The 55th Venice Bienniale saw an increased participation from Arab pavilions, with Gulf States such as Kuwait and Bahrain showing for the first time. Much critical ink has been spilled on the model of the Venice Bienniale, with its country pavilions. Some have called the focus on national representation out-dated, a relic of Europe’s obsession with the nation-state; others have questioned how in some cases the national pavilions become vehicles for soft diplomacy or national branding. Many commissioners are aware of the uneasy tensions between contemporary artistic practice and the very premise of the Venice Bienniale. They challenge the whole idea of country pavilions by, for example, inviting artists or curators of various nationalities to their show, swapping pavilions (as the French and the Germans did this year), or blending pavilions, as the Cypriots and Lithuanians did. Many Arab pavilions, especially after the 2011 uprisings in the region, are grappling with what kind of message they want to put out in terms of their artistic and national statement.
The balance between politics and poetics will always be a tricky one, especially in a region where the perception of artistic production is easily prone to all kinds of ideological readings and expectations domestically, as well as from abroad. The strongest Arab pavilions were those that got this balance exactly right conceptually, and that—unsurprisingly—enjoyed a minimum of official meddling in the development of their projects. A case in point were the Lebanese and the Palestinian participations. Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s Letter to a Refusing Pilot is a mesmerizing three-part installation consisting of a 30-inch video; a 16 mm film projection of a new version of Zaatari’s well-known photo composite of Israel’s bombing campaign of Sidon, in southern Lebanon, on June 6, 1982; and an empty chair positioned in between the film and the video, awaiting the missing pilot.
The video is a beautiful document that combines the true story of Israeli fighter pilot Hagai Tamir, who refused to bomb Zaatari’s school in Sidon during the Israeli invasion in 1982, with Zaatari’s reconstruction of the narrative through media objects such as photographs, audio recordings, and personal diaries. Those familiar with Zaatari’s oeuvre will recognize thematic and visual references to works such as This Day (2003) and In This House (2005), as if Letter to a Refusing Pilot brings together all his previous concerns in one work.
During the video, there is a scene where we see young boys folding paper planes and then dropping them from rooftops; instead of gliding to the ground, the planes perform an aerial choreography, adding a surreal element to the whole work. These folded sheets of paper, made to resemble fighter jets, are also letters that do not seem to reach their destination. In practice, Zaatari cannot officially write to this Israeli pilot from Lebanon as both countries are technically still at war.
It is thus all the more remarkable that Zaatari has chosen the platform of a national pavilion to tell this story. It is a story that not only narrates Lebanon’s torn past, but in the video Zaatari also establishes a rapport with this unknown enemy pilot that is not based on demonization, but rather on curiosity and on human interest. This makes Zaatari’s gesture in Letter to a Refusing Pilot as profoundly poetical as it is political.
The balance between politics and poetics will always be a tricky one, especially in a region where the perception of artistic production is easily prone to all kinds of ideological readings.The contribution of Palestinian artists Aissa Deebi and Bashir Makhoul to the Venice Bienniale, titled Otherwise Occupied, was in effect not an official pavilion, but rather a collateral event related to the Biennial. Co-curator Bruce Ferguson puts it rather aptly when he writes in the catalogue that “[t]he exhibition is without pavilion; without country; without normative status.” As such, the whole issue of national representation (or its impossibility, for that matter), in particular in the case of Palestine, is questioned through the very premise of the exhibition. Moreover, in Otherwise Occupied conceptions of a nation and national identity are questioned in relation to physical and ideological territory.
In Giardino Occupato, Makhoul literally occupies the garden of Venice’s Liceo Artistico Statale di Venezia with hundreds of cardboard boxes that are placed there by Makhoul and members of the public. He has created a makeshift city, an ephemeral shantytown of carved cardboard that grows and changes according to the meteorological elements, audience participation and over time. Not only has Makhoul changed the character of the garden, but he has also filled this cultivated and groomed patch of greenery with a material that is disposable and throwaway.
The connection with the plight of the Palestinian people in refugee camps or in exile is easily made, as is its reference to the unbridled expansions in settlements from Israeli settlers. However, this project transcends the Palestinian narrative and also echoes protest movements such as “Occupy”, the Spanish indignados and the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, when millions took to the streets and occupied and re-appropriated their city streets and squares.
In his video, The Trial, Deebi revisits the speech of Palestinian revolutionary and communist poet Daoud Turki at his 1973 trial for treason in Haifa’s district court. In the video, the trial speech is re-enacted five times, always with slight modifications by the actors. The result is disorienting, and is fragmented in its delivery as well as in its temporal and narrative sequencing.
Deebi alludes to a history untold and forgotten by most, Palestinians and Israelis alike. In the 1970s, figures such as Turki and other anti-Zionist and anti-capitalist Jews and Palestinians could still come together and be united in a post-nationalist class struggle. After two intifadas, the disaster of the Oslo Accords, countless sieges and violence on both sides, such liaisons seem completely remote. Both Deebi and Makhoul push at what national, territorial and ideological belonging—or being prevented from belonging—might mean. Otherwise Occupied is a strong artistic and political intervention that especially in the context of the Venice Biennial complicates notions of national representation.
The 55th Venice Biennale runs from June 1 to Novemeber 24, 2013, in Venice, Italy. More information is available on their website.