in Frieze | 12 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

Below the Waterline

How are artists chosen to represent their country at the Venice Biennale? And to whose advantage?

in Frieze | 12 SEP 07

Venice is a city of concealments; that much is obvious. The gaudy carnevale masks say so, as does the ascending waterline. As, indeed, does the Venice Biennale. Behind each pavilion, nudged from the audience’s speculations by social mêlées, soporific aperitifs and a contagious anxiety that one is missing the really good stuff, is a winding saga: that of how and why the artists on show were commissioned. And to whose advantage? For while one hesitates to compare Venice to the Eurovision Song Contest, both can appear as continuations of politics by cultural means, the former simply cloaking the reality more assiduously.

So, for instance, while Serbia basks in a Eurovision triumph built on bloc voting by its neighbours, its pavilion in Venice this year murmurs of quieter manoeuvres. In preparing for the country’s first independent showing, Serbia’s Ministry of Culture jettisoned its previous commissioning body, the country’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, and installed painter and academic Vladimir Velickovic, who selected sculptor Mrdjan Bajic. ‘The ministry wanted someone more in tune with the times’, explains the pavilion’s curator, Maja Ciric, adding that ‘Serbia is looking for new ways of commissioning, with emphasis on avoiding any kind of monopoly; this we consider democratic.’1 (A Serbian culture minister had previously called MoCA’s perpetual authority ‘an inherited communist practice’.2) There was, however, extensive concern that the government had just ejected the people who knew how to liaise with the Biennale’s organizers – concern that allegedly turned to outcry when the ministry’s chosen replacements delivered a bathetic presentation crediting Bajic with another artist’s work.

But Bajic, whose projected presentation at Venice in 1993 fell foul of a cultural embargo imposed on the then warring country, is nevertheless a credible choice. And at least he’s there. Croatia initially fielded the video artist David Maljkovic, only for commissioner Zeljko Kipke to deselect him at the last moment – he supposedly didn’t like Maljkovic’s proposed installation but left him no time to change it – and parachute in Ivana Franke instead. (Seasoned Croatia-watchers may not be too surprised at this apparent power-gaming: something similar happened to Sanja Ivekovic at the 2002 São Paulo Biennial.)

In the US it’s all somewhat more dignified – on the surface, at least. Potential commissioners submit proposals to the State Department, which then filters them through various committees. The Guggenheim’s Nancy Spector, in successfully nominating Felix Gonzalez-Torres for this year’s US Pavilion, says she chose the late artist both for his legacy – ‘profoundly important to a generation of younger artists concerned with finding new modes of distribution and process-oriented aesthetic strategies’ – and because ‘his own response to the threat of the conservative right’s influence on American politics and the trumped-up patriotism engendered by the Persian Gulf War during the early 1990s seems uncannily prescient, given the current political climate in the US’.3 Given the selection’s entangling with a deeply right-wing US administration, though, Gonzalez-Torres may seem an improbable choice. Unless, however, one scents in the bigwigs’ support a flagrant appeal to gesture politics – a desperate mobilizing of dissenting art as a fig leaf over myriad deeply illiberal acts. Spector says she thinks not, but she appears from the outside to have played a smart game with a posse of anxious politicos.

Other countries, whose status at Venice is not so assured as that of the US, semaphore different messages through their shows. Invited to curate Turkey’s show through the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, Vasif Kortun selected Hüseyin Alptekin but, he says, ‘there are a number of pretty incredible artists in Turkey who will probably never get the opportunity to participate in a Venice Biennale’.4 Kortun’s priority is that, thanks to the insistence of the Biennale Director, Robert Storr, his country is for once participating in the core programme. Reflecting on its preceding exclusion, the commissioner treads carefully: ‘You have to realize the critical and deep history that runs through the Ottoman Empire and the Venetian Republic to the present times; there are few places whose histories are so deeply interwoven. This is as much as I can press the issue.’5 If the artist matters, representation matters more.

That’s certainly the impression given by the African Pavilion, where controversies have adhered to the choice of exhibition. Organized by Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami, the winning entrants in an open-submissions contest judged by an all-African jury, ‘Check List: Luanda Pop’, was curated from the collection of Angolan businessman Sindika Dokolo, around whose family have lately swirled allegations of embezzlement and involvement in Angola’s diamond trade. If these are not discountable, however, consider how many European and American collections were built on questionable funding; consider, also, whether these dubieties counts for more than the fact that a precedent has now been set, in the Venice Biennale, for African curators organizing their own shows of African art.

Clearly, if unsurprisingly, each country’s processes are inextricable from larger socio-political imperatives. While some participants are still trying to construct a roadworthy vehicle, others are looping around one track and looking to get on another, and still others are fine-tuning a polished performance. Certain developmental stages can seem, from the outside, like blissful interims for the assigned selectors. For the 51st Venice Biennale, for example, Hugh Mulholland mounted a well-received show of young artists from Northern Ireland for the country’s first presentation in the Biennale. For the 52nd, he submitted a proposal to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council for a Willie Doherty show – ‘simply because I respect and enjoy his work, and at the same time I felt it was appropriate that we acknowledge his achievements and the role he’s played in profiling Northern Irish practice internationally.’6 Not to denigrate Mulholland’s estimable curatorial skills, but the widely garlanded Doherty would, you imagine, be a shoo-in.

By comparison the British selection, made through discussions between the British Council and an advisory committee, implies the delicate negotiation of diverse imperatives. According to the eventual commissioner, Andrea Rose, this year’s selection of Tracey Emin resulted from the committee being asked ‘to be as Catholic as possible in relation to the term “British”; to think about whether we are basically confirming history or making it; to think about the nature of the British Pavilion itself; and to remember that the pavilion is only one part of a much larger international show. It really needs to be someone who can stand up to a huge, circus-like event. It’s not a question of picking the best artist, if there is such a thing, but the one who, in the circumstances, is best able to represent Britain at this particular moment.’7

In the Giardini the consequence of this sphere of nuance and anticipation nestles close to the Russian Pavilion; in other senses, however, the countries’ respective approaches seem worlds apart. The formidable commissioner, Olga Sviblova, has pulled together a pan-generational group of artists concerned with ‘the problem of individual self-determination in a world where communication currents […] have become immensely dense.’8 But she’s also had to be a fundraiser: the official moneys were ‘not even sufficient to partly restore the pavilion, which was in a terrible condition.’ Now, among the handful of Russian artists – all presenting digital and video-based works – is Julia Milner, an ex-model who has had little exposure in the art scene in Russia or elsewhere. In these circumstances, however, Milner delivers the goods: she’s married to a wealthy Russian oil man. ‘You can talk as much as you like about pure art’, Sviblova told one journalist prior to the show’s opening, ‘but without material support contemporary high-technology projects cannot be carried out.’9 And there, rising from the lagoon in its least glamorous guise, is the hard-nosed politicking on which this Biennale is built.

1 Email correspondence with the author, May 2007
2 Serbia’s Assistant Minister of Culture, Vladimir Tomcic, quoted by South East Europe Culture Portal
3 Email correspondence with the author, May 2007
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Telephone conversation with the author, May 2007
8 Email correspondence with the author, May 2007
9 Interview with Art Times, May 2007, translated by Russian art website Izo