The International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice, as its inaugural edition in 1895 was known, was the first such event conceived as a global meeting. In 1907, the first national pavilion – Belgium’s – was built in Venice’s spacious Giardini, a public park at the eastern tip of the island. Over the next 25 years, many western European countries and the US followed suit, building their own permanent pavilions there.
For the next 50 years, fewer than 20 countries participated but that number rose after 1945 and again in the 1980s and 1990s. Soon the Giardini reached capacity and nowadays countries rent spaces in the old shipbuilding hangars of the Arsenale or around the city.
This year’s event, the 55th, is entitled The Encyclopedic Palace and curated by Massimiliano Gioni. Young and fresh artists abound but this year’s Golden Lions go to two European veterans, Marisa Merz, aged 83, and Maria Lassnig, 94.
At the Biennale’s heart, the curated International Exhibition provides thematic coherence but what undoubtedly sets Venice apart from other biennales is its nationalistic flavour. Yet the national pavilion model now looks anachronistic: many artists live and work outside their native countries, while a class of globetrotting curators, collectors, gallerists and hangers-on flits from biennale to art fair to gallery opening.
So, in one way, Venice may seem outdated yet it is apparently increasingly popular, with new hopefuls finding space in the crowded city each year. Of the 88 participants this year, 10 are first-timers, whose names tell a complicated geopolitical story: Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu, the Holy See. I spoke to a range of artists and curators about why the Venice Biennale still matters.
Alfredo Jaar, artist, Chilean pavilion
“I was first invited to Venice in 1986 and that exhibition put me on the international map of the art world. I was a young, unknown artist from Chile living in New York, and this was not the globalised art world that we’re living in today: it was very difficult to penetrate the bunker of the western art world.
The potential for a great audience is huge, so I am looking forward to sharing my ideas this year. But Venice is still an exclusive club. Things have changed slowly but the official pavilions in the Giardini still gather the most attention. You have 160 countries that are not represented officially and, when they are, they have to struggle financially to find a space in Venice. My piece, Venezia, Venezia, responds to the fact that a small country like Chile has to rent a space in the Arsenale to be present.
The national pavilion model does not represent at all what the world of culture has become. I see a [not too distant] future where the entire Giardini will become a park of exhibitions and the curator will invite artists from around the world to occupy it. Slowly, the pavilions will fade into history.”
Susanne Gaensheimer, curator, German pavilion
“More countries each year decide to participate in the Venice Biennale. It seems to be really important for countries to represent themselves through art in an international context.
It is really important for us to have the chance to decide how to represent Germany this year – to represent it as a place of cosmopolitanism, where there’s an international art scene. In our daily reality we can see that our society becomes more diverse. The three international artists I have chosen [Ai Weiwei, Santu Mofokeng and Dayanita Singh] all have a strong relationship to Germany, but it was also important for me that there is one German artist [Romuald Karmakar] in the group.
I chose to represent the country by thinking about national identity as an open concept not as a closed one. This relates to our decision to switch pavilions with France, which was suggested 10 years ago and this year everyone agreed that we should do it.
I don’t think the national pavilion model has become outdated – as long as you think of national identity as representing the complexities of a country. The national pavilion is not only about showing the most famous artist in one country.”
Gilad Ratman, artist, Israeli pavilion
“The Biennale is a huge challenge for me. [This is Ratman’s first time exhibiting. Born in 1975, he is the youngest artist ever to represent Israel.] The first challenge is scale – working in a pavilion which is three levels – and the second is the format of the Biennale: the tension between the concepts of nationality and the global world.
For the Biennale, I am trying to create something that is quite funny and absurd. It’s about a journey underground that starts in Israel and ends up in the Israeli pavilion in Venice. Moving underground is moving without borders because national definitions do not count. The internet works like that: you click “here” and you are “there” and you cannot see the route you travel. But, actually, everything is being mapped by Google so maybe the only way to move without being watched is to go back to the old way – under the ground.
The national pavilion is a cute concept. Of course, it smells like yesterday and we can say it’s old school but it brings a discussion. Nowadays our identity is being shaped by different models, but still the model of the nation state is maybe the strongest.”
Stefano Rabolli Pansera, co-curator, Angolan pavilion
“I am an architect working in Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa. In 2012, my partner Paula Nascimento and I proposed to the Angolan minister of culture that they participate in the Architectural Biennale [the Venice Biennales for art and architecture happen on alternate years].
Angola is one of the fastest growing economies and one of the largest exporters of oil to China. My argument to the minister was that, as it becomes an economic centre in Africa, it is important that Angola takes a stand from the cultural point of view. The Biennale is not simply an entertainment, it is really a moment of critical reflection upon the development of Luanda [Angola’s capital] and how artists can contribute.
We were keen to answer to the theme of [this year’s International Exhibition], The Encyclopedic Palace. We are exhibiting the work of a young talented photographer called Edson Chagas, who takes pictures of derelict objects in Luanda. It becomes a sort of catalogue of urban conditions; he discovers a beauty in the daily objects we dismiss. Venice is a great opportunity for an unknown Angolan artist to introduce his work to the world art community.”
Stamatina Gregory, deputy curator, Bahamian pavilion
“This is the first time for the Bahamas at Venice. We thought it was an interesting platform because people usually see the Bahamas as a tourist destination. Coming to the Biennale is an initiative on the part of the country. It’s really about people who want to join the conversation, a conversation which started in the 19th century with colonial powers displaying their cultural spoils. Now the Biennale is seen as a place where you can assert a national identity, so you have places participating such as Catalonia, which has being trying to assert itself as a nation for decades.
It’s exciting to take part in a new pavilion. It’s a chance to say something not only about the artist [Tavares Strachan] but about the supposedly transnational space of the Venice Biennale. The national pavilion is a curious anachronism; it makes for a complicated space that many artists try to deconstruct.
Although none of [the three curators] are Bahamian, we’re well suited because of our long relationship with Tavares. But it would be seriously remiss if future curators were not from the Bahamas. This is the beginning of a process, not the statement on Bahamian cultural production in the international arena.”
Venice Biennale, June 1-November 24, www.labiennale.org