The Venice art biennale presents a new world order, at least geographically speaking. It’s where China neighbors Italy, Armenia sprawls over an island, and the Philippines, the Seychelles and Mongolia share a dot on the map.
What began in 1895 as a pioneering plan by the Venice City Council to boost tourism and was pegged to the anniversary celebrations of Italy’s royal couple, remains one of the world’s most significant art events. And it’s plain to see why.
Not unlike Cairo with its historical attractions, Venice can seem like a saccharine tourist trap from a distance, but it’s awesome in person. Against a grand backdrop, giving far-flung acquaintances in the field an unparalleled opportunity to catch up, an abundance of professional networking opportunities and more art than you could hope to digest in a week, this biennial curtain call on the world’s stage is an adrenaline kick that brings out the extremes in cultural production and consumption.
This year is the 56th edition of the exhibitions that have continuously expanded both in terms of location and participation. When Italy switched the biennale from a national to an international affair in 1907, pavilions were built for Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Holland and Russia within a seven-year span. The second major expansion, during fascism in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, included buildings for Spain, Czechoslovakia, the United States, Denmark, Switzerland, Poland, Austria, Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia and Egypt.
The Egyptian pavilion was built in 1932 by Italian architect Brenno Del Giudice as part of “il padiglione Venezia,” and its space was enlarged six years later. The letters “RAE,” prominently carved into the facade above the arched entrance, stand for Repubblica Araba d’Egitto. More on what can be found in the pavilion this year to follow.
One of two main sites of today’s art biennale emerged after the demolition of the Castello district to the east, “once densely populated and rich with vegetable gardens, convents and some of the city’s oldest churches.” It was leveled under Napoleon Bonaparte after he invaded the republic in 1797 and ordered the construction of gardens, a transformation in step with his enlightenment-flavored cultural politics. In 2015, these “Giardini” hold the Central Pavilion and the first 29 national pavilions. All other pavilions are in venues across Venice, including at the second main site, the “Arsenale,” originally a complex of shipyards and armories significantly transformed under Bonaparte and later rebuilt.
This year there are 89 national participations, alphabetically from Albania to Zimbabwe, and an additional 44 official collateral events.
The art biennale has a relatively long and charged history, but its antiquated flag-waving is hard to reconcile with a field of contemporary art that today tries to renegotiate, renounce, redistribute, redefine and reconsider borders, definitions and limitations of all kinds. The nationalist tinge feels just barely tolerable, possibly because it’s contained in a space and a time, like rooting for a team during the FIFA world cup. But it’s also easy to take it as something of a communication shorthand. Who could ever remember the thousands of names? Somehow it really is bizarrely appropriate to refer to artists, curators, pavilions and projects by their national affiliation while in this bubble. “Did you check out Russia? – What did you think of Lithuania? – Where’s Azerbaijan? – Catch you later at Norway.”
Within this overall structure, there’s a significant amount of pressure on each national pavilion and collateral event to leave a mark, to strike a balance between fitting in and standing out, to contribute something relevant both now and for generations to come. Even more than a century of trial and error cannot provide easy guidelines — there’s no right or wrong way of going about presenting and representing anything in the context of the art biennale.
Some pavilions choose to commission a new project by a rising star, or honor the body of work of an established artist, while others stage a cross section of recently-made work by various artists, resulting in the cool jaggedness of an art-fair display. Yet others have a somber museological approach that sweeps through recent decades of local art production (such as the UAE this year) or pavilions that subject one person’s life to museum-like dissection. In contrast, some national pavilions treat this opportunity like a snapshot, heavily referencing current world affairs (such as Iraq this year) or urgent environmental concerns (such as the Maldives in 2013), or to demand proper inclusion in the event, even if yet unacknowledged by the printed maps and guides (such as the independent Antarctic Pavilion).
There are gestures of friendship (Germany and France swapped pavilions in 2013) and antagonism (Ukrainian artists occupied the Russian pavilion this year), and others whose emotional depth runs deep and complex (like this year’s prize winner, Armenia). While some challenge the dated premise by choosing an artist of another nationality (like Germany showing Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei in 2013), others expand on this framework cleverly (as in My East is Your West, with works by both a Pakistani and an Indian artist).
At the heart of all this is a large-scale exhibition curated by the biennale’s curator (this year Okwui Enwezor) in the Central Pavilion, which gives the biennale its title (All the World’s Futures). Some national pavilions reference this title and the show’s concept directly, but most do not.
All this said, I’m not sure what this year’s Egypt pavilion was aiming for.
The exhibition, Can you see?, is attributed to artists Ahmed Abdel Fatah, Maher Dawoud and Gamal Elkheshen. Hany al-Ashkar is listed as commissioner. According to the bios on the official website, all four hold degrees from Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and are also either current or former instructors at this state institution. What also stands out is that they have exhibited their own work on relatively few occasions: in Dawoud’s case, Venice is the only project listed under “exhibitions” and in Elkheshen’s case there are none.
