Ever since its opening in 1895, the Venise Biennale created, through the National Pavilions and wider exhibits, an opportunity for countries to share their artistic creations, inspire others, or at least create a dialogue between nations. It is also an opportunity to share political messages and show the power of art as a communication tool. This year’s Biennale explores, in spades, the issues of cultural identity, appropriation, and guilt – with respect to past and present prejudice and our responsibility for the destruction of the planet, and our growing distance from nature. There is more, of course, including a much conceptual art, but I want to focus on the powerful multi-facetted issues of identity, colonial-cultural threads, and the various issue of responsibility that our societies must grapple with if what we have can be called civilisation.
Yuki Kihara’ Paradise Camp at the New Zealand pavilion focuses of cultural appropriation, cultural identity and gender, criticizing Paul Gauguin as a plunderer of Samoan reality and selling it as Tahitian “primitive and innocent” culture. Presented by Yuki Kihara and a group of Fa‘afafine (“in the manner of a woman” or third gender in Sāmoa), they mock and undermine the image of Gauguin, showing him to be egotistical, culturally exploitative, and a liar. We are left reeling, and this hurts where it should. I have always admired Paul Gauguin’s painting and tried not to think of how he copied rather too much from other artists in Bretagne. Now it is difficult to see his work without thinking of his original paintings plagiarising existing photos, his Samoan subjects’ identity being wantonly altered to suit a narrative that would sell. This is one incident of a deeply disturbing trend that needs to be unpacked, exposed and reconciliation sought.
The wider issue of cultural re-analysis featured in many pavilions and pieces. The French pavilion, presents Zineb Sedira’s superbly constructed contrast of the good life of France with its music, dance halls and bars, with the reality of the French colonisation of Algeria (the bleak coffin behind the scenes), and the modern reality and lack of historical memory, exposed by reels of film, two shown. The German pavilion has over and over again, across decencies of Biennales, explored and espoused the problems of its past. It is good to see France tackling its past responsibility, albeit very different. Similarly, Finland, Norway and Sweden co-exhibited in the Sámi Pavilion. It was a strong statement on the right of the Sami people, and their important synergistic relationship with nature. We can learn a lot from them. There were three dead tree trunks jutting uselessly through the roof of the pavilion, presumably statements that the three countries had lost touch with nature, despite the natural abundance.
The destruction of the planet was also a theme in the Chinese pavilion, where a single cut tree, leaves all dead brown, floats above mountains whose nature are but filmed images, and the bushes around are but mirrors. It is a statement of fear over a future where artificial intelligence (AI) and technology reigns and nature is cut off from its roots.
It other pavilions we could walk through nature and see it as an experience and something to be admired, in practice mocking modern life, cut off from its roots, as we shouldn’t have to find nature in museums. The Swiss pavilion has giant heads made of ribbons of wood, at the entrance the head had fallen and there were charcoal remains as witness to society’s relation to the environment. Inside, in the dark, only momentarily lit by light, the heads converse, unaware as to what they are creating, allowing. Blind exploitation. There comes a moment to be dammed. This is my interpretation. After visiting, I read that this artwork is more a nod to the folk tradition of Switzerland of creating an echo across the time to us. So this too is about cultural identity and not losing it.
This is getting dark, but I want to go darker yet, before moving to the more affirmative. Denmark. This was the most powerful dark message of the entire Biennale for me. It presented two dead centaurs – one a female with a lifelike half-woman with a body of a horse, having died while giving birth. In the other room a male centaur hanged. All around black vegetation. Was this an image of us humans – while actually being deeply part of nature, killing ourselves through the destruction of the environment and our own disconnection?
But there is only so much darkness one can take, so I want to move to three examples of positive cultural affirmation, even if birthed from difficult contexts. But first an ode to mad joy.
The Latvian pavilion’s exhibit – Selling Water by the River by Skuja Braden (Ingūna Skuja and Melissa D. Braden) – is a riot of ceramics in colour covering all aspects of joy, including sexual exuberance, as well as darker issues, but I won’t go there as I promised to get more positive. This was wonderfully mad, and I for one am pleased to be in a Europe that has Latvia as part of it. So, so many ideas.
For the positive cultural identity statements. First, Kosovo. The hall celebrating The Monumentality of the Everyday was full floor to ceiling with colour, with carpets and painting depicting life to its full. It was a joy to look at and shouted a “we are here” in a demonstration of pleasure. I have never been to Kosovo, but now I am intrigued and tempted.
The American Pavilion was for me one of the most powerful, with the great sculptures of Simone Leigh, that talk of the central, resilient place of the black woman in the USA.
Finally, and for me the most magically moving of all that I saw, was the Polish pavilion. The amazing craft and colours of Malgorzata Mirga-Tas created stories of the Romani people’s travels (the top of each three-layered panel), the magic of the Romani women and the zodiac (middle panel) and the scenes of daily life of Roma in Poland in the lower panel. This was a strong affirmative story of a people who travelled an odyssey, have deep talents, and their cultural life is vibrant. However, the people are drawn in grey outlines – whether this is a real-world resignation as to how Romani are treated – saying that people are not seen for who they are, but the culture is strong and will survive. I can’t pretend to understand a thousandth of what the twelve sets of three panels say, but for me this was the most wonderful statement asking for us to understand this people.
These are some examples that struck me. I could go on – about Shubigi Rao’s focus in the Singapore pavilion on words lost and burnt to undermine cultures, of Muhannad Shono’s intriguing giant black-fronded fallen (but still breathing) The Teaching Tree of Saudi Arabia kept in the shadows, of. of, of…. It goes on. Some is deeply intellectual, others deeply visceral. Best for you to go visit in person if you can, but virtually will also be an important experience. Of course, don’t rely on my interpretation, this is just a narrative that sprung to mind as I tried to understand the rich set of works. Many more meanings are possible. The Biennale, presenting works of 213 artists from 58 countries goes on to 27 November 2022 in Venise.