Virtual Venice

Jonas Staal’s The Venice Biennale Ideological Guide 2013

Preamble (and disclaimer)

I fully intended to view this year’s Venice Biennale but care-giving took precedence over professional opportunity and I had no choice but to content myself with reading (rather than writing) the reviews…that is, until I downloaded Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s (b. 1981) free app and went on my own virtual tour, a perusal of the ideological nature of national pavilions…

Rudolf Stingel, Palazzo Grassi, 2013

Rudolf Stingel, Palazzo Grassi, 2013

1. Art as agenda

How significant are the national pavilions to the popularity of the Venice Biennale? (According to the official website, 200,000 visitors attended the first Venice Biennale in 1895; an estimated 300,000 will attend this year…not an appreciable difference for more than a century.) How much do government bureaucracies influence the selection and presentation of art? In what ways do the participating artists serve as cultural ambassadors to national identity and pride? As the Biennale grows ever larger beyond the spatial confines of the Giardini, does a distinction between central and peripheral players persist in creating hierarchies of display? Can an app truly reveal the ideological underpinnings of such a complicated process as cultural production?

Installed on your mobile device, The Venice Biennale Ideological Guide 2013 presents participating nations both alphabetically and by location – point to a spot on the map and, if you have a good sense of direction or GPS, proceed to that pavilion. On the way, multi-task by following the stats for artists, curators, biennial budget, debt status, and transnational alliances and conflicts. Writers and artists, including Staal, the collective Grupo Etcetera, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, and others provide introductory background to the selection, financing, or production of art within the socio-economic politics of the host country. We learn, for example, that for decades the Icelandic Pavilion was artist-run with the government only paying rent while the Canadian government covers biennial expenses with a budget of $250,000 for 2013. The Brazilian government sponsors twice that amount. Staal’s app is not The Financial Times, however, but a mobile investigative tracker that prods you to dig deeper into the cultural and economic context beyond aesthetics, highlighting the overt and revealing the covert elements of geo-political organization. Staal’s is not the first critical response to the national structure of the Biennale but neither is it an endgame; instead, it proposes the user create the next critique or even propose an alternate solution.

Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, Il Tuo Paese Non Esiste (Your Country Doesn´t Exist), 2011, for the 54th Venice Biennale. Image from the artists' website.

Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, Il Tuo Paese Non Esiste (Your Country Doesn´t Exist), 2011, for the 54th Venice Biennale. Image from the artists’ website.

The Venice Biennale was issued its charter in 1893 and held its first exhibition two years later but the first national pavilion wasn’t constructed until 1907 by Belgium. After this, Great Britain, Germany, and Hungary constructed pavilions in 1909, France and Sweden in 1912, Russia in 1914, and so on throughout the 20th century. The first Latin American country to participate was Argentina in 1901, although it was not granted a pavilion until 2011 when Chile also participated with a pavilion in the Arsenale. In fact, widespread international participation beyond Europe and the United States is a primarily 21st century phenomenon with China, Africa (as a continent!) and Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, and India, for example, participating since 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 respectively. In 2013, the 55th Venice Biennale includes 88 participating countries (or jurisdictions), ten for the first time: Angola, the Bahamas, Kingdom of Bahrain, Republic of Ivory Coast, Republic of Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu, and the Holy See.

The Art Newspaper (print version, June 2013) suggests the Venice Biennale continues to better represent artists from the West in spite of a 33% increase in national participants in the last decade. But one cannot consider the national pavilions alone: since 1993 the dual exhibition model (national pavilions plus a large international exhibition with a selected curator) was established. For these thematic spaces, laying claim to national identity (by country of descent, of origin, or of residency) is not so obvious when many artists shake off their age by refusing to publish their birth date or dispense with national affiliation by claiming, as the artist Toyin Odutola does, that “my country has no name” or affirming, as the collaborative team Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson do, that “your country does not exist.” Such speech acts open a wide range of questions regarding the contingent relations of visibility, power relations, territorial boundaries, globalization and regionalism.

The concept of national pavilions for the Biennale was a spin-off from the high attendance and international media coverage afforded the world’s fairs, which date back to the 18th century but became a global phenomenon in the second half of the 19th, coinciding with the rise of the penny press and contiguous to expanding notions of empire. While the Venice Biennale was initiated in 1895 and the first national pavilions installed in the Giardini in 1907, it wasn’t until 1968 that anyone thought to question the selection process. From that point forward, thematic exhibitions were organized to balance the monographic ones. In protest to Augusto Pinochet’s military coup, the 1974 Biennale was dedicated to Chile, even though the country was not then represented with a pavilion.

2. Art as institutional critique

Hans Haacke, Germania, 1993. Installation view: German Pavilion, 45th Venice Biennale. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society.

Hans Haacke, Germania, 1993. Installation view: German Pavilion, 45th Venice Biennale. © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society.

