Venice Bienniale, Venice
09.05.15 – 22.11.15
The Venice Biennale is an apparatus in the production and affirmation of national and imperial identities. From its early beginnings in 1895 as a national showcase of Italian art, intended to celebrate the then monarchy, to a steady increase in scale and participation to include other recognised economic and artistic powers as diplomatic relations fluctuate. It is a visible register of current nationalistic fervour in the West. Furthermore, to this day many pavilions still follow the 19th-century model of platforming a single chosen artist with the notion of origin of ultimate importance. It has come to symbolise, as JJ Charlesworth puts it in a recent article, ‘a great united nations of art’. 1 The national pavilion artist, it is implied, represents something of the interests and concerns of a nation as a whole – the outsider figure of the artist put to service as the unlikely generic figure of its citizenry.
As the biennale rolls on and the tourists travel with ease to partake in its splendour, we see new razor fences simultaneously erected and the foundations of the Schengen agreement ( the free movement of people across European borders ) begin to shake under the pressure of the present migrant crisis. We see the cracks appear in the façade of equality and co-operation across Europe as responsibility is shifted and backs are turned.
Is the current crisis to be averted by increased military patrols of Europe’s waters, or is this an inevitable and increasing feature of globalised capitalism, inequality,conflict and climate change? These are some of the urgent geo-political and ethical issues that emerge from this Biennale’s markedly more political manifestation under the directorship of Okwui Enwezor, with the title All the World’s Futures. It can be said that Enwezor himself has made an admirable attempt to select many more artists who have not participated in the biennale before, and many more from the global south in order to have an infusion of other voices as well as to attempt to break the western hegemony of this supposedly global art institution. However, many of the charged and resonant works are at best in tension with, and at worst made impotent by, the dominant air of consumptive apathy and nationalism perfumed by the global elite, their art dealers and the often gestural curatorial politics which are after all the essence of this festival.
I’m stood on the steps of the British pavilion, the country to which my passport is assigned, when a provocative intervention is made by the distinctly namedMigrant Choir. They are a group of people who have largely migrated to Europe from previously colonised countries such as Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, who stood on the steps of the Italian, French and English pavilions singing each country’s respective national anthem. They are joined by the sharp beat of a single snare drum, standing in formation and deliberately all dressed in white. I read, ‘This performance is a speech act, in which non-citizens claim their rights of citizenship while rendering the exclusionary nature of these anthems visible.’ 2
There is many an uncomfortable juncture when someone encountering the choir is swept up in this moment of patriotism, or in the habitual, unquestioning, sheepishness that these anthems are reliant on, joins them in song.The criticality of the intervention is yet visible to them, as the songbook which is distributed among the audience afterwards highlights: ‘these often simple songs point to the pure race of the nation, or allude to the conquest of neighbouring territories, or far off lands, The French anthem La Marseillaise ( 1792 ), calls repeatedly in the chorus for the spilling of impure blood.’ 3 I ask, what truly is the relevance of these words today? Whose blood might now be considered impure? Could it be said that this dehumanising term works in a similar way to our contemporary reference to people as illegal, as they perish at our borders?
The choir members came here to make themselves visible and to transgress the space of the national pavilion,much like they transgressed the notion of prohibitive borders in their very act of movement. These people refused to let globalised capital circulate around them while they remain excluded and in danger. Their presence,their introduction of a dismeasure 4, and their exaggerated patriotism makes starkly visible the soft nationalism still at play in the pavilions of many of the great colonial powers. There is certainly a moment when I could really feel the gratuitous theatre of the biennale become exposed through the live tensions in this intervention. They are a collective of people who, aside from this, use their songs in protest in their everyday lives here in Italy. However, as I look around at the glee on faces of the art audience and learn that Public Studio, themselves entangled with the institution of the Biennale, are the arbiters of this intervention, I feel them compacted into a single mass which allows them to be consumed and reproduced as part of the colonial space still in active grandeur.
It can be argued that there is a structural impossibility to making a more representative space inside such vestiges of imperialism as the Venice Biennale. It seems to have done too little to confront the ways which it celebrates and iconises the trappings of Empire, from which it was constructed. Everywhere reminders of the historic relationship to the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 or the Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931, which, among many others were intended to boost trade and bolster popular support for the various colonial empires during the scramble to carve up Africa amongst themselves. Acknowledging the crucial role that institutions of art such as the Venice Biennale continue to play in the contemporary construction of nationalism, in its most sophisticated and ambivalent forms, there is an impasse.
The Belgian pavilion was one of the few spaces where the reality of this situation was encountered head on. Greeted by an external flagpole on which was mounted a scruffy rendering of the resonant expression ‘Black Lives’ ( matter ), I braced myself. Had what was inside driven someone to reassert this demand above the door in a form of protest ( much like the hanging of a Greek flag from the roof of the German pavilion, on which was written Ger-money )? However, upon entering I see these worlds echoed in the space, in the large embellished collages of Adam Pendleton’s work, among poetry from the black nationalist Amiri Baraka, history of the Black Dada movement and found photography.
Other invited artists in this show, entitled Personne et les autres, also assert the presence of African creativity and resistance in ‘the afterlife of colonialism’, from the intimate and obfuscatory photographs of Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, entitled Forever Weak and ungrateful, which capture from numerous angles an unidentified statue, of a clothed western male, his arm around a semi-naked African male who appears to be pulling away, their eyes locked. Without that statue’s context I can only imagine the power at play, question the setting of a particular history in stone and see the artist reclaiming and readdressing the agency of this image. Like many other works here, he explores and intercepts central themes of alterity and the problematic production of images of the other.
