The Impact of Venice's Biennale

Venice Biennale
By Antonio de la Hera and Sara Sudetic

Every other year, from early June until late November, Venice is dominated by the Biennale del Arte, commonly described as the "Olympics" of Art. Artists flock to the city, setting up countless official and unofficial pavilions in a variety of locations, from entrepôts to decadent palaces on the Grand Canal.

Dating back to the summer of 1895, the Biennale of Art was initially dedicated to showcasing Italian art, but slowly became more and more international. From 1905 onwards, other countries began constructing their own pavilions, dotting the Giardini with an eclectic mélange of architecture – the first glimpse the visitor gets of the underlying competition.

Throughout the Cold War, the Biennale set the stage for ideological rivalries: the abstract expressionism emanating from the US challenged the USSR’s Soviet realism by presenting works from the likes of Jackson Pollock, who was portrayed as a cultural cold warrior.

As well as introducing avant-garde into mainstream art, the Biennale became a platform for cultural reflection and political criticism when it presented a bold thematic exhibition in 1974, solely dedicated to Chile, as a form of protest against the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

This year’s theme, ILLUMInations, is a simple pun on two ideas: light, an intrinsic element in art, and nationalism, a more implicit political theme. The latter was very prominent: at the very entrance of the Biennale, the Moroccan artist Latifa Echakch presents a series of bare flag poles eerily  jutting out of the ground at erratic, awkward angles, setting the mood for the rest of the exhibition.

Some pavilions played with the idea of nationalism by putting forward artists from different countries and cultures. The US dominated the scene by flipping over a fifty-two ton military tank upon which track members of Team USA would run on treadmills. Although their exhibition played with typically American themes, such as liberty and capitalism, it was entirely made by a half-Cuban, half-American collective entirely based in Puerto Rico. Denmark also presented artists from around the globe, yet centred  their pavilion on a national topic: the freedom of speech, which has been intrinsic  in Danish politics since the Jyllands-Posten controversy surrounding the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005.

The Polish pavilion, however, embodied the theme of national identity the most directly, housing the Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana, the pavilion’s first non-Polish artist. Taking the Jewish Diaspora from Poland as the source for her work, Bartana created a fictional political movement, the "Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland", and told its story in a series of video pieces. The first portrays a young activist in the middle of an abandoned stadium, calling for the Jewish community to return to Poland, whilst the second depicts the imagined return, and the construction of a kibbutz on the grounds of what had been the Warsaw ghetto – now a park. The final film of the trilogy is a projection of a more unified Jewish and Polish community, following the assassination of the fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement’s leader. Whilst directly addressing contemporary Polish-Jewish relations, the issues of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, as well as the Zionist dream of a promised land, it leaves open to interpretation the very identity and sense of belonging of the Jewish community of Poland.

On a very different note, the recent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have greatly impacted the representation of the region in the Biennale. Indeed, both Bahrain and Lebanon withdrew from the Biennale due to domestic unrest. Egypt fully dedicated their pavilion to Ahmed Basiony, an Egyptan video artist killed during the unrest in January by an alleged sniper attack. His performance pieces mesh with footage taken by him from the first three days of protests in Tahrir Square. The pan-Arab pavilion, entitled "Future of a Promise", focuses upon the creation of a new, different Arab identity.

Although many pavilions preferred presenting themselves through a regional, or international lens one pavilion in particular managed to challenge the idea of nationality most radically. The "internet pavilion", after all, has no nationality, not even one inherited from its father, the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee. It managed to create an all-forgiving, utopian space for artists to present their nationality-neutral art.

Traditionally, the Biennale of Art also gives centre stage to a variety of political messages, inevitably leading to international quarrels and diplomatic faux-pas. Although its participants have managed to successfully navigate the potential minefield subject of nationalism, this year has proved to be no different than previous ones.  Indeed, the international Internet collective "Anonymous" have targeted the Biennale, using it as a platform for their political message. On the morning of 15 June, the words "SOLD OUT" were discovered on the walls of the Greek pavilion, implying for all to see that the Greek Entry, an installation playing on the idea of the "light at the end of the tunnel", had been "sold" to the International Monetary Fund. The US also came under activist assault: the slogan "Free Bradley Manning" was painted on its roof, deploring the detention of the US Army soldier suspected of having transferred confidential materials to Wikileaks. 

Through the years, the Venice Biennale has managed to create a platform for artistic expression from every corner of the globe. Like any event with such an international scope, it is not immune to the political rivalries and social tensions, which emerge throughout the Biennale, be it in the embellished architecture of national pavilions, or vandalism from activist groups. More importantly, however, the Biennale provides a space for cultural reflection and exchange, in which both artists and visitors are partaking, in, as the number of participating countries and pavilions keeps growing dramatically from year to year


Antonio de la Hera Gomez is currently studying Mixed Media Fine Art at Westminster University. Sara Sudetic is currently studying War Studies and History at King's College London. She has a passion for international justice and journalism and has interned for the Internationational Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Le Monde. She is particularly interested in the Balkans and the Middle East.


10 October 2011