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Issue 226

How Venice’s National Pavilions Complicate the Notion of Citizenship

With the spotlight at the Venice Biennale falling all-too-often on the 30 national pavilions in the Giardini, writer Jennifer Higgie asks whether this 19th-century format still makes sense

BY Jennifer Higgie in Thematic Essays | 23 MAR 22

It was 1995. Fresh from art school, I was working as a volunteer for the Australian Pavilion at the 46th Venice Biennale. On the walls hung the work of the artist Bill Henson: ravaged, moody photographs of naked, ‘heroin-chic’ youths making out amid car wrecks (Untitled, 1994–95). I was on the front desk when a jolly American couple barrelled up, vocal in their love for Henson and excited to see the show. They entered but were back in minutes, blinking in the bright Venetian sun, loudly shocked at the direction the artist’s practice had taken since his work with The Muppets (1955–ongoing). I had no idea what they were talking about, until I remembered the name of the show’s creator: Jim Henson.

That a couple might assume the inventor of an American children’s puppet show could represent Australia at a bluechip event dedicated to contemporary art says a lot about expectations at the Venice Biennale: namely, that there are none. This is, by a long way, a good thing: uniformity is the death-knell of art; creativity blooms free of constraints or expectations. I’ve now been to 14 iterations of the Venice Biennale and can honestly say that it’s impossible to generalize about it: you spend three or so days running from show to show until everything blurs into a hungover mess of exhaustion, exhilaration and cultural confusion. That the morning after is always shot through with an all-too acute awareness of the depths of your ignorance about what’s happening in parts of the world you’ve never been to doesn’t make it any easier.

Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, 1962. Courtesy and photograph:  ke E:son Lindman, 2010
Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, 1962. Courtesy and photograph: © Åke E:son Lindman

Each biennial I’ve visited has involved at least one, often heated, late-night discussion about the role of national pavilions. The argument usually goes like this: those against declare that the idea of representing your country as an artist is a flag-waving, art-washing anachronism that – however well-intentioned – inevitably reiterates antiquated notions of nationalism and colonialism. Those in favour tend to argue the opposite: that the biennial is a chance for countries to properly interrogate (a word that returns, ever-more battered, every two years) anything from geo-politics to individual and collective complicity in … well, take your pick. When a nation invites an artist who hails from elsewhere to represent them – something that occurs more and more frequently – the debate rages on: it’s condemned as a meaningless gesture fuelled by clickbait or lauded as an honest attempt to explore, or complicate, the notion of borders from a fresh angle. As with so many arguments, there are elements of truth in all these positions.

What is unequivocal is that the biennial has an in-built hierarchy: only 30 pavilions, more than half of which represent European countries, are in the Giardini di Castello – the gardens that are the focal point of the show. To see everything else – dozens of official, unofficial and ancillary exhibitions staged at the Arsenale, in museums, rented palaces, spaces and studios across the city – involves long treks through the labyrinth that is La Serenissima. This requires determination, a certain level of mobility, good navigational skills and an empathic frame of mind. With so much competition, it’s inevitable that quiet, nuanced or underfunded pavilions are often overlooked: high-profile artists supported by powerful commercial galleries, the most robust PR campaigns and the best opening-night parties invariably get the most visitors.

Zanele Muholi, Faniswa, Seapoint, Cape Town, 2016, black and white photograph. Courtesy: the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg
Zanele Muholi, Faniswa, Seapoint, Cape Town, 2016, black and white photograph. Courtesy: © the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg

That everyone, it seems, wants to show at the Venice Biennale is because it’s the longest-running – and, arguably, the most prestigious – art exhibition in the world. It was inaugurated in 1895 with a large group show titled ‘Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Citta di Venezia’ (First International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice) in the newly built, neo-classical Palazzo dell’Esposizione (Exhibition Hall) in the Giardini. The exhibition featured artists from Italy and 14 other countries; they were invited by a committee assembled by Riccardo Selvatico, then mayor of Venice, who was also a poet and playwright. While no doubt hopeful that the biennial would attract much-needed funds for the city, in his official announcement he also stressed the philosophical underpinning of the endeavour, declaring that it would affirm the city’s ‘faith in the moral energies of our nation, and […] all the noblest activities of the modern spirit, without any distinction of nationality’. Despite his sentiments, the biggest hit of the show was scandalous: Giacomo Grosso’s monumentally lascivious painting Supremo convegno (The Final Tryst, 1895), which depicts five young, garlanded and naked women draped over their dead lover’s coffin.

