­loid that I claim I found in a vault.”


Trou­bled Pol­ish ado­les­cent girls are both in­spi­ra­tion and ac­tors in U.S. artist Sharon Lockhart’s show for the Pol­ish pav­il­ion ti­tled “Lit­tle Re­view,” named for a pre­war Jewish news­pa­per by and for ado­les­cents in Poland.

The broad­sheet pub­lished weekly from 1926 to Sept. 1, 1939, the day Hitler in­vaded Poland.

Lockhart had the girls choose is­sues of the paper to re­pro­duce each week at the Bi­en­nale, find­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in their lives and global po­lit­i­cal ten­sions, ac­cord­ing to cu­ra­tor Bar­bara Pi­wowarska. They also ap­pear in pho­to­graphs, and a film they chore­o­graph them­selves.

He got to know the girls while film­ing them, “then she re­al­ized they had this tremen­dous need” and has con­tin­ued to work with them be­yond the artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tion to help get sup­port and ther­apy, said Katy Siegel, senior cu­ra­tor at the Baltimore Mu­seum of Art who has worked with him.


Ge­orge Dri­vas ex­plores the com­plex­ity of the refugee cri­sis in his show for the Greek Pav­il­ion. In a video in­stal­la­tion that draws on an­cient Greek tragic the­ater, Dri­vas out­lines a 1960s ex­per­i­ment where for­eign cells en­dan­ger the na­tive.

The show is de­signed to get peo­ple to ask, “What kind of so­ci­eties do we have. What is the cri­te­rion how do we de­cide? These are the things that pre­oc­cupy me, with­out say­ing this is cor­rect, that is cor­rect. I don’t want to make a les­son. I want to raise ques­tions, ‘What kind of Europe to we want?’” Di­vas said.

Dri­vas wants vis­i­tors to slow down and let the al­le­gor­i­cal mean­ing of the ex­per­i­ment sink in. Any­one who rushes through his in­stal­la­tion will miss Char­lotte Ram­pling’s cameo, and pos­si­bly even cathar­sis.

“Viva Arte Viva” runs through Nov. 26.

Vis­i­tors ad­mire “The horse prob­lem” by Ar­gen­tinian artist Clau­dia Fontes at the 57th In­ter­na­tional Art Ex­hi­bi­tion Bi­en­nale.

Ger­man artist Anne Imhof’s Golden Lion-win­ning in­stal­la­tion “Faust,” a dark re­flec­tion on mod­ern so­ci­ety at the Ger­man Pav­il­ion.

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