National Pavillions & Collateral Events at 58th Venice Biennale

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Brazilian Pavilion. Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca."Swinguerra", Video Installation. Foto: María Muñoz

It is May and 2019, in Spring every odd year since its first iteration 1895 —with a few interruptions during World Wars I and II—, the Venice Biennale of Art arrives at the Italian island-city. Founded by the Venetian City Council, the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition has been done ever since. This year celebrates its 58th iteration which opened to the public past Saturday, May 11th and runs until November 24th, 2019.

“The Olympics of the art world” captures some of the international spirits of the art scene and rather than being just a single big show organized by one lucky artistic director, it is a kind of freewheeling event composed of numerous elements. The Biennale consists of three parts: a central exhibition entitled May You Live In Interesting Times organized by the artistic director, the national pavilions organized by the countries, each offering a show of one or more artists, and last but not least independently organized exhibitions tagged by the Biennale as official Collateral Events.

In addition to national pavilions & collateral events, plus central exhibition, numerous museum, independent shows, and off-site projects, likewise open their doors during the Biennale.

Ninety nations countries present pavilions during the Biennale, an all-time record as the previous high mark was set in 2017, with eighty-six official pavilions.

Nations will stage their own curated exhibitions at the Giardini, a garden that includes 29 permanent pavilions. In 1980 the Biennale expanded to the Arsenale, a former naval shipyard, which now hosts 23 pavilions. The remaining 28 nations are located across the city, from San Marco to Giudecca. National Pavilions include this year Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia, and Pakistan, who will participate for the first time. At the last moment Argelia, Angola and Kazakhstan dropped out and Venezuela will open mid-May, not on time, due to current political issues.

This second article es dedicated to highlighting some of the national participations and their exhibition thematics.

Winner: LithuaniaSun & Sea (Marina)

On Climate Change

The international jury decided winners of this year edition on Saturday, May 11th. Lithuania won the Golden Lion for best pavilion where a naval warehouse with the help of 35 tons of Lithuanian sand, has been transformed into a fake beach for Sun & Sea (Marina).

We look down from a balustrade on the holiday-makers below, kids building sandcastles, dogs relaxing with owners, tourists sunning themselves on towels, oiling up and eating ices. The work of theatre director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, playwright Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė is an opera that last almost one hour.

This hypnotic and seductive performance is beautifully sung by the tourists as we watch from upstairs. They are focused on their vacations, but reality keeps intruding.

“This year the sea is as green as a forest,” the chorus intones near the conclusion, with a touch of noble sorrow. “Eutrophication! / Botanical gardens are flourishing in the sea / The water blooms / Our bodies are covered with a slippery green fleece / Our swimsuits are filling up with algae.”

This astonishing performance about climate change is a lament to the eclipse of the world, as the sky and sea are being irreversibly damaged and nature dies in front of our eyes.

Giardini

Giardini host individual the building pavilions of Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Netherlands, Russia, Spain, US, Denmark, Austria, Israel, Switzerland, Japan, Finland, Canada, Uruguay, the Nordic Countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland), Australia and Korea.

Special Mention: Belgium. Mondo Cane

On National Identity

A special mention has been awarded to Belgium as National Participation.

The artist Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys have filled the pavilion with animatronic figures, folkloric weavers, a baker rolling pastry, a pianist, a beggar quivering with the cold, and other assorted personages going through their dismal mechanical motions. Some are locked behind bars, as though the pavilion, and perhaps the country itself, were a 19th-century asylum. Despite the childlike exterior of these automatons, underpinning them are the existential crises hitting western Europe today.

On Dance and Music as Weapons

Brazil. Swinguerra

In the Brazilian Pavilion, the artist duo —a husband-and-wife team— Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca present a new film, Swinguerra centered on dance subcultures popular in Recife (North coast of Brazil). The pavilion set up shows two big screens confronted maybe to simulate the dance battles held between adversaries. There are three groups rehearsing different dance styles brega, batidão do maloca, and swingueira (thus the piece’s title, with the modification to include guerra=war). The dance originates in the favelas on the outskirts of the city and almost all dancers are people of colour, a heritage of its slavery past, only abolished in 1888. The North, where the biggest plantations where located has big disproportion in money and power among its inhabitants.

The dancers dance off against one another in groups, like some crazily sexed-up version of West Side Story. The choreography is hyper-stylized and dancers wear sport crop tops, booty shorts, and body stockings, many of them are gender non-binary and they are fully aware of their visual allure and physical power. It feels like an affirmation of the self-expression of communities that are sensationalized and stereotyped while remaining politically invisible and silenced. This statement seems more important than ever due to Brazil’s current far-right-wing Jair Bolsonaro presidency.

Switzerland. Moving Backwards

In the Swiss pavilion another duo, Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, take on dance as well, on a film where they, themselves, dance with a number of regular collaborators where they execute different types of gestures and movements going backward. They go fast, they go slow, moving in and out of frame. The moves are studied, balletic and buffoonish. Club aesthetics dominates the pavilion: between us and the screen is a dancefloor. Lights come up and down, and a glittering curtain in front of the screen slides around. “We will move backward,” the artists say, “because strange encounters might be a pleasant starting point for something unforeseen to happen.”

