Between Politics and Poetics
The Venice Bienniale Arab Pavilions, part one
The 55th Venice Bienniale saw an increased participation from Arab pavilions, with Gulf States such as Kuwait and Bahrain showing for the first time. Much critical ink has been spilled on the model of the Venice Bienniale, with its country pavilions. Some have called the focus on national representation out-dated, a relic of Europe’s obsession with the nation-state; others have questioned how in some cases the national pavilions become vehicles for soft diplomacy or national branding. Many commissioners are aware of the uneasy tensions between contemporary artistic practice and the very premise of the Venice Bienniale. They challenge the whole idea of country pavilions by, for example, inviting artists or curators of various nationalities to their show, swapping pavilions (as the French and the Germans did this year), or blending pavilions, as the Cypriots and Lithuanians did. Many Arab pavilions, especially after the 2011 uprisings in the region, are grappling with what kind of message they want to put out in terms of their artistic and national statement.
The balance between politics and poetics will always be a tricky one, especially in a region where the perception of artistic production is easily prone to all kinds of ideological readings and expectations domestically, as well as from abroad. The strongest Arab pavilions were those that got this balance exactly right conceptually, and that—unsurprisingly—enjoyed a minimum of official meddling in the development of their projects. A case in point were the Lebanese and the Palestinian participations. Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s Letter to a Refusing Pilot is a mesmerizing three-part installation consisting of a 30-inch video; a 16 mm film projection of a new version of Zaatari’s well-known photo composite of Israel’s bombing campaign of Sidon, in southern Lebanon, on June 6, 1982; and an empty chair positioned in between the film and the video, awaiting the missing pilot.
The video is a beautiful document that combines the true story of Israeli fighter pilot Hagai Tamir, who refused to bomb Zaatari’s school in Sidon during the Israeli invasion in 1982, with Zaatari’s reconstruction of the narrative through media objects such as photographs, audio recordings, and personal diaries. Those familiar with Zaatari’s oeuvre will recognize thematic and visual references to works such as This Day (2003) and In This House (2005), as if Letter to a Refusing Pilot brings together all his previous concerns in one work.
During the video, there is a scene where we see young boys folding paper planes and then dropping them from rooftops; instead of gliding to the ground, the planes perform an aerial choreography, adding a surreal element to the whole work. These folded sheets of paper, made to resemble fighter jets, are also letters that do not seem to reach their destination. In practice, Zaatari cannot officially write to this Israeli pilot from Lebanon as both countries are technically still at war.
It is thus all the more remarkable that Zaatari has chosen the platform of a national pavilion to tell this story. It is a story that not only narrates Lebanon’s torn past, but in the video Zaatari also establishes a rapport with this unknown enemy pilot that is not based on demonization, but rather on curiosity and on human interest. This makes Zaatari’s gesture in Letter to a Refusing Pilot as profoundly poetical as it is political.
The balance between politics and poetics will always be a tricky one, especially in a region where the perception of artistic production is easily prone to all kinds of ideological readings.The contribution of Palestinian artists Aissa Deebi and Bashir Makhoul to the Venice Bienniale, titled Otherwise Occupied, was in effect not an official pavilion, but rather a collateral event related to the Biennial. Co-curator Bruce Ferguson puts it rather aptly when he writes in the catalogue that “[t]he exhibition is without pavilion; without country; without normative status.” As such, the whole issue of national representation (or its impossibility, for that matter), in particular in the case of Palestine, is questioned through the very premise of the exhibition. Moreover, in Otherwise Occupied conceptions of a nation and national identity are questioned in relation to physical and ideological territory.
In Giardino Occupato, Makhoul literally occupies the garden of Venice’s Liceo Artistico Statale di Venezia with hundreds of cardboard boxes that are placed there by Makhoul and members of the public. He has created a makeshift city, an ephemeral shantytown of carved cardboard that grows and changes according to the meteorological elements, audience participation and over time. Not only has Makhoul changed the character of the garden, but he has also filled this cultivated and groomed patch of greenery with a material that is disposable and throwaway.
The connection with the plight of the Palestinian people in refugee camps or in exile is easily made, as is its reference to the unbridled expansions in settlements from Israeli settlers. However, this project transcends the Palestinian narrative and also echoes protest movements such as “Occupy”, the Spanish indignados and the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, when millions took to the streets and occupied and re-appropriated their city streets and squares.
In his video, The Trial, Deebi revisits the speech of Palestinian revolutionary and communist poet Daoud Turki at his 1973 trial for treason in Haifa’s district court. In the video, the trial speech is re-enacted five times, always with slight modifications by the actors. The result is disorienting, and is fragmented in its delivery as well as in its temporal and narrative sequencing.
Deebi alludes to a history untold and forgotten by most, Palestinians and Israelis alike. In the 1970s, figures such as Turki and other anti-Zionist and anti-capitalist Jews and Palestinians could still come together and be united in a post-nationalist class struggle. After two intifadas, the disaster of the Oslo Accords, countless sieges and violence on both sides, such liaisons seem completely remote. Both Deebi and Makhoul push at what national, territorial and ideological belonging—or being prevented from belonging—might mean. Otherwise Occupied is a strong artistic and political intervention that especially in the context of the Venice Biennial complicates notions of national representation.
Aesthetics of Prudence and Distraction?
The Venice Biennale Arab Pavilions, part two
Strong works of art, even if generated by a specific locale or concern, communicate meaning on multiple levels and transcend geopolitical boundaries. Artworks that operate on a surface level only—or, worse, that are placed in a curatorial context that only invites one-dimensional interpretation—remain anecdotal, a curiosity to the viewer. Unfortunately, however, the latter is the case for the disappointing first participation of Bahrain in the Venice Art Biennale, as it is for the Iraqi pavilion.
