BY Ivana Cholakova AND Angel Lambo in Opinion | 12 APR 24

How Have Artists Challenged Notions of Citizenship at the Venice Biennale?

Considering this year’s title, ‘Foreigners Everywhere', we look back at how artists have addressed entrenched ideas of nationhood with bold, and at times comical, interventions

BY Ivana Cholakova AND Angel Lambo in Opinion | 12 APR 24

The Sámi Pavilion (2022)

Since 1963, the Nordic Pavilion has been a collaborative effort shared by Norway, Sweden and Finland. The Office for Contemporary Art Norway, Moderna Museet in Sweden and Kiasma Finnish National Gallery each take turns as lead commissioner. However, in a historic first in 2022, the Nordic Pavilion was transformed into the Sámi Pavilion. This shift allowed Sámi artists – Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara and Anders Sunna – to represent a borderless territory of Arctic Europe, transcending the boundaries of the three modern countries. The exhibition, generally well-received by the press and visitiors, provided the artists with a platform to address pressing issues such as climate change, self-determination and land rights on a global stage. Although the Sámi Pavilion has not returned this year, 2022 is still regarded as a symbolic win for the decolonial project. 

Anders Sunna, Illegal Spirits of Sapmi, 2022
Anders Sunna, ‘Illegal Spirits of Sápmi’, 2022, exhibition view, Sámi Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and the Office for Contemporary Art Norway; photograph: Michael Miller

Laure Prouvost, ‘deep see blue surrounding you’ (2019)

The world is underwater. Glossy seafoam-blue floors hold detritus from a former, dystopian reality: eggshells, old phones and cigarette butts lie among delicate Venetian glass sculptures of sea creatures – their gaze immobile yet piercing. We are swimming in the deliciously uncanny subconscious of Laure Prouvost. ‘deep see blue surrounding you’ recasts the French pavilion as a surrealist theatre and its main attraction is They Parlaient Idéale (2019), a fictional short film that documents a performance troupe’s expedition from Paris to Venice. The eclectic imaginings which wash across the screen – a giant pink octopus leisurely moving his tentacles across the sea floor is interspersed with absurdist episodes of people throwing up lettuce heads or using aloe vera plants as makeshift horns – can potentially distract from Prouvost’s real commentary: the focus on migration and the ambiguity of identity once a person crosses a border. The dialogue, too, is often veiled and whispered like incantations in English and French, with overlapping slips into Italian, Arabic and Dutch.

deep see blue surrounding you
Laure Prouvost, Deep See Blue Surrounding You (Vois ce bleu profond te fondre (extraits)), 2019, installation view. Courtesy: © Galerie Nathalie Obadia, carlier | gebauer and Lisson Gallery

In the basement of the pavilion, however, Prouvost sought out a more literal journey. Like a mischievous sibling, she began to dig a hole to the neighbouring British pavilion – a symbol of European solidarity in defiance of the then recently-passed Brexit vote. In the dreamscape world of ‘deep see blue surrounding you’, nationality is rendered obsolete, borders are fluid and cultures more interconnected.

Mike Nelson, ‘I, Impostor’ (2011)

After navigating a maze of corridors, a tangle of courtyards and a few creaky staircases, visitors are eventually embraced by a claustrophobic red glow from a photographer’s darkroom. Contrary to first impressions, this is not a minimalist haunted house but Mike Nelson’s disorientating installation for the British Pavilion, ‘I, Impostor’. For three months, Nelson toiled away to transform the Neoclassical space into the Büyük Valide Han, the historic 17th-century traveller’s inn in Istanbul which housed his original darkroom installation for the 2003 Istanbul Biennial. ‘I, Imposter’ was an astounding reconstruction of that show – the rooms of the Han, photographer’s studio and all.

Mike Nelson, 'I, Imposter', 2011
Mike Nelson, 'I, Imposter', 2011, installation view, British Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist and the British Council; photograph: Cristiano Corte

Nelson’s project aimed to remind audiences of Venice and Istanbul’s intertwined pasts: as major trading powers, both cities bridged the East with the West. Within the pavilion, Venetian tourist kitsch is interlaced with orientalist finery: found objects such as packages and posters bearing Turkish writing complement the Venetian architecture and metalwork outside. By focusing on the similarities shared by the two cities, the exhibition emphasized how fluid the structures are that give a city – or nation – its identity.