There is a central three-channel video work by the originally selected artist Vincent Meessen which was born out of a challenge to the very premise on which the biennial operates, that western Europe and its largely English- speaking protectorates are the authors and keepers of avant-garde culture. The work titled, One.Two.Three, filmed in Kinshasa clubs and music studios, reveals the largely unknown participation of Congolese intellectuals in the Situationist International by telling the story of a re-discovered protest song and its author, Congolese Situationist Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku. Throughout this exhibition I see an importance is placed on revolutionary social movements such as the African liberation struggles, black Dada and the Situationist International. A stated aim of the curator Katerina Gregos was to address the absence of such a revolutionary social movement today that could truly challenge our present moments of crisis. Could we view the vast numbers of people directly challenging the construct of prohibitive and destructive borders placed upon them by the nation state as an international movement? This is importantly not a movement led by the West, and possibly this could explain our inability to see it as such.
Another intervention I encountered was the white square of tape on the floor of several pavilions, with the words ‘Nation25’ etched on it in pen. I learn that it arrived as a symbolic act, to highlight the presence of nationless people within these temporary art states. For me the use of the colour white in the tape ( and in the clothing of the Migrant Choir ) is notable, enabling them, when needed, to slip seamlessly into their supposedly neutral gallery surrounds while simultaneously symbolising the white flag of ceasefire, a humble request to negotiate. It is a defiant act, but also an invitation to those who encounter it, to move a step towards understanding the plight of others. So far they have obtained asylum in Hungary, Armenia, South Africa, Romania, Brazil, Seychelles, Macedonia and Turkey. During the month of October Nation25 will subsequently be hosting an exhibition of artworks and ephemera of stateless people to further develop the critical presence of these peoples and those working in a sustained way to represent the experiences and critical context of this global crisis.
Both the Migrant Choir and Nation25 attempt to subvert the territorial and nationalistic normality of a space such as the Biennale in a way that is seemingly impossible from the inside, bringing to the fore the criticism that such a paradigm of national presentation of art, of which the Venice Biennale is exemplary, is a populist manifestation of contemporary nationalism. Art institutions such as this will continue to serve largely gestural and impotent political art, unless its history is confronted in its entirety and recon-figured to represent a truly radical vision, one including this movement of stateless people and of a borderless world.
1. JJ Charlesworth, ‘Playing Politics: Why Art World Hypocrisy Stars at the 56th Venice Biennale’. Artnet News ( May 2015 ) www.news.artnet.com/art-world/56th-venice-biennale- politics-jj-charlesworth-295350.
2. Migrant Choir Song Book, 2015.
3. Culture: The Substructure for a European Common, p. 27 Pascal Gielen & Thijs Lijster, No Culture, No Europe, ( Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015 ).
4. Nation25, http://www.nation25.com/.
随着双年展继续举办，游客们悠闲地纷至沓来，分享其辉煌，我们看到新的如剃刀般的栅栏同时也树立起来，而申根协议的基础（ 人们可以自由穿越欧洲边境 ）在目前移民危机的压力下开始撼动。随着责任被转移，人们转过脸去，我们看到欧洲之间平等与合作的外表出现了裂隙。
在这个爱国主义正浓的时刻遇到合唱队，会让一些人感到瞬间的不安，或者因为这些国歌所依仗的习惯性的、盲目的驯服而被感召而加入了歌唱。这个介入行为的批判性在他们看来是显而易见的，而后来在这些听众当中派发的歌本强调了“这些往往很简单的歌曲却指向了国家的纯粹种族，或者暗指对周边疆土或边缘地域的征服。法国国歌《马赛曲》（ 1792年 ）在合唱中反复呼喊着让不纯洁的血脉四溅”3。我问道，那么谁的血现在会被视为不纯洁的？这个丧失人性的词句以类似的方式让我们当下把这些人们称作非法的，让他们死在我们的国界上。
比利时展馆是少数几个迎头就可以遇上这一现实的空间之一。迎面有一个旗杆，上面装着“黑人的命”（ 也是命 ）这句引起共鸣的表述并不齐整的标识，我打起了精神。里面究竟有什么驱使人们以抗议的形式在大门上重申了这一诉求呢（ 更像是德国展馆屋顶上悬挂着一面希腊国旗，上面把德国写成了“Ger-money” ）？不过一进门，我就看到这些世界在这个空间之中，在亚当·彭德尔顿的大型装饰拼贴作品中，在黑人民族主义者阿米里·巴拉卡的诗作、黑人达达运动的历史和随手拿来的摄影中回荡着。
我遇到的另一个介入行为是在几个展馆的地板上用胶带做成的白色正方形，用钢笔勾画出“Nation25”（ 意为第25国 ）的字样。我了解到这成为了一个象征性的举动，强调在这些临时的艺术国度中还有无国籍的人们存在。在我看来，利用白色的胶带（ 恰好和移民合唱队的衣服颜色一致 ）是值得注意的。需要的话，这就让他们可以完美地溜进周围理应为中立的艺廊，同时还象征了停火的白旗，谦卑地请求议和。这是一个挑衅的举动，但也是对恰好遇到的人们发出的邀请，举步过来，理解他者的困境。到目前为止，他们在匈牙利、亚美尼亚、南非、罗马尼亚、巴西、塞舌尔、马其顿和土耳其得到了“庇护”。整个十月间，《Nation25》将随后主办无国籍人士的一次艺术作品和朝生暮死状态的展览，进一步揭示移民以及那些致力于持续再现这一全球“危机”的体验和批判语境的人们所处的临界状态。