Against Nations

Yuki Kihara, Pavilion of New Zealand, "Paradise Camp," 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, "The Milk of Dreams." Photo: Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.

At the 59th Venice Biennale, many of the stand-out pavilions were those that contested the pavilion structure itself. Consider Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s lustrous floor-to-ceiling textiles in Poland’s pavilion. Called Re-enchanting the World, the installation is both mythological and historical: in twelve panels that correspond to the seasons of the year, scenes of Roma women stitching textiles are juxtaposed with farmers tending to livestock and the land around them. The central part of each panel shows a figure from the zodiac, like a goat overlaid on a glittering silver sun, with portraits of Roma women surrounding—an older woman proudly staring down the viewer, a younger woman casually lounging in sneakers. This marks the first time a Roma artist has represented a nation at the Venice Biennale and the press release described Mirga-Tas’s participation as “an attempt to find the place of the Roma community in European art history.”

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, pavilion of Poland, “Re-enchanting the World,” 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams.” Photo: Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.

Finding this place is especially challenging given the nationalist structure of the Biennale, where European art history remains steeped in colonial ideas of nationhood. Part World’s Fair, part Olympics-style spectacle, the Venice Biennale in 2022 remains entrenched in the 19th-century ideals of empire-building nation-states from which it was born, despite perpetual critique of the antiquated format that grotesquely prioritizes Western nations and narratives. The Biennale hews to state-sanctioned definitions of nationhood, meaning it does not recognize the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, First Nations, Palestine, Tibet, Hong Kong, Scotland, Taiwan, nor any group not formally defined as a nation by the Italian government. Unable to obtain official representation, many frequently mount exhibitions or programs as “collateral events.” (A few examples: this year saw Alberta Whittle in Scotland’s exhibition space, Angela Su in Hong Kong’s, and the group exhibition From Palestine with Art featuring 19 artists from Palestine and its diaspora.) Critiques of this exclusionary format are not new, although they do wax and wane, and most often it’s artists who are forced into the complicated position of critiquing the nations they are enlisted to represent, a task marred by the same ethical quandaries of patronage, funding, and prestige so prevalent across contemporary art. Theorist and political economist Eric Otieno Sumba outlines a compelling history of such interventions, arguing that, especially following this year’s showing, the pavilion model is truly obsolete. “Now more than ever,” he writes, “new contact zones are necessary.”

I agree. Given the role of nationalism in the resurgence of right-wing fascism across “the West” (Canada’s so-called freedom convoy just one of many egregious recent examples), it would be a profoundly welcome gesture for the Biennale to overthrow its nationalist structure, open participation in the Giardini to all, and commit to new ways of showcasing artists in global dialogues, rather than to perpetuate a history that propels the violence of past and present-day colonization into the future of art-making. What would it look like to support less exclusionary exhibitions at the scale at which Venice operates? What methods could recognize sovereignties beyond those of colonizing nations? The collective model that Indonesian curators ruangrupa implemented for Documenta 15, and its radical attempts at inclusion with 1,500 participating artists primarily from the Global South, offer some parallel possibilities for new methods of large-scale exhibition-making.

Regardless of the official structure, the rejection of nationalism and nation-states and the reconfiguration of allyship across global communities may yet come to define Venice in the 21st century, both as the Biennale format continues to elicit work critical of the nationalist structure, and as Venice itself, a port city uniquely susceptible to sea-level rise, is increasingly wrought by floods. No single nation can fortify itself against the climate emergency, and as long as global power remains committed to division, there is little hope that individual governments will have substantial impact. The entrenchment of the nation-state as a politically and economically failed model is hardly unquestioned. Writer Rana Dasgupta argues that decades of globalization led to the dominance of just a few corporate monopolies today, making the operative economic power of nation-states obsolete: “Nation states everywhere are in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves,” he writes. Dasgupta articulates how economics and information, previously in the purview of national institutions, now far exceed the control of governmental authority. In this networked and financialized present, why couldn’t national identity be fully decoupled from artistic discourse?

The nation-state, like capitalism, might be entrenched—but it’s not permanent, and it’s also relatively new. The mobilization of nationalism in the study of art comes from methodologies of European art history popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the emergent nation-state was used as a framework to contrast painterly style, contributing to connoisseurship and the developing art market. This adherence to nationalism as method (seeing styles or tendencies as specific to one country versus another, and comparing those differences to produce analysis) persisted through the 20th century, and is very much a symptom of colonial power. Artists have already moved far beyond this methodological holdover, however, and many are committed to practices that inhabit new definitions of nationhood, addressing identity by redefining community, citizenship, and belonging. It’s the institutions that need to keep up, especially those working at the scale of Venice, and there were several projects this year that addressed this.

Yuki Kihara, pavilion of New Zealand, “Paradise Camp,” 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams.” Photo: Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.

Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp at the Aotearoa New Zealand Pavilion comprises a series of twelve photographic portraits, patterned wallpaper, a mural revealing some of the devastated landscapes of the 2009 tsunami, and a five-episode, talk show-style video that uses humor to critique the stereotypes of Samoa as paradise, and the colonial gaze of European artists in particular. In one scene, Kihara’s Fa’afafine friends and colleagues offer honest impressions of French painter Paul Gauguin, whose infamously sexualized depictions of Samoan and Pacific Islanders still occupy a prominent position in European modern art. “Would you change anything in this painting?” is met with “I would change everything.” Fa’afafine is the term used to describe Sāmoa’s third gender community, to which Kihara belongs. Sāmoa, a former colony of New Zealand, became an independent nation in 1962, but just prior, in 1961, New Zealand introduced a crimes ordinance that criminalized female impersonation and homosexuality, rendering Fa’afafine identity, and other queer identities, illegal. Kihara filmed on location in Upolu Island with a local cast and crew of more than 80 people, including Fa’afafine Samoans on both sides of the camera. The fact that she rerouted funding from the New Zealand government directly to the Fa’afafine community is significant conceptually, but also materially and practically. Kihara’s responses to questions of nationhood are witty, but they also underline the serious rejection of the colonial nation-state that her work articulates, and the strengthening of Fa’afafine communities in its wake.