In 2010, Bahrain won the much-coveted Golden Lion for best national pavilion at Venice’s Architecture Biennale. The Bahraini contribution to the Architecture Biennale, entitled Reclaim, examined the rapid transformation of the Bahraini coastline. For this project, photographer Camille Zakharia, who is also participating in this year’s Bahrain pavilion at the Art Biennale, made a beautiful photo series of fishermen’s huts dotting the coast. It is startling how Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture got it so right with their architecture contribution, and was so off the mark with the Art Biennale.
Even more, since the artists selected for the pavilion are themselves good artists. Lebanese-born Zakharia is a remarkable photographer and creates beautiful collages that speak of the fragmentary existence of being in exile. Mariam Haji and Waheeda Malullah are both amongst the most promising Bahraini women artists, each dealing with political and gender issues—Haji through drawing and photography and Malullah through photography and video. However, the projects and practices of these three artists have little in common thematically or aesthetically. What do the postcard-sized collages of a personal correspondence and photo archive by Zakharia have in common with the photographs of an abaya-clad woman holding a bunch of balloons traversing the streets of Bahrain by Malullah, or the rather bombastic life-size self-portrait of Mariam Haji victoriously riding a white donkey surrounded by a herd of horses?
If anything, the show does justice to its hermetic title: In a World of Your Own. All three artists’ projects could have made sense separately as solo exhibitions; however, put together in the total absence of a curatorial premise, they dilute each other and become clichéd vignettes. This is a rushed and clumsy display of their work in what is otherwise a beautiful and prominent space in the Arsenale. Celebrating a plurality of artistic voices almost seems to be an attempt to over-compensate for restiveness in domestic politics. Unfortunately, this corrective falls flat.
The logistics of putting together a show under the challenging conditions of working in Iraq is no small feat.The Iraq Pavilion has its share of problems, too. However, curator Jonathan Watkins, director of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery and the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Art and Culture in Iraq, should be commended for working with artists inside Iraq, rather than their more accessible counterparts in the diaspora. The logistics of putting together a show under the challenging conditions of working in Iraq is no small feat. This being said, Welcome to Iraq runs the risk of reeking of didactic disaster tourism translated into a curatorial concept. Its very title already sets out parameters of “othering,” which makes it difficult for the Iraqi artists involved to occupy a shared space with the Biennale at large, and Biennale visitors in particular. Whether it is the invited Iraqi artist or the Biennale visitor, in the context of the Iraqi pavilion, someone always remains a stranger in this year’s showing.
The curatorial emphasis on narratives of resilience, resourcefulness and survival overshadowed the artistic presence in Iraq’s show. The stark contrast between the lush Palazzetto Dandolo and the harsh reality of Iraq’s collapsing infrastructure is unsettling to a degree that becomes uncomfortable. This is not to say that Abdul Raheem Yassir’s political cartoons and Jamal Penjweny’s photo portraits of ordinary Iraqis who hide their faces with a life-size picture of Saddam Hussein are not of interest—on the contrary. The cardboard furniture of the WAMI collective and some of Cheeman Ismail’s paintings on household objects combine craftsmanship with a deeply personal and national narrative. But amongst the carpets and kilims, the tea and the Iraqi biscuits, these artistic interventions become too much of a spectacle.
For its third participation in the Venice Biennale, the UAE opted for a solo show by conceptual artist Mohammed Kazem. A protégé of Emirati conceptual art pioneer Hassan Sharif, Kazem presents an immersive video installation with a 360-degree projection of the sea. The project is part of his ongoing exploration of water and the sea—in particular, the sensation of being lost at sea—which he started in 2005 under the title Directions. The installation is expertly executed and the whole experience induces a mild feeling of seasickness. The question, however, is whether anything meaningful is produced beyond a technologically smart set-up. It all wears a bit thin for an artist well known for his conceptually engaging and poetic body of work.
Kuwait, another first-time participant, shows a well-installed exhibition curated by Ala Younis, but it too lacks zest. Moreover, it all feels a bit too static and poised, and therefore a bit dull and characterless. Younis juxtaposes the practice of Kuwait’s master sculptor, Sami Mohammed, with a photography series by Tarek Al-Ghoussein. Mohammed’s projects were nationalist and celebratory in nature; he sculpted larger-than-life statues of Kuwait’s sheikhs. Ghoussein inserts himself in his own photographs at dilapidated sites of former grandeur like the Al-Nasr sports club, the National Assembly and the Kuwait Stock Market. The exhibition conjures up a wealth of complex questions about architecture, monuments and nationalism. Yet it is all so carefully and tentatively formulated that it loses its critical edge and its ability to make a statement.
It is rarely a good idea for artists to curate their own exhibitions, and the Egyptian pavilion is a case in point. Khaled Zaki curated his own work alongside that of Mohammed Banawy for a pavilion that can only be described as a serial accumulation of clichéd kitsch. Granted, Egypt is going through a tumultuous time and has seen more ministers of culture in one year than you can imagine—and the artists only had forty days to produce their project. Still, sometimes it is better to cancel participation than to stoop to the level of bringing faux cave paintings, mosaics, bronze-cast dervishes and bronze sarcophagi-cum-spaceships together all in the name of uniting science, humanity, civilization and the whole universe. The situation in Egypt is dire, but this should not be an excuse for such an embarrassing showing at the Venice Biennale.
The 55th Venice Biennale runs from June 1 to Novemeber 24, 2013, in Venice, Italy.
Nat Muller is an independent curator and critic based between Rotterdam and the Middle East.