Attended by an astonishing 224,000 visitors, seemingly overnight, Venice – so ancient, so dreamy – was transformed into a laboratory for the future. Until 1905, the Palazzo dell’Esposizione (later renamed Pro Arte, then Italia) was the biennial’s main venue but, as the exhibition grew, foreign countries were invited to build their own pavilions in the gardens. The Art Nouveau Belgian Pavilion was the first to be erected in 1907. It was followed by the Hungarian, German and British Pavilions in 1909; the French, Swedish and Dutch in 1912; and the Russian in 1914. In 1932, the Palazzo dell’Esposizione became the Italian Pavilion; now, along with the huge Arsenale – previously the site of Venice’s shipbuilding – it’s the main venue for the international exhibition curated by the biennial’s artistic director.

The Absence of Paths, 2017
The Absence of Paths, 'universal travel document', 2017. Courtesy: © Kamel Lazaar Foundation 

When Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, the role of the Venice Biennale turned as murky as canal water; it was infiltrated by the fascist government, whose members sat on committees and controlled the funding, filling the exhibition with right-wing propaganda and grandiose portraits of Il Duce (The Leader). World War II saw it close, but it reopened in 1948 with a Pablo Picasso retrospective and a clear intention to showcase the best of contemporary art – something that remains undimmed today. Echoing the utopian ambitions of the postwar biennial, new pavilions sprang up – architectural counterarguments to the earlier, often more bombastic buildings. Particularly memorable are Gerrit Thomas Rietveld’s minimalist 1953 Dutch Pavilion, which replaced the original 1912 version; Alvar and Elissa Aalto’s small, shimmering blue design for the Finnish Pavilion of 1956; and Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion of 1962 which, with three trees at its centre, is a space seemingly held together with air and light.

It bears reiterating that showcasing ‘the best’ is a tricky, and culturally relative, proposition that begs bigger questions not only around the function of the biennial but the function of art. Does it really make sense, for instance, to stage exhibitions exploring the impact of climate change that themselves actively encourage air travel and waste? Does every biennial really foster greater understanding between nations or is it simply a vast Western-centric trade fair for the very rich, who love the fact that they can park their super-yacht next to the Giardini? Is the biennial a measure of the zeitgeist or does the idea of a zeitgeist run counter to the localism – which is, by nature, idiosyncratic – that lies at the heart of the national pavilions? Does all of this really start, stimulate or conclude a conversation or is it too cacophonous for anyone to be really heard, too kaleidoscopic for anything to be really seen? Are artists the canaries in the coal mine or are they the coal mine itself?

Diaspora Pavilion, 2017. Courtesy: Kimathi Donkor, Barby Asante and International Curators Forum
Diaspora Pavilion, 2017. Courtesy: © Kimathi Donkor, Barby Asante and International Curators Forum

The answer to these questions is a work in progress: we’re at a moment in time when art, its function and the ways in which it can be made or shown is evolving so fast it’s hard to keep up. But the possibilities are endless – and, as with so much, the past can guide us. Take, for example, 1993. It was my first time in Venice and the only installation I clearly recall is Hans Haacke’s literally ground-breaking German pavilion, which he re-titled ‘Germania’: the name given by Adolf Hitler to his plans for a new Berlin. Above the main doorway was a spotlit, plastic reproduction of a Deutsche Mark coin. Inside, Haacke – who, in his 1995 text ‘Gondola! Gondola!’, described international art events as the manifestation of a ‘desire for a global love-in’ – placed a towering black and white photograph of Hitler and Mussolini inscribed: ‘La Biennale di Venezia 1934’ – the place and year Hitler and Mussolini met for the first time and exchanged fascist salutes in its entrance hall. In 1938, Hitler ordered the pavilion to be rebuilt to a design by the architect Ernst Haiger; 55 years year later, Haacke had the marble floor smashed to smithereens. As we scrambled across the rubble, it creaked and groaned with each precarious step and, in one fell swoop, the references piled up: Caspar David Friedrich’s ode to a desolate landscape, The Sea of Ice (1823–24); the vulnerability of our bodies in the face of state power; the cities and lives blasted to bits on the orders of maniacal men; and the uneasy and ever-present relationship between art and power. In a 2012 roundtable at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Okwui Enwezor, then director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, declared that Haacke was the first artist to use a pavilion as a ‘contested space of enquiry’ and acknowledged the impact the pavilion had on the development of his own thinking around nationhood, art and activism. Enwezor goes on to note: ‘The German pavilion, its history and its reconstruction in 1938 by the Nazis became the instrument […] for this inquiry into this instability of the space of the nation.’ Three years later, Enwezor was appointed artistic director of the 55th Venice Biennale, ‘All the World’s Futures’. I remember how the focus of the show – cultural change, historical rupture, political turmoil, the failures of capitalism – resonated in many of the national pavilions that year.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019, opera-performance documentation. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Andrej Vasilenko
Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019, opera-performance documentation. Courtesy: © the artists; photograph: Andrej Vasilenko

