To talk of water and Venice might seem a trifle redundant, and of death in Venice an over-worked cliche. Neither, in fact, is true where this year’s Venice Bienniale is concerned. Water is the political motif for a significant number of works and death stalks the corridors of the Arsenale and looms large in the pavilions of the Giardini, whilst the ghosts of Cy Twombly and Lucian Freud haunt the many collateral exhibitions that occupy churches and palazzos lining Venice’s myriad canals.
Death is most powerfully present in the Egyptian pavilion. Here, in videos made by Ahmed Basiony, on his mobile phone and with digital cameras, he allows us to witness the events of January 25th to 27th in Tahrir Square, events that made the revolution in Egypt and led to the overthrow of President Mubarak. The noise and the action invite the viewer to become part of the Arab Spring, to join with the young, social-media-savvy revolutionaries and to share both in their exhilaration and their sadness. Returning to the square on the 28th, Basiony was shot and killed by snipers’ bullets.
In late February, I was amongst the first tourists to return to Egypt. We met with young people who had been in Cairo when Basiony was recording the revolution. They had stood beside the wounded and witnessed the shootings but retained their youthful confidence that the suffering would lead to freedom and democracy. The purity of the revolution persists in the art if not in the religious violence taking place on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria today.
The German pavilion, too, has a posthumous installation by the artist, filmmaker and theatre director, Christoph Schlingensief, killed by cancer last summer. The pavilion space has been converted into a church, complete with alter, pews and stained glass windows with projections of his films and multi-media documentation of his battle with lung cancer. The overwhelming impression is that of a memorial service. It is a compelling celebration of the artist’s life’s work and won the Golden Lion Award for the best national pavilion.
Death appears in other forms, its pervasiveness “hanging in the air like buzzflies in the Biennale’s public gardens” according to Steven Madoff, writing in the September edition of Modern Painters. In the Russian pavilion there is an installation recalling the death camps of the Stalinist gulags. An upturned tank dominates the outside of the American pavilion. Inside, a video depicts an island in Puerto Rico used for bombing experiments and war games by the US navy. The installations are all the work of the surprise selection for the pavilion, Puerto Rican artists Allora and Calzadilla.
In the Central pavilion in the Giardini, the Israeli artist, Omer Fast, has a work entitled Five Thousand Feet is the Best, a reference to the optimum height for flying drones, unmanned killing machines. David Goldblatt, the South African photographer, has a series of strikingly calm and composed portraits of murderers and other criminals posing at the sites of their crimes.The anti-war sentiments of American artist, Llyn Foulkes, are evident in his four cartoon paintings. In Where Did I Go Wrong?, Foulkes depicts Superman reading a newspaper headlined “WAR”.
The Italian pavilion, a celebration of Italy’s 150 years as a unified state, none-the-less has death as a motif, in that part of the exhibition, entitled Art is Not Cosa Nostra, that hosts the Mafia Museum.
One of the most controversial pavilions hosts the work of the Israeli artist, Yael Bartana. And Europe Will Be Stunned is a trilogy of films dealing with the events leading up to the assassination of the leader of the Jewish Renaissance Movement, a movement set up to organise the return of 3,300,000 Jews to the land of their forefathers. That land is Poland and the work is shown in the Polish pavilion. The artist describes her work, depressingly, as “a universal presentation of the impossibility of living together.”
If death is construed as a metaphor for the present state of the planet, which was what Madoff had in mind, then death seeps into much more of the work on show. The national pavilions are political, even if the curated exhibition ILLUMInations is not. One of the biennale’s virgins, Bangladesh, has work by the artist Promotesh Das Pulak that uses archive images to highlight the bloodshed during the civil war in 1971 that led to the country’s independence. Tayeba Begum Lipi’s installations explore the problematic position of women in a moslem country. In Bizarre and Beautiful, a woman’s bra is welded out of 300 razor blades.
Although Boltanski’s work in the French pavilion might at first seem to depart from his “friendship with dying” — it consists of a conveyor belt showing the images of newborn babies — it can be interpreted as a Malthusian warning on world population growth (from three billion in 1960 to seven billion today), with ten million children dieing each year before the age of five.
The Danish pavilion, less accessible on the island of San Sevolo (for security reasons, one might speculate, after the furore over the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, published back in 2005), confronts the issue of free speech and poses the question “how can speech be free when everywhere it is in chains?” Similarly, Norma Jeane(!)’s work, Who’s Afraid of Free Expression? in the Central Pavilion, invites visitors to play with piles of plasticine, provided in the colours of the Egyptian flag — another opportunity to participate in the Arab Spring, perhaps, without the risk of causing offence or violent retribution.
In the via Garibaldi, just behind the Giardini, many of the more conspicuous themes of the Biennale come together in the national pavilion of Iraq. Whilst the exhibition attempts to distance itself from Iraq’s present state of violence and death, the fact that the six artists represented all live in exile tends to emphasize the country’s critical difficulties. The decision to focus on water as a theme — the exhibition is called Wounded Water — further emphasizes the country’s desperate situation where water or, more precisely lack of water, is a greater long term threat to the lives of Iraqis that either civil war or terrorism.
Purification by Azad Nanakeli is a powerful visual comment on both an important religious ritual and a basic human right — or, in the heat of a Venetian summer, to the average western tourist, no more than a reasonable expectation of entitlement. The split screen video depicts the artist in the simple act of pouring a basin of clear, cool water over his naked torso, whilst in a mirror image his body is covered in a cascade of coloured pigments representing the polluted wells and aqueducts of Iraq. Late nineteenth century texts, accompanying the exhibition, refer to Al Basrah, recently the site of a British military catastrophe, as “the Venice of the East”, whilst a current, World Bank publication estimates that, by 2035, 90% of West Asia will have no water. Already, today, that is the fate of 40 percent of Iraqis. Meanwhile, to satisfy the developed world’s thirst for oil, one barrel of oil consumes one-and-a-half barrels of water in the production process.
Closely, perhaps too closely, linked to Wounded Water is the work in the Turkish pavilion. An installation called Undrinkable Water literally pumps water from the surrounding canals through a complex system of pipes, passing it through a filtration plant before returning it back to the canal. The work might be seen as a representation of the futility of art or as a critique of Turkey’s policy of using the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates for the production of electricity, the damming of the rivers leading to water shortages down stream in Syria and, more especially, Iraq.
Amongst all the gloom of so much of the work in the national pavilions it is ironic that the Haitian pavilion should provide a beam of ILLUMInational light. Death and Fertility is the theme adopted by the curators and suggests both the horrors of the recent earthquake and the recovery and rebirth that has followed. In the words of Edouard Duval-Carrier, one of the artists exhibiting, “In Haiti misery predominates. Sometimes we have to break that because our country is more complex… There is also art, culture. It is important for our pride.”
In the Latin American pavilion there is a video depicting a blind Dominican, navigating his way through the perilous paths of a market place, using the eyes of a paraplegic Haitian, who he carries in his arms. In another, Obama dances the tango with a male companion, the promise of a happier, more tolerant world.
Like the hopeful metaphor of the Salt Bridge in the Israeli pavilion, linking Israel and Jordan across the Dead Sea, the two videos offer a vision of a better, collaborative future, though it is a disappointment that, unlike two years ago, there is no Palestinian presence either under the salt bridge or in the bienniale at large.