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At Venice Biennale a multinational attempt “to make sense of the current upheaval”

by Milena Vercellino


“How can artists, thinkers, writers, composers, choreographers, singers, and musicians, through images, objects, words, movement, actions, lyrics, sound bring together publics in acts of looking, listening, responding, engaging, speaking in order to make sense of the current upheaval?” was one of curator Okwui Enwezor's far-flung starting questions when laying the theoretical foundations for the 2015 Venice Biennale, running through November 22, 2015.

And this year's Biennale is indeed a very political one, overtly questioning the main issues and struggles of our time, from global warming to social exploitation, from cultural identity to exile and diaspora, from the refugee crisis to Europe's divided past, from Neoliberalism to Postcolonialism, from the debris of history to the representational capacity of art.

As the Biennale comes to an end, with just a few weeks to go, let's take one last stroll through some of its most politics-laden pavilions.

A bombshell of political criticism - told through a playful and wide-ranging, multi-faceted installation spanning across six rooms and including graphic art, videos, and music - is delivered by Luxembourg, whose pavilion evokes Dante's Paradiso, the movie Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore, and tax havens, while exploring the country's plural and complex identity, the result of subsequent waves of immigration.

In his “Paradiso Lussemburgo” artist Filip Markiewicz, born in Luxembourg to Polish parents and raised in the heart of Europe with an awareness of the region's past rifts, embarks on a “Journey to the End of an Identity” (as goes the title of a film that is the centerpiece of the exhibition) and reflects, not by chance, on European identity, boundaries, social exploitation and the region's harshest challenge today: the refugee crisis.

Also pondering on this pressing topic is the German pavilion at the Giardini. Returning to its own pavilion - a colonnade-fronted building inspired by classical architecture - after swapping pavilions with France two years ago, Germany displays works by Jasmina Metwaly, Olaf Nicolai, Philip Rizk, Hito Steyerl and Tobias Zielony.

Embracing Enwezor's political stance, in July Germany's participating artists staged a protest by hanging from the top of the colonnade a makeshift Greek flag bearing the mocking word “Germoney,” a reference to the then-ongoing negotiations over the Southern European country's debt crisis and to Germany's austerity-bent demands, in a show of solidarity with Greece.

The Polish pavilion explores cultural displacement from a historical standpoint, reflecting on the representation of national identity.

Inspired by Werner Herzog's “Fitzcarraldo,” artists Joanna Malinowska and C.T. Jasper traveled to Haiti to show Stanisław Moniuszko's 1848 Polish nationalist opera “Halka” to the descendants of the Polish soldiers serving in Napoleon's army, who, sent to the Caribbean in 1802 and 1803 in order to put down a slave rebellion, decided to help the insurgents instead.

Belgium addresses its colonial past and challenges the Eurocentric view on art by presenting an international group show featuring artists from Asia, Africa, Europe and South America, and “looking into the hybrid forms that were produced as a result of colonial encounters,” including “the largely unknown participation of Congolese intellectuals within the last international vanguard of modernity: the Situationist International.”

Reflecting on Europe's divided past, Albania's enthralling time capsule of Cold War memorabilia and fictional narrative is dominated by Armando Lulaj's whale skeleton, a Hobbesian Leviathan that is both “protagonist and silent witness” of Albania's iron-curtain past.

The whale was shot dead in 1963 by the Albanian navy, that, after the relations between the U.S and the USSR broke down, frantically monitored the surface of the Adriatic sea watching out for possible attacks from the U.S. missile bases installed in Italy. When it spotted a submarine-like object that repeatedly appeared and disappeared under the water, it opened fire.

True to the Biennale's title, “All the world's futures,” is Tuvalu, with the rising sea levels exemplified by platforms about to be submerged by water.

Also reflecting on the overlooked casualties of progress, the Latin American pavilion showcases an installation literally giving voice to the lost or disappearing languages of South America's indigenous people.

The purposely rundown, sparsely set up Greek pavilion also tackles the issue of exploitation. Maria Papadimitriou's installation recreates a taxidermy shop from the city of Volos, where the “presentation of the relationship of humans to animals becomes a contemporary allegory of the dispossessed and the resistant,” according to the curatorial statement.

Also exploring oppression, Estonia (represented by multimedia artist Jaanus Samma) showcases the ordeal of a party man driven out of society by the irreconcilable rift between the conventions of the time and his desire, exemplified by a theater balcony overlooking the abyss and immersed in beautifully tormenting and rarefied music.

The pavilion of Armenia, winner of this year's Golden Lion for best national participation, is located on the enchanting tiny island of San Lazzaro, just a ferry boat stop away from the Lido, and reflects on the Armenian diaspora a hundred years after the genocide carried out by the Ottoman government in 1915, as well as on the concept of cultural identity.

The displayed artists, all born abroad to Armenian families who fled the harrowing ordeal, conjure up in this enchanting setting an exhibit that is both thought-provoking and harsh, a riveting homage to the resilience of a culture dispersed around the world but kept together by a common memory.


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