Nations and Illuminations

The 54th Venice Biennale: in La Serenissima, the avant-garde is (serenely) political

Track and Field: The artwork by Allora and Calzadilla, an upturned tank with a jogger, sends a loud message. | Photo: Andrew Bordwin

Two vaporetto stops from the Piazza San Marco and its maddening crowds, junk souvenirs made in China and glowing heat, we land at the Giardini and the site of the Venice Biennale. The entrance beckons at the end of a wide gravel corridor, under the shade of hundred-year-old sycamore trees and past well-laid-out flower beds. Venice may be sinking into the Adriatic, but the Biennale is still uncompromisingly making a statement that is heard around the world, at least the art world.

We follow the noise of an unbelievable racket that guides us straight to the centre of the park. An upturned tank has landed in front of the U.S. pavilion, the metal plates of its treads facing the sky and making a horrendous din as they turn, going nowhere. Perched on one of the treads is a sport-club treadmill, topped by a pretty runner with a blond pigtail jogging along at the same speed the tank is trying to move.

Our jaws drop.

The work by U.S. artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla is called Track and Field. It grabs you by the throat. As calmly described by Calzadilla, it is a “re-organization of the things in the world.”

The Biennale has a long tradition of melding art and politics. In 1974, the entire Biennale focused on Chile as a cultural protest of Pinochet’s dictatorship. The title of this year’s exhibit is Illuminations. While not as politicized, it is clearly making a statement. The artists are still divided according to nations. And this huge show of cultural diversity still illuminates separateness. A comment on a cross-cultural world in search of identity?

The Venice Biennale is often described as the Olympics of modern art. One of the largest art exhibits in the world, this year’s 54th exhibition features 89 national participants. Open until Nov. 27, it is an excellent excuse to go to Venice for a long weekend, although a month would be better.

At the Giardini there are 30 permanent national pavilions. But each year the number of participating countries has grown: This year Haiti, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia are represented for the first time. And Iraq has returned after a 35-year absence. The Biennale now has venues all over Venice.

Needless to say, this art show is too big to experience in one visit.

We take in a fleeting glimpse of a clever video of lines being drawn in the sand in the Israeli pavilion, and a film of slow-motion soldiers camouflaged by thousands of flowers in the Korean pavilion. Austria’s contribution includes a neurotic-tinged video of someone climbing over an open door (there must be an easier way to get it). Egypt shows footage of the protests in Tahrir Square as a memorial to the artist Ahmed Basiony, killed there during the Egyptian revolution in January.

Heads still spinning from the up-side-down tank, we enter the Polish pavilion. At the door we are issued membership cards to the JRMiP (The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland). We are particularly perplexed and wonder if this is some kind of cruel hoax. “Is there really such a movement?” we wonder.

This question is particularly relevant to one of us, whose ethnicity is both Polish and Jewish – a member of a family that survived the Shoah but fled from Poland in the spring of 1968 to Canada in order to escape an anti-Semitic communist party campaign that forced almost 15,000 people to leave as refugees to the West. We enter the pavilion, emotionally charged and sharing conflicting feelings of unresolved resentment and a yearning for closure and reconciliation.

Poland, 20 years after the fall of communism, would like to be seen by the world as open and tolerant, especially since the country currently holds the mantel of the rotating EU presidency. But the official view of thriving social enlightenment is often belied by signs of well-entrenched nationalism and xenophobia.

Enter Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana. The first non-Pole to represent Poland in the history of Biennale, her film trilogy …and Europe Will Be Stunned is turning national representation at the Biennale on its head.

The stirring exhibit is made up of three short films. The first, Mary Koszmary (Nightmare), is an almost patriotic appeal to Jews, now scattered all over the globe, to return to the land of their forefathers: Poland.

In a naïve and humanistic appeal, Sławomir Sierakowski, a young, well-known Polish journalist, calls on Jews who fled to return, and appeals to his fellow Poles to welcome them back. “Jews! Fellow countrymen! People! Peeeeeeople!” Sierakowski’s voice resonates in a nearly empty stadium.

It is an ironic touch: The Catholic and ultra-nationalist broadcaster “Radio Maria” in Poland often refers to Jews in a clandestine fashion by using the phrase “those people.”

The second segment of this “docu-drama” is the film Wall and Tower. It records the construction, opposite the Warsaw Ghetto monument, of what Bartana calls “the first kibbutz in Europe.” We see bright-eyed and eager pioneers resettling in the home of their grandparents, constructing a kibbutz in Warsaw’s city centre. The artist wryly plays on the ideological heart-string exhortations of both Communism and Zionism: the creation of a better future world, notions of equality and the sense of belonging to the collective whole.

In the background, we hear the Polish national anthem, overlapped with portions of the Israeli anthem Hatikvah played backwards.

Of course, it is science fiction even to consider Jews of Polish heritage returning en masse to their ancestral homeland. But Bartana’s vision of “New Europe” is that of an experimental societal form, a concept that could be transferred to many places in the world.

Posters of the fictional political movement’s manifesto are displayed. They are printed on a red background in white lettering: symbolically in Polish, Hebrew, and the language of the host country, Italian.

It begins: “We want to return! Not to Uganda, not to Argentina or to Madagascar, not even to Palestine. It is Poland that we long for, the land of our fathers and forefathers.”

And it ends with lines of hope and faith in an elusive cause, a dream based on a collective nightmare:

“With one religion, we cannot listen.

With one color, we cannot see.

With one culture, we cannot feel.

Without you, we can’t even remember.

Join us, and Europe will be stunned!”

And so were we.

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