(No) Politics in Venice

A curator waking up from a three-year coma and heading to the opening of the Venice Biennale straight from the hospital could be forgiven for thinking that little had happened in the world while they were unconscious. In the pavilions, palazzos, gardens, and warehouses of Venice, they would find little reference to the turmoil and unrest that have dominated news agendas since the last edition. Climate disaster must have been averted. The aftershocks of the last wave of social unrest must have died down. The discontents of imperialism must have found symbolic compensation. Ok, something’s up with Ukraine, but not for the first time. Why, did someone mention a pandemic? Perhaps the interesting times promised by Ralph Rugoff’s 2019 exhibition have failed to arrive.

On the surface, this year’s Biennale is in deep denial of the circumstances that have forced the event to shift from odd to even years. Save for the exhibition attendants’ shouts of mascherina, signore!, one will look for references to the virus in vain. Absent are the symbols of struggles for liberty and popular movements in the vein of Pedro Borràs’ Catalan 2019 entry[1]‘Marcel Borràs: Catalonia in Venice_To Lose Your Head (Idols) – Announcements – e-Flux’, e-flux, 24 April 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/247991/marcel-borrscatalonia-in-venice-to-lose-your-head-idols/. that called for the toppling of statues. If it weren’t for Barbara Kruger’s sloganeering installation,[2] Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Beginning/Middle/End), 2022, site-specific installation, 2022. there’s hardly a banner, a call, or a declaration in sight. Grand ideas may be name-checked in the catalogue (the curators of the Mexican pavilion, for example, spoke about decolonising the future)[3]‘The Curators of the Mexican Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale Discuss Decolonising the Future’, ArtReview, 15 April 2022, https://artreview.com/the-curators-of-the-mexican-pavilion-at-the-59th-venice-biennale-discuss-decolonising-the-future/. but one won’t find them elucidated on the walls, not in the manner of Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 project. Where Alexandra Bircken fetishistically knitted Angela Merkel in the last edition, or Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya accessorised her protest against Vladimir Putin’s election in 2015,[4]Gluklya and Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya, Clothes for Demonstation against False Election of Vladimir Putin, 2015 2011, installation, mix textile, wood, hand writing, 2015 2011, … see more politicians do not seem to have made it into this year’s official exhibitions at all. Even Leonora Carrington’s women somehow don’t reach the cult status of cyphers of art’s political potential. And there’s no trace of George Floyd.

Marcel Borràs, To Lose Your Head (Idols), 2019
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Beginning/Middle/End), 2022, site-specific installation, 2022
Alexandra Bircken, Angie, 2019
Gluklya, Clothes for Demonstation against false election of Vladimir Putin, 2011-2015

Cutting edge

The art world cognoscenti may frown at the notion that the biennial is a place where artists showcase their latest ideas and achievements. We scoff at naïve journalistic references to the ‘cutting edge’, preferring instead to employ euphemisms like ‘the current moment’, or to lose track of our place in history by faddishly embracing notions of the Anthropocene. But the biennial is obsessed with the contemporary and with its politics. For much of the past two decades that saw the rise of political, critical, and engaged art, artists used the platform of the biennial to take stands on the material and issues of their day. Overt politics is what we have come to expect from art. It is perhaps no surprise then that one hack unversed in artspeak prognosticated that this year’s Biennale would be dominated by politics and protest.[5]‘Protests and Politics Will Dominate This Year’s Biennale’, The Economist, 23 April 2022, https://www.economist.com/europe/2022/04/23/protests-and-politics-will-dominate-this-years-biennale. Another journalist took a more ‘informed’ view claiming that artists would surely continue to blow up the system in the face of capitalist opposition,[6]Kate Brown, ‘Venice Biennale Artists Want to Blow Up the Art System. But for Power-Brokers Around Town, That System Was in Full Flower’, Artnet News, 25 April 2022, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/venice-biennale-scene-report-2104294. almost as to excuse art’s feeble and selfish response to some of the past years’ greatest challenges.[7]Pierre d’Alancaisez, ‘Art in Solidarity with Itself’, Arts of the Working Class (Berlin, March 2021), http://artsoftheworkingclass.org/text/art-in-solidarity-with-itself.

