27 September 2011

Illuminations and observations (part four)

The Black Arch, Raja and Shadia Alem
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
Continuing on at the Biennale...

One of the obvious functions of the National Pavilions are as a tool for propaganda. This was the primary motivation for the construction of the original permanent pavilions and throughout their history governments both good and bad have bent them towards their ideological wills. A record 89 nations are hosting pavilions this year, spilling out across the piazzas and canal-fronts of the city, and even a quick perusal of the venues rented give an indication of the intent behind the exhibition within, with the biggest, brashest and most opulent palazzos playing host to the oil and gas rich states of the former Soviet Union. The intent is clear, "we are the new economic powerhouses", they are saying, "we have the money to buy your culture, and to impose our own".

But even here things did not always go according to the national script with Azerbaijan censoring pieces in its own exhibition on the orders of its President shortly after its official opening. Two sculptures by Aidan Salakhova were covered up after President Ilham Aliyev accused them of being offensive to both Islam and his country, though the official word is that they were 'damaged in transit'. I gave the pavilion a wide birth so missed all this excitement, but the challenges of interpreting and accepting State-sanctioned art presented themselves throughout the Biennale.

What should you do when you come across the Chinese Pavilion? At the start of the Biennale back in June artist Ai Weiwei was still under arrest and detained at an undisclosed location by the Chinese Government. Protests against his imprisonment were many at the Biennale, featured in the work of individual artists and the media-friendly acts of activist groups alike, and yet there didn't seem to be any great attempt to boycott the Chinese pavilion at the Biennale, folks were just wandering in and out the same as any other part of the exhibition. Its as if an attempt was being made to separate the actions of the State from the physicality of the national Pavilion, an absurdity given the Pavilion's existence as an arm of the State, with State-sanctioned artists being displayed therein.

Beyond a response to a single flash-point, how do you react when what is presented is objectionable in the context of the nature of the regime presenting it?

The Black Arch, Raja and Shadia Alem
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
Take the Saudi Arabian pavilion at the Arsenale for example, comprising a single piece The Black Arch by sisters Raja and Shadia Alem. A large black oblong monolith sits in the centre of a darkened room, highly polished and reflective. On the ground to one side a series of metal spheres cascade way across the floor in concentric hemispheres, there surface reflecting and reflecting in the obsidian oblong the spill away from. In the midst of these spheres and defiantly off-centre there arises a polished cube, balanced precariously on a corner, a single Rubiks-cubelet absent from the top. Projections spill across the spheres and onto the floor with geometric designs, stylised Venetian and Arabian architecture and artworks, all accompanied by the sounds of water, bazaars and marketplaces and everyday human life.

Conceived by the sisters when sitting in Marco Polo airport on their way home from the 2009 Biennale, The Black Arch links Mecca and Venice, The Kaaba and the canals, Islam and the west and all the travelers between the two, all the time holding a mirror up at the audience exposing them to their own prejudices. As a piece of art it could hardly be a better flagship to the west of the warm and cuddly nature of the modern Saudi regime. "Look", they say, "its by two women (never mind about the way in which women are brutally repressed at home), it references our religion in a non-confrontational way (please ignore the way our state-sanction brand of conservative faith kills those with doctrinal differences) and it shows the way in which our two faiths have traditionally, and will continue to, coexist peacefully (pay no attention to the massive amounts of oil-revenue that we pump into terrorist organsiations intent on wiping you all from the face of the earth).

As a piece of pure propogandic artifice it works on so many levels, but can it be viewed purely as 'Art' in isolation to all these external weights?

Which brings us squarely to the American pavilion.

Track and Field, Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla
from Gloria, United States of America Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
Gloria is a series of six pieces by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla that occupy the interior and exterior of the building. As you approach you are immediately confronted by a upended tank resting on its turret with the barrel aimed squarely at you. Atop the treads sits a treadmill, and periodically throughout the day a runner climbs onto the treadmill, which appears powered by the moving tank tread, and runs. The performance continues inside where two resin replicas of business-class airline seats, one American Airlines, one Delta, play host to the live routines of former Olympic athletes decked out in full Team USA regalia, a Statue of Liberty lies within a sun-bed and a working ATM is connected to an over-sized musical organ, the notes played out by the live withdrawal of cash.

The artists are resident in Puerto Rico (Calzadilla was born in Cuba), and if asked will no doubt explain they are commenting on the nature of competition and nationalism of which the pavilions at the Biennale themselves are an integral part, and the contrast inherent in US promotion of Democracy and its militaristic misadventures abroad, all wrapped up in the banner of that most sacred of American cows, the concept of Free Speech. "Look," they cry, "we are using Government money to criticise both our own culture and the actions of the very Government that is paying for this. Aren't we subversive and radical? Isn't America great for letting us do such things?".

And herein lies the first of many problems with the pavilion, State-sponsored criticism of the State is still propaganda, no matter what the intent of the artist. You can't subvert a Government sanctioned exhibit when by tolerating such an attempt the State is signaling to the audience its munificence. The parallels with the Saudi exhibit here are obvious, both are presenting a public face to the world, its just the Americans (as usual) are wearing much more make-up.

Body in Flight (American), Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla featuring David Durante
from Gloria, United States of America Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
My second issue with the pavilion lies with the nature of the work itself beyond who is holding the purse-strings. Even if the artists are attempting to subvert the global US war machine they still end-up glorifying it, no matter how ironic the original intent, and that for me is unforgivable. To refer once again to Badiou's Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, the central proscription for Contemporary Art should be against promoting Empire. "The only maxim", he states, "is not to be Imperial" and finishes with the fifteenth and final thesis, "It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent".

A tank is a tank is a tank, and you cannot subvert it, even if you painted it pink and sold ice cream and flowers from its turret it would still only serve to highlight the fact that it is a tank, an embodiment of death and oppression and, regardless of the original intent of the artists, slapping an athlete on top twice a day to the virtual chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" while the innocent are slaughtered in Afghanistan and Iraq is genuinely obscene, the only work in the whole Biennale against which that label can actually be applied.

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