May You Live in Interesting Times
As occurs every odd year or so, visual art works are scattered around the islands of Venice, Italy for public viewing. La Biennale di Venezia was founded by the Venice City Council in 1895 at a time when Expo shows, designed to show the achievements of the nations, were still popular and were intended for selling technology and machinery. They were very much the product of the atmosphere created by the Industrial Revolution and the expansionist times that made it possible. One of the initial goals of the Biennale was to get contemporary art going on the art market but today, in line with what is considered to be appropriate, the sale takes place at, for example, Art Basel, a month after the preview days of the Biennale. Due to the funding structure of the Biennale it is almost impossible, in many cases, for artists to participate in the exhibitions without the support of a major gallery and/or collectors.
At first the Venice Biennale was an art exhibition mostly showing Italian artists. It became an instant success drawing international attention with the first national pavilion, Belgium, opening its doors in 1907 in the Giardini park, where the Biennale was originally held and that still is one of the two main venues. The history of the Biennale and the changes it has undergone has very much been in tune with the political history of the 20th-century and the parallel developments within contemporary art. The Biennale has been an important instrument to introduce and position art from areas and nations from outside the main European powerhouse in the very center. Thus, it has served an important role in expanding the area of activity of contemporary art from being narrowly defined as belonging to Europe’s largest nations and, later, New York. As a national pavilion Iceland participated for the first time sixteen years after it became an independent nation in 1960 but it was not until 1982 that it became a regular participant. Prior to 1982, several Icelandic artists had participated in the pavilions of the other Nordic countries who continued to assist after 1982 by opening and closing the Icelandic pavilion that, due to lack of funding, had nobody to sit over the exhibition. That arrangement was not flawless and when, for example, Steina Vasulka took part in 1997, the pavilion was open less than a week because the equipment to show her video art stopped running. Iceland still does not have any fixed pavilion but has been placed at various locations and still has a long way to go to get comparable financial support from the Icelandic state as the pavilions of the other Nordic countries.
The international exhibition, today located in the original Giardini Biennale pavilion and at the Arsenale port, became established in 1972 with a specific main theme and a head-curator. While the phenomenon of a national pavilion has been increasingly criticized in parallel with criticism of nationalistic philosophies and enterprises, the international exhibition has become more important. Sigurður Guðmundsson, Ragnar Kjartansson and Ólafur Elíasson are the few Icelandic artists that have been included in the main exhibition. Therefore, this year’s controversial participation of Icelandic-Swiss artist Christoph Büchel is a significant happening for the Icelandic art scene. His participation is part of a complex and multi-layered process piece that began last year at the Manifesta Biennale in Sicily. The part that appears in the Venice Biennale is the shipwreck Barca Nostra or Our Ship. It is a small fishing boat that sank in the Mediterranean in 2015 with almost a thousand refugees drowning as they were stuck in the small ship hold. The wreck is located at the sandwich bar of the Arsenale where guests sit down and chat and enjoy the sunshine while viewing the beautiful fortified Medieval buildings of the port and naval area that laid the foundation for Venice’s commercial and military fortunes. Venice was after all the first international financial center and it was in this period that the Venetian Murano glass beads travelled as world trade currency all over the world to become indigenous peoples’ material of choice for crafting jewellery. By underlining the age old co-operation between merchants and the military in European expansion and domination, the magnificent Arsenale becomes a stark reminder on how Europeans’ exploitation of world resources has enriched Europe’s cultural and economic life up to the present.
It is not surprising that Büchel’s Barca Nostra has been a provocation to many. As a rule, he never places a name tag or explanations near to his works and this procedure has been very much critiqued in the case of the shipwreck. Critical voices have repeatedly mentioned it as the reason why the work is not functioning in the way what they suppose is the artist’s intention. The Ugandan writer Siima Itabazza, for example, created a petition on change.org requesting that the wreck be removed on the grounds that no context is provided near the work. She maintains that by doing so, the boat is reduced to an object, an attraction to stop by and a background for selfies. For sure, the location supports this kind of viewing. The shipwreck fits perfectly into the environment which is still in use as a shipping route. Indeed, it wasn’t really until the word spread out that the ship was Büchel’s work that people started talking about it as an art piece. But word-of-mouth has long been a part of the mechanism of contemporary art, and most works actually live most of their lives as stories. According to Büchel himself, the reason for not including a label and/or explanations is that he does not want the character and reputation of the artist to draw attention from the work itself. At a venue such as the Venice Biennale, where reputation of artists plays a major role, the lack of a label can be put into context. The quantity of works are so overwhelming that people read explanations and labels in a hurry and take in the aesthetics and function of the works in a very quick way. In such a situation, the works should work instantly with the help of the label. What happens to an audience’s criticality in such a situation? Is it the responsibility of the artist and curator to explain the work instantly or could it be the responsibility of the audience to take the time to study more complex and multi-layered works, the context of its location and reception? This can certainly be debated. The reception of some of the audience to the work, as first and foremost an object that should be appreciated without familiarizing oneself with the context, is very revealing. Dramatic words have been used where the character of the artist has been dragged through the mud and the work been condemned as horrifying, disgusting and inappropriate. It is, to some extent, understandable. As Siima Itabazza points out, many used the boat, the mass grave, as a backdrop for selfies and spoke about it as an object, its colors and form. In light of this, one may ask whether this disclosure is not exactly the intended function of the work, how the work is interpreted, and how it is discussed. It functioned as a mirror to the Biennale itself and its guests, the beneficiaries of the world privileges. After all explanations of today’s wars, economic degradation, political persecution, and global warming disasters – the main reasons for people to flee – can be traced back to European expansion and the subsequent industrial revolution.