Stan Douglas, Tunis, 23 January 2011, from the series 2011 ≠ 1848, 2021
Aki Sasamoto, Sink or Float, 2022
Installation view of Planet B, curate by Nicolas Bourriaud/Radicants, 2022

But neither the protests nor the tabloid politics materialised: there is little explicit politics in this year’s Venice Biennale. Very few works, if any, engage with the pandemic and one attributes the Brownian motion on Aki Sasamoto’s air hockey table to the virus without guidance.[8]Aki Sasamoto, Sink or Float, 2022, mixed-media installation, 2022, https://universes.art/en/venice-biennale/2022/the-milk-of-dreams-tour-6/aki-sasamoto. Few artists have taken on the civil unrest of the pandemic as the topic or matter of their work, with Stan Douglas’ observation that the Springtime of Nations of 1848 was distinct from the civil unrests of 2011 a rather bizarre exception.[9]Megan Willaims, ‘Stan Douglas Is Canada’s Artist at Venice Biennale but Bristles at Notion of “Representing Canada”’, CBC News, 23 April 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/stand-douglas-venice-biennale-prtest-1.6425817. The climate crisis hardly made it onto the agenda either, save for Nicolas Bourriaud’s Planet B whose penchant for the 3D-printed organic form is the antithesis of Greta Thunberg’s climate strike.[10]Radicants Curatorial cooperative, ‘PLANET B, climate change and the new sublime, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud’, Radicants, 2022, https://radicants.com/.

Return to form

Has art abandoned its penchant for politics? Have its goals changed? Or has it merely turned to other means? If there appears to be a uniting thread in this year’s Biennale, it is that art has lost its impulse to deal with the present in the present. Instead, it has opted to return to a preoccupation with form. Many of the shows – not least Cecilia Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams – are filled with subdued painting and sculpture, eschewing the spectacular and the incendiary usually expected of Venice.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this wholesale return to form is a turn away from art’s political aspirations. The very gesture of bringing together a majority female show is an act of politics (an idea that  Alemani has denied but has nonetheless been accused of curating by numbers),[11]Ben Luke, ‘The Women-Dominated Venice Biennale Has Been Criticised for Sacrificing Quality—Revealing Just How Necessary Such Progressive Projects Really Are’, The Art Newspaper, 27 April 2022, … see more all be it one that plays into the most mechanistic ideas of what art can be. Elsewhere, the Nordic countries ceding ground to the Sámi Pavilion rung equally diplomatic.[12]‘The Sámi Pavilion’, Office for Contemporary Art Norway, 2022, https://oca.no/thesamipavilion.

To find artistic politics in Venice, one has to consider form and matter on their own terms: in the long term. A week can be a long time in politics but the biennial comes after only three years. Suddenly, ‘the current moment’ manifests itself with the muted urgency of static objects. In many places, this contemplation is rewarding, as in the case of Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’ picture-palace installation in the Polish pavilion devoted to Roma histories and identities or in Zineb Sedira’s slow and deliberately homely film set in the French pavilion.

Zineb Sedira, Dreams have no titles, 2022
Małgorzata Mirga-Tas ‘Re-enchanting the World’, production view, 2022, photo Daniel Raumiancew
Gian Maria Tosatti, History of the Night and the Fate of Comets, 2022
Yuki Kihara, Paradise Camp, 022

There are also misses in which we see artists attempting to harness the political nature of space, such as in the gimmicky industro-apocalyptic installation by Gian Maria Tosatti in the Italian pavilion that the artist suggested would be political precisely because it was intimate.[13]‘“It Will Be Intimate, Therefore, Political”: Gian Maria Tosatti on Representing Italy at the 59th Venice Biennale’, ArtReview, 20 April 2022, … see more But spectacle is no obstacle: New Zealand’s Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara is as bombastic as a season finale of Ru Paul’s Drag Race but subtly addresses revisionist histories and identity politics with far more nuance than a Guardian op-ed.