The interior is a brightly lit white cube with wall-to-wall light gray carpeting. The room displays slim, white-painted MDF boards connected and zigzagging around the room to create a structure of two-and-a-half meters high, four meters wide and 19 meters long. About half of its surfaces are covered in short-bladed Astroturf and several little stands are attached to them, each presenting a Samsung tablet. It’s what I imagine a booth at a tech fair might look like. (I later found out that the MDF structure spells the word “peace” from a bird’s-eye view, but there’s no way to see or find out about this in the pavilion.)
Each device is aimed downward at a paper sign in the plastic grass that reads “peace” in English and Arabic. The purpose of the moving images on the touchscreen is not self-explanatory, and running your finger across it doesn’t do much, so a couple of helpers show visitors how to get started. They wave their open palms between the turf and the tablet for the integrated camera to pick up the movement, which reboots the program. Sometimes it works, sometimes the program gets stuck.
When it works, the display clears up to show the grass and paper “peace” sign transmitted from below, in addition to a plus and a minus symbol. Tapping each symbol brings out clipart of either daisies, sparrows, butterflies and bunnies (plus) or hairy spiders, cockroaches and a sourceless raging fire (minus) that slowly grow, fly, hop, crawl or burn across the green grass on screen.
You can tap the display repeatedly to put out the bad fire and the same movement allows you to stomp away the bad spiders. Your tapping also multiplies the good flowers and butterflies. (“Good” and “bad” were words used by a helper in the pavilion.) I braced myself for this to be an introduction or demonstration but it turned out to be the whole project. Also, I thought each tablet might show something different, but all give you the same options. (I later read that there are five plus and five minus cliparts, but the two devices I tried didn’t seem to have all options.)
The exhibition, then, is basically a display for an interactive screensaver. It’s an art project built around a useless app, whose code or design, as far as I could gather, is not accredited to any of the three participating artists. (I eventually spent over an hour searching for the downloadable app online, as one is prompted to do, but in vain. As of now my emails sent to the official email addresses asking for the link have gone unanswered.)
It is so scarily absolute and simplistic that all of a sudden the larger MDF structure doesn’t look innocent or playful anymore but like an obstacle course connected at both ends, leaving just enough slack that you think you’re going somewhere but ultimately escape attempts are rendered futile.
The project being titled Can you see?, now I’m thinking: Well, perhaps I do. Is this project a Trojan horse, hiding in plain sight, using childish visual language to mask an acerbic critique of the government that chose this project to represent Egypt? Did the faceless and nameless curator, “Ministry of Culture,” read anything more into the project other than moralistic finger-wagging, presumptuously applied to nature? All the conceptual info found in the hand-out, wall text, biennale catalogue, exhibition catalogue, official website and Facebook page differs significantly and is incredibly disjointed, possibly written at various stages of a work in progress and run through an automated translation service.
An excerpt from the website reads, for example: “The Installation represents (PEACE) the content status, which is the aim of human beings towards achieving the physiological peace. Peace represents Arabic lingual equivalent for paradise that is related to planting and greening as well as it represents the inner peace for The Human being. And observes the embodied in a different case the five letters switch to ten different scenes five positive and negative and deals The realistic interaction of the user by touching the screen for example, when trying to extinguish the fire with his hand on running away from fear when touching an animal.”
I don’t understand what’s going on here: Language barriers are not an excuse — throw a stone in Cairo’s art world and you’ll likely hit a decent translator.
As to the most mysterious element of the Egyptian participation at Venice this year, the website lists under the “Courater” (sic) tab six logos, belonging to the Accademia D’Egitto Roma, the Sector of Fine Arts, the Sector of Foreign Cultural Relations, the Supreme Council of Culture, the Egypt Ministry of Culture Cultural Development Fund, and the Cultural Production Affairs Sector.
A Facebook comment made by the official account offers the following explanation: “the Egyptian Ministry of culture as a curator is based upon a competition that was opened to all the Egyptian artists and everyone proposed a final presentation for his project before. That means the project was not pushed by the government.” It’s a move, but a lateral one. While apparently intended to be a gesture to inspire trust, substituting the name of one or more of the responsible persons who curated this exhibition for the title of a whole subdivision of a government notorious for being shady has the opposite effect.
It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have world-class artists, both at home and abroad. But unless muddy politics take a backseat to getting quality work produced and shown, the Egyptian pavilion can hardly justify the legitimacy it claims by way of its prominent location in the Giardini.
Looking onward to 2017, the Ministry of Culture could consider redefining what it wants to do with the opportunity to represent its nation at an event that’s the first of its kind and widely considered one of the most important in its field. I won’t assume that everyone else will see flaws with this year’s Egyptian contribution — but I do know that one can and should expect better. If you consider awards to be an indicator of success, you don’t even have to revert back farther than two decades to see a radically different perspective. Just ask Akram El-Magdoub, Hamdi Attia, Medhat Shafik and Khaled Shokry, whose 1995 participation was awarded highest honors with the Golden Lion for best national pavilion.