This year, 81 countries are represented at the Venice Biennale, including inaugural shows from Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman and Uganda. If the entire world were to show up, there would be 195 participating nations, so there’s still some way to go. Recent years have seen, at last, greater representation of artists from Asia and Africa, as well as far greater gender parity. The fact that each pavilion is commissioned independently means that Venice becomes a weird sort of international snapshot: repressive governments merrily art-wash, while liberal ones trumpet their credentials by commissioning artists who, if not quite prepared to bite the hand that feeds them, are at least happy to mess up what biting, hands and feeding might mean. In this respect, it’s important to reiterate that a biennial is not like the Olympics, where an athlete performs for their country because they’re the swiftest or strongest: art is, of course, a messy endeavour and one that is, to a certain degree, unquantifiable. This is why I’m in favour of national pavilions. At best, they complicate the idea of what it means to come from somewhere – and they do it via the infinite possibilities of the imagination. Uniformity – the hallmark of nationalism – is trumped by difference.

Looking back over the biennials I’ve visited, I think of Roman Ondak rewilding the Czech and Slovak Pavilion (Loop, 2009) and Steve McQueen’s films of Venetian gardens in winter for the British Pavilion (Giardini, 2009). I remember drinking tea with artists in a group show at the Iraqi Pavilion and talking with them about how art is a beacon of hope and sanity in a war zone (Welcome to Iraq, 2013). I recall Joan Jonas’s hallucinatory US Pavilion, which was inspired by the nature writings of the late Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness (They Come to Us without a Word, 2015). I also remember, in 2017, the Tunisian collective The Absence of Paths taking my fingerprints and issuing me with a ‘universal travel document’ that was inscribed with words by the 13th-century Persian poet and Islamic scholar Rumi: ‘I didn’t come here of my own accord / and I can’t leave that way.’ I think of the power of Zanele Muholi’s portraits of Black lesbians in the South African Pavilion in 2015 (‘Faces and Phases’, 2006–ongoing); and the Lithuanian Pavilion’s trippy climate-change opera, Sun & Sea (Marina) (2019).

Bill Henson, Untitled, 1994–95, C-type photograph, adhesive tape, pins, glassine, 2.5   2.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
Bill Henson, Untitled, 1994–95, C-type photograph, adhesive tape, pins, glassine, 2.5 x 2.4 m. Courtesy: © the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

I have been privileged to witness so many wondrous things in pavilions that have challenged, inspired and educated me; it would require more space than I have here to list them all. Artists representing their countries have explored, from myriad angles, failed states, state violence, the refugee crisis, Indigenous rights, climate change, the poetics of being human, the uses of absurdity, the importance of humour, the symbolic power of animals and how to recover from a broken heart. Gender, sexuality, race and class, uncertainty and collapse, the role of the unconscious, the mutability of materials, the spiritualism of abstraction, the ravages and solaces of religion, the hell of the past, the possibilities of the future and the nourishment of looking at the overlooked – all have had their day in Venice, in paintings, performances, videos, sound works, installations, sculptures and more. At best, riches are revealed; at worst, meaning is inflated and hyperbole glorified. As Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director of the 53rd Venice Biennale, wrote in his catalogue essay in 2009: ‘Perhaps art can be one way out of a world ruled by levelling impulses and dull sameness. Can each artwork be a principle of hope and an intriguing plan for escape?’

Only an ingenue would believe that the art world is a liberal, left-leaning, inclusive, non-profit, vegan, refugee-supporting, anti-racist, class-blind utopia. It’s not. It’s a hot mess funded by a carnivorous mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, and this is nowhere more obvious than in the opening days of the Venice Biennale. Every two years, oligarchs and arms dealers, dodgy officials, white-collar criminals and thinly veiled dictators rub shoulders with artists, writers, museum directors, curators and gallerists over Bellini cocktails in canalside palaces. Blink, and you might assume everyone was on the same side. They’re not: even a shared passport doesn’t necessarily imply kinship. If anything unites everyone, it’s this: whoever they are and whatever the cut of their jib, they’re using art for something – be that to find solace or to show off; to make sense of the world or to rip it to shreds; to engage in serious discussion and promote tolerance or to broker a new money-making deal; to encourage tourism or to have fun. That’s the weird magic of this shape-shifting language we call art: it can be whatever you want it to be, wherever you are. National pavilions are only bricks and mortar.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘States in Progress’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Roman Ondak, Loop, 2009, Czech and Slovak Pavilion, 53rd Venice Biennale. Courtesy: © the artist

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.