The Venice Biennale is a lot like the FIFA World Cup, but for art. It features multifaceted displays of national talent in an ambiance of courteous yet zealous competition for the ultimate prize – in Venice it’s the Gold Lion, in the World Cup it’s, well, the cup. For both cases, the participants have been carefully selected through a series of preliminary rounds and eliminations. Making it to the final competition is a reward in itself. It’s no coincidence that the Venice Biennale has also been termed “the Olympics of Art.”
The World Cup and the Olympics are known for their unabashed displays of raucous nationalism. Flags, patriotic chants, and cross-national rivalries are the order of the day. In Venice, however, we find a completely different atmosphere, one that furtively tries to ignore the fact that it is, at base level, a competition between countries. Recently, many have been trying to downplay the fact that the Biennale has historically relied on the age-old concept of nationality and national identity.
The format of the Venice Biennale, which consists of participating countries exhibiting one or several of their compatriot artists within their own pavilion, has come under fire over the last few years. Nationalism, some say, is no longer a relevant frame for an artists’ oeuvre. We live in a transnational, globalized world, where boundaries between countries have largely ceased to determine one’s identity or creative output.
This is a valid claim. The national pavilions might be inherently reductive, forcing artists and curators to work within walls that might not necessarily apply to them. The Australian Pavilion, for example, features an Egypt-born artist and an American curator. Its existence is a testament to contemporary transnationalism, where boundaries can be more easily permeated than ever before. Something similar could be said about the American Pavilion, which hosts Allora & Calzadilla, a half-American and half-Cuban artist collective based in the American colony of Puerto Rico, which itself is a microcosm of nationalist identity debates. The Scandinavian and Central Asian pavilions pose similar questions, rivaling nation-specific identity with that of a larger region.
But nationalism has always been a source of heated debate and radical questioning, and this might explain its continuing relevance. The main problem with the anti-nationalism argument, as it pertains to Venice and to everything else, is that it seems to suggest that national identity was, at some point, a static and easily defined concept. This is false. Nationalism and national identity have never been one-dimensional categories; they have always been problematic. This is true even in Venice, and perhaps especially in Venice.
There are some who still hold on – tightly – to national identity, and they are well represented at the Biennale. For example, Haiti is participating for the first time in the Biennale’s history, and its pavilion speaks volumes to why the Biennale’s nation-centric format cannot be considered irrelevant for all. Haiti’s pavilion consists of two large freight containers, the kind usually found on cargo trucks, arranged in the shape of a T on the Riva dei Sette Martiri – an outdoor location by the shore. One wagon is painted blue and the other one red – the colors of the Haitian flag.
Inside, the public will find Death and Fertility, an exhibition featuring three artists from Port-au-Prince’s Atis-Rezistans artist collective, who engage with issues of Haitian culture and identity. Through their sculptural works they reinterpret traditional voodoo symbols in relation to universal themes of life, death, and sexuality. The pavilion’s freight wagons force the viewer to appreciate them within the specific historical and geopolitical context of Haiti, a country tragically maligned by natural, human, and commercial disaster, that has struggled against mind-boggling circumstances to carve out a place for itself on any kind of international arena. Haiti’s artists are challenging the world to view their work on their own terms. The fact that they got to the Biennale in spite of the country’s scarce resources and absence from the international art market attests to their desire to represent themselves and their contemporary reality to the world. Something similar could be said about the Iraqi pavilion, which returns to the Biennale after a nearly 50-year absence, and even the Egyptian pavilion, which features the work of Ahmed Basiony, an artist who was killed last year at Tahrir Square.
Furthermore, if nationhood and national representation were irrelevant, Wales wouldn’t have its own pavilion (and neither would Scotland, for that matter). Despite the existence of a UK pavilion, the Arts Council of Wales has secured its own space for the fifth time in a row, showcasing Welsh artist Tim Davies. Wales uses its pavilion as a platform to support its artists, and, unlike in Haiti’s case, not all the artworks in the pavilion deal directly with Wales or Welsh culture. Instead, the Arts Council of Wales uses the Biennale as a professional opportunity for established and emerging figures in the Welsh art scene to gain international experience and recognition.
The debate, then, should not center on whether nationalism is still relevant. The endless debates on the issue prove that it is inescapable. The more useful question would be to whom it is still relevant, and why. The most likely answer points to nations like the ones mentioned above, who still struggle for fair acknowledgment on the world’s stage, not to mention in the Western art market.