In this case, however, one cannot ignore who Christoph Büchel is. He is a white European, middle-aged male artist who is represented by a major contemporary art gallery. The fact that he himself belongs to a group of privileged people cannot be avoided. It is not possible to write a critique of Barca Nostra without considering what has been named in post-colonial critique as the white man’s burden and the later version, the white man’s help complex that is considered to be a continuation of the colonial thought. Siima Itabazza points out that because of who the artist is the work cannot be seen as anything else than a continuation of white violence against blacks and the self-appointed right to appropriate bodies and the death of black people for consumption of their audience. Thus, although Büchel tries, the work cannot be independent of its creator. In socially critical works, the status of the artist himself must always be taken into consideration. What is his status? Is he talking for himself or for the ‘other’ or maybe both? What structures are there in place that give him the power to speak for ‘others’? How is his co-operation with this ‘other’ happening? What does it say about the structures that control visibility within the art world? Who are being listened to? Who gets the attention? On what grounds? About whom is art history being written? Who is showing? Who can show you? According to the catalog, collaborators are, among others, Arci Porco Rosso, an association of young left activists in Palermo who have been assisting asylum seekers and refugees. Three refugees receive a special thanks. They are Batch Mballow, Amadou Niang and Kamal El Karkouri. The writer of this article indeed met Amadou Niang along with Icelandic collaborators of the production team, on a church square in Palermo last summer, where they had set up a table and were presenting the project to the citizens and seeking to finance the project by citizen participation.
When considering the work, another related question arises regarding the right to show a mass grave. When is a place or an object a mass grave that belongs primarily to the relatives of the victims of the tragedy, and when does it become appropriate for the mass grave to become a symbol or monument for a larger group? Where does the line lie? There are other examples of mass-grave attractions, both in Auschwitz and in Chernobyl, to mention well known examples within Europe. As this is being written, the elections for the European Union Parliament have recently been completed with the well-intended propaganda of those who want to keep Europe united in peace and co-operation. It is, however, not entirely a happy story. Peace in Europe and economic co-operation has been at the expense of those outside these borders. Refugees – mostly children – continue to die in masses at the border even though the attention of mainstream-media has been directed elsewhere. The increasing representation of right-wing populism and fascists in European parliaments ensures that Europe’s ocean border will become even tighter in the near future. What has been said to be the so-called solution to the refugee problem has, in fact, meant that thousands of people have drowned in the Mediterranean or died on drifting boats that no one comes to rescue despite seafarer signals being send out. The Mediterranean has become the world’s most dangerous border and, in fact, a massive oceanic grave. Yet, tourists continue to enjoy the ocean and take selfies with the beautiful mass grave as a backdrop. The largest reason for those deaths is that Italian authorities and the European Union have found a number of ways to make rescue operations a criminal act and many who have acted according to the law, now face many years of imprisonment. To make things worse, the European Union has supported the Libyanese government in making it easier for them to catch people on the run, whether at sea or on land. This is happening despite the fact that it has been confirmed by the United Nations that refugees stuck in Libya are becoming, more often than not, victims of the slave trade and there is even talks about organized crime with organ trade. This has been going on without the interference of relevant international organizations, but the latest news is that a group of human rights lawyers have now sued the European Union for the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity or, in other words, for direct responsibility for the death of these people. The Venice Biennale, which takes place on these borders, is not only visited by human rights activists, but brings together all kinds of people who have in common to belong to the privileged group of the world. While these visitors are generally liberal and condemn hard attitudes towards refugees, it cannot be overlooked that these same people are the power-elite of Europe, whether we look at it in respect to having direct power or as the effects of wealth or knowledge, education and position in society.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt of the fact that, like the art market in general, the Venice Biennale has been a white man’s playground. The Icelandic participation is no exception. After a long series of male artists participating, it was in 1997 that the first Icelandic female artist, Steina Vasulka, who had revolutionized video art two decades earlier, represented Iceland. In the 21st century, Rúri and Gabríela Friðriksdóttir have also participated, and later, Libia Castro as part of the artist-duo Ólafsson/Castro, and finally Katrín Sigurðardóttir. Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir is the sixth woman to represent Iceland while over twenty male artists have been given the opportunity. With Iceland being known for statistically being world champions of equal gender opportunities it is not surprising that it attracted a great deal of attention when Ralph Rugoff, this years curator of the main exhibition, made an artist list public, revealing that over 50% of the artists participating were people who do not define themselves as male. In this way, the curator took a step in the spirit of the historical role of the Biennale to expand the scope of contemporary art, this time going against the gender boundary of the art market. This article will come to an end with a series of works by some of these non-male artists that drew the attention of the journalist.
Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra by the sandwich bar in the Arsenale.
The Swiss sculptor Carol Bove was this years’ discovery of the journalist. Her sculptures are a twist of the clean lines of modernistic sculptures where she uses the aesthetic and semiotics of the dent, the bend, the pull, the roll, the squeeze and other types of transformative actions as her own language. The color palette creates the illusion that the steel she uses is really soft and flexible material and the sculptures demand that ones’ body, eyes and mind glide around the work.
Nabuqi is a young Chinese artist that also uses steel in her work but in a different way. She uses found objects and creates stages where she plays with simulations in an artistic research on how we connect to our environment. In the work Destination from 2018 she uses an advertising billboard with a photoshopped picture of a paradise decorated with palm trees but also with fake plants in a work that plays with the interplay of fantasy and simulations. Promises are given without the opportunity to be able to fulfil them.
Zanele Muholi´s works Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness stole the attention of the journalist in the Arsenale part. They were installed as giant wallpapers and scattered around the exhibition area while in the Giardini they were shown as smaller framed photographs. Zanele prefers to be called a visual activist rather than an artist and identifies as non-binary. Their work looks at race, sexuality and gender by focusing on the black LGBT community. In their work Muholi exaggerates the blackness in their skin color and in doing that, reclaims their own ‘blackness’ that is constantly being played out or performed by others.
The Murano glass sculpture of the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga in the Arsenale was an interesting investigation into a local raw material that played an important part in the colonial trade history. It reminded the journalist of Otobong’s work about the glimmering mica material at the Berlin Biennale in 2014. Mica is the material that made the church towers of Europe glow in the sun while in her home country it made the ground glitter. As the journalist has been seeing a lot of installation and sculptural work of Otobong in the last few years it was a pleasure to see Otobong’s works drawn on paper in the Giardini part. Otobong’s contribution won a special jury prize together with the work of Mexican artist Teresa Margolles.
The Silver Lion went to a young artist the jury considers very promising:
Haris Epaminonda. Haris (39) is originally from Cyprus but is based in Berlin. The work VOL. XXVII. is a new installation in mixed media in which she mixes found objects, both artistic and every day, and spins a web of meaning that is both personal and historical but always ambiguous.
Another artist that is based in Berlin is the well-known Hito Steyrl, professor at UdK art school and representative of Germany in the Biennale in 2015. Since then, her renown has risen fast with her name coming up in a variety of contexts. Her work at this years’ biennale is similar in form as her work in the past years, a complex multi-channel video installation where emphasis is laid on the structure of the installations. Her new work in Giardini, This is the Future, takes over an entire room; her other new work, Leonardo´s submarine, found in the Arsenale, is smaller in scope. Both installations appear at first glance as kitsch pictures which is no surprise as the images are shaped by an algorithm that is reminiscent of amateur photo filters. In the Arsenale, Hito puts forward a question about what role artificial intelligence will play in our future lives with a giant structure that refers to the walking path structures that are put up when floods take over Venice. In the Giardini, the audience, on the other hand, sits on few one-seat benches inside a small 3-channel video installation where she considers the connection between Venice and Italy in the past and present militaries.
Hulda Rós Guðnadóttir
Photocredits: Hulda Rós Guðnadóttir
Cover picture: Bather by Carol Bove, May You Live in Interesting Times, Venice Biennale 2019.
The 58th Venice Biennial is open until November the 14th, 2019.