Achile Bonito introduced the Aperto in 1980 – a peripheral biennial – giving space to emerging artists for the first time and in 1993 Germany selected two artists: one, Nam Jun Paik, who claimed no nationality and another, Hans Haacke, who was born in Germany but lived and worked in the US. Haacke’s contribution is perhaps the most enduring critique of the national pavilions in cultural memory because of its dramatically visual and conceptual rupture of the ideological “neutrality” of the pavilion space. With pointed references to Hitler’s visit to the pavilion in 1934 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, Haacke literally broke ground under spectators’ feet, “reducing it to rubble,” according to Benjamin Buchloh. In so doing, he continues, “[Haacke] reneged on the euphoria of rallying once more and once again around the eternal draw of the mythical nation-state that supposedly unifies and binds the subjectless subject and the asocial sociality” (Hans Haacke, for real, 2007, 55).

Two years ago for the Polish Pavilion the Israeli artist Yael Bartana projected a sequence of films – And Europe will be stunned… that created an uncomfortable blend of democracy, social justice, nationalism, and fanaticism in proposing the repatriation of Polish Jews. Two years before, Krzyzstof Wodiczko brought to the Polish Pavilion “guests” who were unlikely Biennale visitors in the form of a multi-channel projection introducing migrant workers and the stateless Roma peoples within the context of Western cultural luxury. This year – in a gesture that might have had more impact in the 1950s postwar period – France and Germany swap pavilions and feature artists from Albania, China, India, South Africa, as well as Germany. Artist Alfredo Jaar visually underscores the fact that Chile, without its own pavilion, effectively rents space in the Arsenale, marginal to the G-8 participants clustered in the Giardini. In the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, he was one of a few non-African artists invited to represent Africa in a group exhibition.

So while practices of institutional critique have morphed the distinguishing boundaries of the national framework of the Venice Biennale, the only resolution to change the structurally tenacious hierarchical system has been the curated international exhibition held in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini. Alejandro Cesarco, asked about his participation in the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and the potential of being “dwarfed” by the major pavilions, responded: “Uruguay has a small pavilion in the Giardini with all the other pavilions but I can only offer my work as it is. To do otherwise would not be honest.” I might add that the Uruguayan Pavilion was ceded to that government in 1960; its former use: a tool shed.

3. Art as ideological platform

Cesarco’s aesthetic honesty is refreshing, offering its own resistance to an increasing one-ups-man-ship of the spectacular so prevalent at the Biennale. Jonas Staal works differently. While Cesarco’s politics rest in the subtle vagaries of the language of intimacy, Staal’s strive to shape an open and coherent public debate within a notion of fundamental democracy. In the Berlin Biennial of 2012 he created a two-day New World Summit and invited participants who are excluded from the various economic and political summits sponsored by “leading” nations of the post-1989 “new world order” and post-9/11 “globalization” projects. In an effort to strip discourse of its hegemonic certainty to reach a discussion of basic human necessity, Staal offered speakers from the margins of power relations the center stage of debate.

Jonas Staal, New World Summit in Sophiensaele, Berlin, 2012. Photo from the artist's website.

Jonas Staal, New World Summit in Sophiensaele, Berlin, 2012. Photo from the artist’s website.

In his Art: Property of Politics series, Staal demonstrated how art is used as an ideological platform whether in the offices of political parties or instrumental to the design of their policies. He maintains the importance of transparency and awareness so that art can also become a democratic instrument, that is, a practice that identifies its means of production but also implements the possibility of alternate, variable speech. The Venice Biennale Ideological Guide 2013 is the seventh manifestation of his Art: Property of Politics series. As I understand it: Staal considers the Biennale pavilions as their own kind of mapping system for global politics today, revealing who are the leaders, who the players, and who is excluded for reasons of acute marginalization or reverse protest.

4. Art as a democratic instrument

By revealing the (discretely hidden) means of producing the exhibitions – selection process, financing, public relations, etc. – Staal insinuates the possibility of dismantling this system of supposed meritocracy that he considers “the geopolitical chessboard of the Venice Biennale.” By itemizing the varying stats by which nations establish their “pecking order” – membership in the G8 or G20, NATO, GDP or unemployment rates, etc., the app user can presumably visualize the network that snags cultural production into the global game of political and economic dominance. Can the visitor, following this guide, view artworks as autonomous objects ever again? Or, perhaps more importantly, can an ideological as opposed to an aesthetic tour of the Venice Biennale jar one’s perception into a call for an entirely different set of exhibition conditions?