‘The Absence of Paths’ (2015)

After a break of more than fifty years, Tunisia returned to Venice in 2015 without an artist in tow. Instead, three passport issuance kiosks were erected around the city. The offer? The world! Or at least a chance to imagine visa-free travel across it. Once a visitor has filled in the application form and put a circle around ‘home’ (Hint: you circle the whole Earth), a friendly immigration officer presents a blue Universal Travel Document, or Freesa, which is then authorized with an inky thumbprint – ‘officially’ making visitors a citizen of the world. Its organizers described the exhibition as a ‘human performance’ whereby those who chose to collect a Freesa were engaging in a silent protest against arbitrary state-based sanctions that severely impact people’s ability to travel.

The Absence of Paths
‘The Absence of Paths’, installation view, 2017, Tunisian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Image via The Absence of Paths

The sad irony is that, typically, the types of visitors in Venice – especially during opening week – tend to have the most freedom of movement, but maybe this sort of optimistic, or naïve, stunt pulling is best to swallow and enjoy whole than to chew on piecemeal. By the close of the biennale some months later, a staggering 57,000 Freesas had been issued. A joyful attempt to revert the idea of migration, citizenship and travel into something to be celebrated again.

Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana, ‘My East Is Your West’ (2015)

Where politics and international diplomacy fail, art always finds a denouement. Undeterred by ongoing geopolitical tensions, India and Pakistan united to represent the Indian subcontinent by selecting Shilpa Gupta from Mumbai and Rashid Rana from Lahore as their exhibiting artists. Their pavilion, titled ‘My East is Your West’, aimed to explore the shared history and cartography of South Asia.

Shilpa Gupta, 998.9, 2015
Shilpa Gupta, 998.9, 2017, performance view, Indian and Pakistani Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Mark Blower

In the four years leading up to the show, Gupta focused on a series of works that researched the Indian-Bangladesh barrier, the longest border fence in the world. Utilizing photography, archival documents and video, Gupta’s project delved into the complexities of this barrier. However, it was her performance, 1.998.9 (2015), that resonated most profoundly. In this piece, rotating performers took turns to sit at a heavy writing desk, covering a 3,364-metre length of cloth with indigo lines. This cloth symbolized the barbed-wire fence that separates the historically united communities in India and Bangladesh, stretching 3,360 kilometres.

Rashid Rana, Asl-e shuhuud-o-shaahid-mashhhuud (The Viewing, The Viewer, and the Viewed), 2015, installation view,  single channel projection. Courtesy: the artist and Lisson

Equally thought-provoking on the themes of citizenship and identity was Rana’s live video feed. A room in the 17th-century Palazzo which hosted the pavilion was replicated in a market in Lahore. A two-way live feed was set up between the sites allowing passersby in both locations to interact with each other at any given moment. This bridged the distance, collapsed borders and transcended nationalities, as strangers shared moments of laughter, song and dance with one another – turning ‘the other’ into a brother.

French and German Pavilions (2013)

German Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia  Photo: Jens Ziehe, 2022
German Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia, 2022. Courtesy: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen; photo: Jens Ziehe

In honour of the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty – a treaty of friendship between France and West Germany – the German and French pavilions swapped locations for the 55th Venice Biennale. As pavilions often assume embassy-like roles at Venice, it was intriguing to see them challenge the Biennale model by use of space. For France, Anri Sala created two films inspired by the music and musicianship of 20th-century composer Maurice Ravel. In a pointed break with tradition, Germany chose to showcase non-German artists Romuald Karmakar, Santu Mofokeng, Dayanita Singh and Ai Weiwei; three of whom were not even residents of the country. Nevertheless, there were no linked collaborative efforts among the chosen artists, and neither pavilion took the opportunity to explore the potential of being in a new space. A missed opportunity perhaps?

Main image: Laure Prouvost, Deep See Blue Surrounding You (Vois ce bleu profond te fondre (extraits)), 2019, installation view. Courtesy: © Galerie Nathalie Obadia, carlier | gebauer and Lisson Gallery

Ivana Cholakova is a writer and editorial assistant at frieze. She lives in London, UK.

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.