What motivated this change? It may be that events have finally outpaced art’s wit: unable to find the time to deal in abstractions, artists cannot keep up even with the production of artistic hot takes. What of value and on deadline could art contribute to the complex realities of the pandemic? Perhaps the suspension of the biennale schedule allowed some to break out of the creativity rat race. 

Events continue to unfold

But this reprieve is likely to be only temporary as events continue to unfold. The Biennale may have had little to say about the war in Ukraine but some artists were obliged to make their mark. For the Russian delegation, the decision to pull out[14]Kate Brown, ‘The Artists and Curator Behind the Russia Pavilion Have Pulled Out of the Venice Biennale Amid the Ongoing War in Ukraine’, Artnet News, 28 February 2022, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/russia-pavilion-closed-2078616. would have been a matter of choosing between credible futures in their local or global art scenes. One can imagine that the calculation was radically different for Alexei Kuzmich whose blasphemous intervention outside the Russian Pavilion landed him in jail but received only a nodding response from the preview crowds. The actor Aleksey Yudnikov who staged a less incendiary but similarly provocative performance a day earlier had the foresight to secure the attention of the press and the support of the NGO Artists at Risk.[15]Hannah McGivern and José da Silva, ‘Ukrainian Actor Performs with Putin Mask on His Crotch Outside the Venice Biennale’s Russian Pavilion’, The Art Newspaper, 22 April 2022, … see more

Alexei Kuzmich outside the Russian Pavilion, 22 April 2022

Beyond a modest presentation in its pavilion, Ukraine outsourced its national response to a private contractor. Under what one imagines was considerable pressure but with no shortage of cash, the Victor Pinchuk Foundation presented a heavy-handed exhibition branded with a handwritten message from Volodymyr Zelenskyy whose gala opening included a streamed address by the president.[16]Julia Halperin, ‘Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Makes an Urgent Plea at the Venice Biennale for the Art World to Shine a Light on Ukraine’, Artnet News, 21 April 2022, … see more It’s hard not to contrast this presentation in a grand historical venue fit more for Jeff Koons sculptures than for contemplations of war with Ukraine’s 2015 pavilion, also commissioned by Pinchuk Art Centre, which cramped a group of artists into a temporary glass structure and asked them to pose for publicity photographs with an Instagram-friendly banner declaring that they have hope.[17]‘Preview Days and First Visitors at Pavilion of Ukraine at the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia’, Pinchuk Art Centre, accessed 6 May 2022, http://pinchukartcentre.org/photo_and_video/photo/28583.

Seven years on, the works in This is Ukraine made by Yevgenia Belorusets, Nikita Kadan,[18]I used to represent the artist Nikita Kadan, who showed in both these exhibitions, at my gallery waterside contemporary. and Lesia Khomenko under Russian occupation are suitably moving and harrowing. But just like in 2015, Pinchuk did not pass up an opportunity to remind us that war is good for business by inviting the likes of Takashi Murakami, Olafur Eliasson, and Damien Hirst to celebrate their “deep connection to [Ukraine] whilst forming a common front against the war.”[19]‘This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom’, Pinchuk Art Centre, 2022, https://new.pinchukartcentre.org/thisisukraine-en. Would it be in bad taste to question what connection Hirst has to Ukraine, other than being keenly collected and exhibited by Pinchuk? Would it be in even worse taste for Hirst to have produced one of his butterfly paintings depicting the Ukrainian flag to order and to have already placed it in an undisclosed ‘private collection’?

Damien Hirst, Sky Over Corn Field, 2022

If further evidence were needed that institutionalised art may find itself irredeemable when it tries to tackle explicit political issues, one should look to the streets of Venice. Among the anti-fascist graffiti familiar from any Italian street were posters advocating for the closure of an oligarch-supported art centre in Venice and a genocidal “sinking [of] the [Russian] horde into oblivion.”[20]‘CANCEL RUSSIA’, accessed 6 May 2022, https://cancelrussia.info/. Whever political turn art’s return to form signals, the realities of a chaotic, antagonistic world will return to the spotlight only too soon.

A poster in Venice
Poster concerning the V-A-C foundation in Venice
A poster in Venice
A poster in Venice