On Liquid Identities and Ecosystems

France. Deep See Blue Surrounding You

Beneath her phantasmagoric takeover of the French pavilion, Laure Prouvost is “supposedly” digging a tunnel to the nearby British Pavilion, probably just to remediate the BREXIT thing and connect the UK with France (Europe again)… The action itself problematizes the nationalist values implicit in an international event like the Biennale, which is ultimately a competition with an award for the winning country. In the pavilion, Prouvost, the former Turner prize winner, has sculpted eels and an octopus, broken mobile phones and smashed eggshells, a pigeon has a cigarette in its mouth and other dreck litter over a green glass floor of the French pavilion.

The main work is a new film which visitors can watch from inside the belly of an octopus —a metaphor for the fluidity of contemporary identity. The film takes the form of an initiatory journey, filmed over the course of a road trip through France and finally arriving in Venice. The piece has dialogues in French and English with some Italian, Arabic or Dutch passages performed by a dozen of characters of different ages and backgrounds, with specific performance skills: magic, dance, music, etc. The preview week, the French pavilion was the most desired, having waiting lines of more than an hour to access.

Japan. Cosmo-Eggs

The Japanese Pavilion seeks to create a space to ponder coexistence during the brink of extinction. The exhibition revolves around how Japanese people can create an ecosystem which allows humans and nonhumans to successfully coexist and it takes its lead from ‘tsunami stones’, natural rocks that hold the memories of natural disasters. Artist Motoyuki Shitamichi has been documenting the stones, which also hold religious, mythological and folklore connotations, for more than four years. For the pavilion, he has worked with composer Taro Yasuno, anthropologist Toshiaki Ishikura, and architect Fuminori Nousaku to build a public square where the stones are assimilated as monuments, a unified space filled with film, music, and speech in an attempt to create a collective experience.

Spain. Perforated

On Biopolitical Concerns and Gender Issues

Canada. Isuma

On Colonialism and Displacement

Zacharias Kunuk has been involved in projects give visibility to the Inuit culture and its language Inuktitut by creating a film production company, called Isuma, which gives the name to Canada pavilion. Kunuk, joins his partner and fellow filmmaker Norman Cohn and the rest of the Isuma team, based in Igloolik, to present a new film in the pavilion, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk.

In line with Isuma’s many documentaries of Inuit history and life –examinations of indigenous traditions and belief, conflicts with settler colonialism and struggles for survival on the tundra–  the film examine the long century (from 1876 to 1996) in which the Canadian government forcibly displaced indigenous people from remote communities to formally registered towns to attend English-language Federal Day Schools.

Arsenale

The Arsenale hosts the Pavilions of Albania, Argentina, Chile, China, Croatia, United Arab Emirates, Philippines, Georgia, Ghana, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, Malta, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, South Africa, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Turkey. We, Elsewhere

On Emigrants and Refugees

Turkish artist Inci Eviner has created a multimedia exhibition which also includes architecture. One walk up and down a series of ramps, into small chambers, and around corners to encounter videos projected onto the walls, wall and floor drawings, and performers moving like contortionists through a series of sculptures made from cut chairs and beds. According to the artist, the work is based on Hannah Arendt text We Refugees from 1943. Eviner tries to explore the disappearing of gestural language when bodies emigrated to a country with a different language. The emigrant is always looking for the part that left in the country of origin, hence the half chairs and beds. She has work with actors and dancers to develop a symbolic language of gestures to express feelings as the expressions of the Comedia dell’Arte masks.

Ghana. Ghana Freedom

Participating for the first time at the Biennale Ghana pavilion is one of the most celebrated in this edition. It has been curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim who had the renowned deceased critic and curator Okwui Enwezor as a strategic advisor. The exhibition’s title is borrowed from the 1957 song, composed by E.T Mensah on the eve of independence from Britain. Each elliptically-shaped space is dedicated to one of the six artists spanning three generations of Ghanaian creativity. Felicia Abban, considered to be Ghana’s first professional female photographer, and the painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye offer approaches to representation with their works of portraiture. These are complemented with large-scale works from El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama, a 3-channel video work from John Akomfrah and a film sculpture by Selasi Awusi Sosu.

India. Our Time for a Future Caring

On Pacifism

For its second-time presence at the Venice Biennale –and after an eight-year hiatus– the India Pavilion revisit the philosophy of M. K. Gandhi, on the 150th year of his birth, focusing on his writings on non-violence and considering his philosophical ideas and their place in today’s complex world, in which violence and intolerance are still prevalent. The group show of seven artists includes Nandalal Bose tempera on paper panels, commissioned by Gandhi in 1938 with scenes of village life; Jitish Kallat installation Covering Letter which takes Gandhi’s 1939 letter to Hitler. In revisiting these historical documents, Kallat calls attention to the possibilities of peace and tolerance in a world plagued by violence, control, and surveillance. Atul Dodiya cabinets move beyond curiosities into the pages of history and memory by keeping in them references as home, street, shrine, bazaar, and museum. Shakuntala Kulkarni photo performance where she uses costumes-cages made of cane which are also exhibited here. Ashim Purkayastha GR Iranna, and Rummana Hussain complete the list.

Pavilions Around Venice: From Arsenale Docks to Giudecca

Countries who joined the Biennale in more recent years, and who do not have spaces in the Giardini or the Arsenale, set up their exhibitions in Palazzos across Venice as well as on various islands around the Venetian Lagoon. 21 collateral events take place across the city throughout the duration of the Biennale.

From Multi-Sensorial Experience to Horror of War

Iceland. Chromo Sapiens

 

 

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