Sámi artists Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna, Nordic pavilion, 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams.” Photo: Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.

Léuli Eshrāghi and Wanda Nanibush. Still from video documentation of aabaakwad’s panel, “What is nation?”, at Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli, Apr 22 2022.

One of the most demonstrably collective pavilions was the Sámi pavilion, a takeover and renaming of the Nordic (Finland, Norway, Sweden) pavilion by Sámi artists and land guardians Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna, co-curated by Sámi scholar Liisa-Rávná Finbog, Office for Contemporary Art’s Director Katya García-Antón, and Sámi land guardian Beaska Niillas, along with support from a wider group that included land guardians, elders, international advisors, collaborators, students, and curatorial assistants. Feodoroff’s three-part performance and video installation project, Matriarchy, used a range of collective actions and healing gestures to address the destruction of Sámi lands from mining and logging corporations. In Auction, for example, two video portraits screened on facing monitors installed on the floor use close angles and slow pans to intimately depict Sámi lands currently under threat. Following the Biennale these videos will be auctioned off as artworks, and the funds raised will contribute to purchasing and restoring (through the NGO Snowchange Cooperative) the same lands they depict, thereby making them unavailable to further destruction. Anders Sunna’s six-part installation of figurative, collaged, and burnt paintings depicts a detailed narrative of his family’s decades-long struggle against the Swedish government, whose legislation against traditional reindeer herders is in breach of international law. Shelves built into freestanding, custom-wood frames contain volumes of court documents, suggesting the exhausting efforts that have embroiled his family with police and state forces; the literal and symbolic burning of the sixth painting in the series—its charred wooden frame left in a pile in its place—suggests the kind of freedom that comes from no longer living within such a structure. Máret Ánne Sara’s constellation of hanging sculptures provides a perspective on living in relation with animal kin and the intimacy that comes with herding. Sara has spent several years supporting her brother’s legal battles with the Norwegian government over the right to herd reindeer, and has been active in protesting their slaughter. Her installation—sculpted of various reindeer body parts including stomachs, calves, and sinews, and combined with smells produced with perfumer Nadjib Achaibou and olfactory-acoustic artist Oswaldo Maciá to mimic feelings of hope and fear—are luminescent, sensory works that convey the beauty of interspecies relations through the love and care of familial bonds extended to animal kin. Notably, as press materials make clear, the animal parts were sourced using Sámi ethics and methods of sustainable resource use, finding value in the parts of the animal not already used after they died a natural death.

The pavilion was remarkable because each artist made aesthetically striking work while incorporating direct forms of activism—the legal appeal processes, the buying back of land, or through acknowledging the bodily autonomy of animals forced into slaughter. These balancing acts convey how sovereignty is not an academic exercise, nor is it limited exclusively to reclaiming space. Pavilion co-curator and publication editor Liisa-Rávná Finbog describes sovereignty as what enables Sámi peoples “to have a good healthy life, good economic situation and good relations with the land and the spirits.” Relationships between art, culture, land, and sovereignty take on different meanings in a space such as Venice, which is so saturated in the global histories of colonial violence and the wealth it produced. As a part of the pavilion’s programming, Anishinaabe curator Wanda Nanibush hosted the four-day event, aabaakwad, an annual Indigenous-led gathering that was held in Venice this year, following iterations at the Sydney Biennale (2020) and Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) (2021). She opened the gathering by addressing the growing interest in Indigenous art, stating, “There’s a lot of interest, but not a lot of knowledge. And not a lot of Indigenous control over [this] environment.” She went on to say that aabaakwad was a way to “join forces and think about how we want to go forward as a community of nations.” That statement stayed with me: To interrupt the commodified, imperial legacies of contemporary art by claiming space as a community of nations that are not colonial nations, not nation-states, not states at all, but rather communities built on relationships and ways of knowing.

Stan Douglas, pavilion of Canada, “2011 ≠ 1848,” 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams.” Photo: Marco Cappelletti. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.

Many more projects from this year’s Biennale could be included here. Stan Douglas in the Canada pavilion took the formation of the modern nation-state as his direct subject, creating images of protest and riot that show the effects of state violence, and a call-and-response style video that demonstrates solidarity among two duos rapping between London and Cairo. Or Rebecca Belmore’s stunning performance in the courtyard of Ocean Space (housed in a former church) where she choreographed a multinational group of musicians, poets, and artists to collectively rip large swaths  of colored sheets, until there was a wide river of fabric connecting the church to the courtyard’s cistern. It was a gesture that somehow encompassed the life-sustaining power of water and the love of community, even against the violence of the Church.

Given how artists are committed to interrogating borders and forming solidarities on a global stage, what would it take for more pavilion organizers to cede national representation in the years ahead? For the National Gallery of Canada, for example, to embed nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous, Métis, and Inuit nations into the space it claims? The Biennale’s origin story—of wealthy countries buying up space in the Giardini to showcase the work of “their” people—is undeniably a microcosm of colonization. Those are the conditions with which artists must contend: the price of participation is to passively ignore such a structure or critique it from within, an impossible position for any artist. Rather than questioning when the Biennale will do away with its structural re-inscription of borders and hierarchies, let’s call on pavilion organizers, the museum, and gallery directors who select the artists and shape the projects that are produced for Venice, to recognize and support the many artists, curators, and activists who are thinking beyond expansionist frameworks, regardless of the citizenship they carry.

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