In Venice, Art Bears Witness to Chaos

VENICE — A broken canoe is among the first works visitors see in the pavilions of the Arsenale, the naval complex turned exhibition space that houses multiple pavilions alongside portions of the international exhibition at the Venice Biennale. During the press preview, I stumbled across “Bokk – Bounds,” an installation by artist Alioune Diagne, curated by Massamba Mbaye for Senegal’s first pavilion. What struck me immediately was the very large canoe, draped in cloth and snapped in half. 

Parked in the grounds of this watery city, it evoked not a romantic past but a present dystopia: migrants have come to places like Spain and Italy in the wake of social and political turmoil on boats like this, and on the same boats they’ve perished on the dangerous journey north. As Saliou Diouf, president of a Senegalese humanitarian association, said in El País: “There are no jobs, there’s no hope for the future. If you add to that the fact that you see your friends in jail for protesting, or a situation of total uncertainty, young people get desperate.”

Diagne’s installation is about the ties that bind, but also perhaps those that break us. This year’s Biennale curator Adriano Pedrosa announced the theme of “Foreigners Everywhere,” named after a Claire Fontaine artwork, just as Italy’s new prime minister announced plans to build more detention centers for migrants. As the Biennale opened, Israel and Iran were in the midst of launching aerial attacks on each other’s soil, and the first encampment at Columbia University had begun.

What role can art play in helping us understand a time of great chaos? And more specifically, in the context of the Venice Biennale, what role can national pavilions play in a time when nation states and their borders are ever present — as sites of expansion, re-negotiation, militarization, detention, and violence? 

My first reaction was to identify this year’s pavilion collection one for an age of anxiety. But in 2015, Biennale curator Paolo Baratta developed a show for what then seemed like an anxious age. “The world before us today exhibits deep divisions and wounds, pronounced inequalities and uncertainties as to the future,” he wrote. If 2015 was a nervous year, it’s hard to know what to call 2024, except, perhaps, a nervous breakdown year. Foreigners are indeed everywhere — not just in the form of migrants, but also drones, policies, climates, and people of different political persuasions.  

At the Taiwan Pavilion, tucked away near Piazza di San Marco at the Palazzo Delle Prigioni (Palace of the Prisons, literally), artist Yuan Goang-Ming and curator Abby Chen presented Everyday War, consisting primarily of a series of video works. In “Everyday Maneuver, Yuan flew (video) drones over Taipei City during one of the city’s annual air defense drills. The busy streets are completely empty. Upon first viewing, it’s unclear why, but something is amiss. And in “The 561st Hour of Occupation,” the artist presented a meditative view over the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement’s month-long occupation of the national legislature, protesting closer economic ties with China. Lawn chairs allow visitors to lay back and absorb Yuan’s hypnotic views of a society in a state of contestation.

In the exhibition catalog, curator Abby Chen contextualized Yuan’s work through the lens of trauma:

Yuan Goang-Ming’s selection of the aforementioned works reveals his angst regarding apocalypse and technology. Like many Taiwanese born after World War II, Yuan’s upbringing was haunted by his father’s traumatic memories of war and sadness of displacement. The imagined violent encroachment of private space, which foregrounds the generational trepidation, is not only about Yuan’s personal struggle, but also resonates as a shared sense of impending doom among Taiwanese society.

Trauma comes through in Nigeria Imaginary, the Nigerian Pavilion’s exhibition at the Palazzo Canal in Venice’s Dorsoduro district, curated by Aindrea Emelife. Yinka Shonibare’s “Monument to the Restitution of the Mind and Soul” is a series of 150 clay objects representing items taken during Britain’s Benin Expedition of 1897. Arranged like a pyramid, the works rise up to the ceiling. A number of these objects can still be seen at the British Museum. And Ndidi Dike’s “Blackhood: A Living Archive,” an installation with wooden batons that each contain a name tag, draws connections between police brutality faced by Black people in Nigeria, Brazil, and the United States.

This exhibition draws its name from the words of artist Uche Okeke at the outset of Nigerian independence, “Young artists in a new nation, that is what we are! We must grow with the new Nigeria and work to satisfy her traditional love for art or perish with our colonial past.” Here, the imaginary of Nigeria Imaginary considers possible futures. Yet to do so, many of the artists engaged with the harms of the past. By looking back, futurists often say, we can more meaningfully look forward. The chaos we feel now is and always has been a lived reality for many, just with varying levels of attention in international media. 

I left the Biennale not fully convinced of art’s capacity to help us understand this chaotic time, the sort of social turmoil that often arrives after a major pandemic (evidence of which was nowhere to be seen in the pavilions I visited or discussed with others). And I began wondering whether the pavilion structure is even the most useful way to host the kind of conversation that can aid in making sense of our changing world. A pavilion is a box, a building, a palazzo, with walls and gates and a clear beginning and end. It is both a symbol and a reinforcement of our modern nation states, a social experiment that has only existed a few hundred years. But the forces that shape our current realities move past borders with much greater mobility than a canoe of migrants, and their impacts intersect and intertwine with a historical trajectory that long predates contemporary art.

As I walked around the city, I thought about interventions that broke past the pavilion structure, especially the posters and actions staged by artists in the Art Not Genocide Alliance (ANGA), which kept the atrocities in Palestine front and center during the opening week, and the bomb shelter posters developed by Ukrainian creative agency Bickerstaff.101, which connected Venice’s own tumultuous history with Ukraine’s present. (As Hyperallergic contributor Avedis Hadjian reminds us, Venice was the site of the beginning of aerial warfare, almost 200 years ago.)

One of ANGA’s posters was a print of “The Last Farewell,” Maram Ali’s painting of a photo of Gaza teen Shehab Omar Abu al-Hanud clutching his mother’s shrouded body. Art hasn’t helped me understand this moment of unbearable heartbreak any more than when I first saw the original image online. I’m not sure anything can. 

But it compelled me, amid the hype and glam of the Biennale, to bear witness, to not look away. It reminded me, like the Senegal Pavilion theme, that we are bound together on this planet, foreigners everywhere until we one day reclaim our common humanity.

The 60th Venice Biennale continues through November 24. The Biennale was curated by Adriano Pedrosa.

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