Historically, pavilions are distributed throughout the Giardini – of these, 1/4 are G8 members, less than 1/3 are G20 members, and a full half are members of NATO. While the city of Venice has a pavilion in the Giardini, Italy does not. Its pavilion is in the Arsenale, recently renovated to accommodate additional national pavilions (who jointly paid for the renovations) and to serve as an extension of the Central Pavilion for the large international exhibition: this year’s “The Encyclopedic Palace” is curated by Massimiliano Gioni. Other pavilions rent space throughout Venice. This miniaturization of world politics is the context of Alfredo Jaar’s contribution to the Chilean Pavilion in the Arsenale where a 60:1 scale model of the Giardini surfaces from a vat of water – the color of the lagoon – once every three minutes like the slow breath of a vehemoth, settled in its relentless cycle.

Alfredo Jaar, Venezia, Venezia, for the Chilean Pavilion, the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo ©Haupt & Binder for Universes in universe.

Alfredo Jaar, Venezia, Venezia, for the Chilean Pavilion, the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo ©Haupt & Binder for Universes in universe.

But aside from patterns of national hegemony that maintain center/periphery relations, the app stats disclose (among other things) a persistent marginalization by gender. Of 273 artists and collectives (5) participating in the pavilions, just over 25% are women. Of the 110 curators, just under 40% are women. In group exhibitions, only Zimbabwe includes more women than men and only South Africa betters 2:1 odds but most group shows were worse with Italy showing a dismal 6:1 ratio of male to female artists. Monograph exhibitions fared no better than 2:1 with 32 featuring men and just 15 featuring women. But what can The Ideological Guide tell us about the artwork itself? Obviously, my use as a virtual tour of the Biennale is incomplete as the app cannot provide visual representations; ideal use is as a guided walking tour – you observe the art and the app jabs you, like an elbow in the ribs, prompting you to interpret a context that flows well beyond the boundaries of the Venetian canals.

5. Art as a trigger

For example, Zoe Pilger, in her July 8th review in The Independent writes that artist Jasmina Cibic “has covered the entire interior of the Slovenian Pavilion with wallpaper printed with images of a beetle named after Hitler. Discovered in a Slovenian cave in the 1930s, the beetle points to the acceptance of fascism in the nation’s past.” She also highlights Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva who in the Macedonian Pavilion has stitched a labyrinth of 700 albino rats, flayed by the artist herself. Working one’s way to the center, one brushes against tiny claws and empty eye-sockets to the presence of live companions awaiting their fate. Both are elegant and majestic installations, Pilger writes, interfaced with horror and repulsion.

Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, Silentio Pathologia for the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013, detail of rat skins. Photo from the artist's blog.

Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, Silentio Pathologia for the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013, detail of rat skins. Photo from the artist’s blog.

Sebastjan Leban, writing for The Ideological Guide, asks of Cibic: “Should we read this depiction [of the beetle] as a critique towards the New Economy? Or are we confronted with the continuation of this politics represented by and mediated through art that is bothered more with uniqueness and purity (a paradigm widely spread in fascist and nationalist politics) than with the current state of exception?” In other words, he suggests we look beyond the content, the Anophthalmus Hitleri beetle, to the context presented by the language system itself: the orderly, formal aesthetic so closely allied with fascist art and architecture. Staal, himself, asks of Hadzi-Vasileva if her installation, representing the 14th-century plague of Europe, isn’t perhaps its own nationalistic response to propagandistic name-calling by its neighbor Albania (i.e., Macedonia as “plague”)? Rather than being broadly metaphorical, isn’t it in its own way, narrowly regional with its inverted reference to national identity? Each introduction in the guide asks a few key questions reaching beyond the aesthetic power of the art to the relations its language intuits or its production intimates. Having stunned us with sheer visual impact, the art may serve to trigger our state of alertness but Staal’s intervention as uninvited guest seeks to unnerve our complicity.

The Ideological Guide is a collective participatory project, a collaborative accumulation of various perspectives onto data that orient a reconsideration of exhibition practices, breaking them down into bits in order to provide materials for a new framework of artistic production. And he asks us to join him. From the research team who collected the detailed information, the production team who design and implement the interface, and the writers who introduce each pavilion to the visitors who wend their way through the alleys and canals of the cultural icon we know as Venice, it takes a concerted effort to change the system, especially one as economically viable as the Biennale. Staal’s app may be a democratic instrument whose creative platform gives us the opportunity to discover the relations and systemic connections between national standing and exhibition display but, far from the turquoise waters of Venice, it is only a fraction of the experience necessary to promote change in a wide global spectrum of relations. Ultimately, however, conceptual practices need the infusion of visual experience to jolt the senses and prompt us to ask, just why we bother to look and respond. Has Jonas Staal and his team created the possibility of alternate, variable speech? The Guide has prompted me to make connections of a virtual nature but what of those who have used it on site, what say you? Who is the slayer? Who the victim? Speak! (Sophocles, Antigone)

Financial and production support for Jonas Staal’s The Venice Biennale Ideological Guide is listed on his website.