National Pavilion UAE - Um, So What is the Venice Biennale? | Review by Tala Worrell
  • Um, So What is the Venice Biennale? | Review by Tala Worrell

    A friend of mine from college arrived in Venice yesterday. We immediately began trading stories and experiences. At one point he sheepishly inquired, “So what exactly is the Venice Biennale?” I laughed in dismay as I explained that I have been in Venice for two months and still can’t put my finger on what a Venice Biennale is.

    I came to Venice with two extremes of what the Venice Biennale could be. In my mind, at its best, the Biennale would be a way to solve all the world’s problems, or at least point in those directions, by defining a new mode of communication outside of the usual rhetoric.

    I saw this in Danae, the Russian pavilion, where the evocation of myth creates a new relational language. While one might be thinking of money, corruption, and greed in relation to Russia, it only lasts a minute before you start thinking about the world. Myth allowed for an unconscious transfer of the universal to the particular, a freedom not afforded in some other pavilions.

    Welcome to Iraq, surprised me by how it managed to dislodge a concept of Iraqi-ness from the political turmoil on the home front. Taking the home as the point of departure, the pavilion opens a different way of relating to Iraq through the universal understanding of “home.” It breathes life into the discourse of Iraq, a space dominated and vigilantly occupied by politicians and the media.

    At the other end of my imagined continuum, the Biennale at its worst would be another transnational superstructure whose players are an elite milieu of cultural heavy hitters. The art would become a manifestation of internal, self-referential art-world politics, and of the geopolitical climate of the world. The art would be a mirror for the world’s problems; it would at once be politics and a metaphor for politics.

    Unfortunately, this is what I saw more of. The opening days, reserved for VIP’s, press, and other notables, seemed like the art world equivalent of an electro music festival. Swarms of cool artsy looking folk pavilion hopped around Venice. Cigarettes, coffee, and the occasional meal seemed to provide endless doses of energy to combat the late night hangover from previous evening’s yacht-scapades.

    Many pavilions took the biennale as a teaching moment about the home culture. There were the self-orientalizing pavilions like Bahrain and Indonesia where cultural tropes masqueraded as “art”. These pavilions did nothing short of begging the viewer to indulge in the voyeuristic position of power as they made fetishes of themselves.

    Honestly, I have no idea what Germany was doing. For some reason commissioning artists from different countries to show that making art in Germany is, “characterized by many layers of international cooperation” seems like a pretty weak thesis. I feel like I am standing in some kind of ruse, an Ai Weiwei smoke screen. I mean I hear Berlin is heaven for hipsters hailing from all corners of the world, but really?

    China’s Transfiguration does its usual thing of massive amounts of massive works where the viewer gets stuck on the connection between the quantity, craft, and China’s labor force.

    But, I must say, the pavilions that left me ambivalent and irritated were Romania and Chile. Both took the opportunity of participating in the biennale as a moment for a critique of the biennale, classic maneuver. Jaar’s Giardini rising from murky waters and the enacting of the history of the biennale from Romania formed a closed circuit of discourse.

    Well, we get it, nationalism is a problematic issue, and why still have a biennale formatted like a UN Conference or FIFA World Cup where its structure rides on the very “borders” it is supposedly trying to break down (the nation). However, Chile and Romania only ask that question on a perpetual loop without any possible solutions.

    My answer to my friend’s question remains that I really don’t know. All I know is that I wanted to see and feel something radical. I found the radical in the most unexpected places like the Palazzo Enciclopedico and When Attitudes Become Form.

    But with respects to the national pavilions, the format of nations has too much political smog and conceptual hufflepuff, it is too steeped in a particular history and particular generation of thinking that tastes bitterly of delusion. The format of nations outfitting themselves with artwork like arms or jerseys just ends up looking like a silicone, botox-ed out woman trying to stay relevant.

    Framing art within the structure of a nation completely negates one of the coolest things happening contemporarily which is how borders are actually irrelevant, those hanging on to it seem to be those holding the purse strings. The Venice Biennale seems to be in a kind of midcentury crisis.

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