National Pavilions and the National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

My visit to the Venice Biennale started by the Giardini della Biennale. This public park houses most of the National Pavilions and one of the group exhibitions (The Milk of Dreams: o mesmo, diferente ). As in the exhibition organised by Cecilia Alemani, and despite the fact that the national projects were selected and implemented with different aesthetic values and currents, together they formed a structural review of the world’s current situation. This reading can vary according to moods, weather, critical sense and even those we walk alongside with. Mine fits a collective sense of breaking, of assessing the system and the subsequent suggestion of new frontiers (symbolic, geographical, political, cultural…).

The word borders is also relevant for the following paragraphs. Perhaps it poses a question: Does it make sense to have a national organisation where each chosen artist represents their country? What if the artist is Russian? This pavilion was shut due to the curatorial team’s refusal, but should the political system of each country influence the individual artistic identity? Or even in the Portuguese case…. Are national pavilions still a sustainable system?

On entering the Giardini, the first pavilion I see is Correction by the artist Ignasi Abalí. This architectural proposition reveals an error in the pavilion’s orientation in relation to the others, with extensions and intersections compared to the original walls. In this line of architectural archaeology, I would add the German pavilion with Maria Eichhorn’s intervention. In a literal way, she excavated and revealed all the structural layers of the national area, once divided between Bavaria and the extensions carried out by the Nazi party in 1938. On the white walls, she writes, in white ink as well, technical descriptions in English, Italian and German. On a first impression, finding empty, identical pavilions, seeing them as their own exhibition object, displays flaws and imperfections in the foreground, contrary to the harmony and purity associated with the Venice Biennale. In this separation system, the impurities reveal how this organisation has at its foundations a system that could (or already is) being reconsidered. Abalí and Eichhorn use the void to act upon the silence of history, recalling the symbolic, geographical, political and cultural values of the grassroots.

In Francis Alÿs’ work in the Belgian pavilion and Zineb Sedira’s in the French, there was a convergence of viewpoints and a greater acceptance. The former brought to the foreground the documentation of the act of play by children from all over the world (Child Games). The second showed the construction and production of a film set and its exhibition (Les rêves n’ont pas de titre). The concern to show a broad view of universal languages, such as children playing with balls, dancing in a circle and flying a kite. Or the creation of invented narratives through cinema, the construction of characters that allow other types of discourses. About restructuring and what a biennale should be: can it be a place for children to play? Or build a set for a film of non-normative characters? I can also spot the platitude about the notion of divisions, reflecting on the systemic lines that divide us and fit into boxes named after our country. Concerned with a certain sense of culture, language and national behaviours.

This vision becomes more rigid in the Danish and Portuguese pavilions, with different hypotheses on our world’s future through post-apocalyptic sci-fi aesthetics. First, the pavilion conceptualised by Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, is an unexpected experience given the crudity and strangeness of the figures. Entering the hay-covered space, I see two hyper-realistic bodies. They are static centaurs. One is lying down and the other is hanging. This grotesque scene, with silent violence, elicits in visitors guilt for the actions of the present (and perhaps the past). But that is hopeless now. The uncertainty of what happened to their world converges in the future hope and tragedy of our bodies as a matter of history. Pedro Neves Marques portrays this same possibility, critical and metaphorical, with Vampires in Space. And, unlike the other pavilions cited above, the Portuguese was not part of a group, like the Giardini or the Arsenal. In the city centre, the Venetian Palazzo Franchetti, with frescoes, marbles and ornaments on all the walls, is a novelty in relation to the pavilions’ concentration and liberation of urban space. It is a more natural and organic visit for those walking around Venice.

Vampires in Space simulates a spaceship, divided by the rooms of one of the palace floors: one video per room. In total, three videos and a set of poems. The visitor’s inclusion in the space is immediate, given the near-darkness of the rooms. Everyone is in an equal state of anonymity, except for brief moments when the projection illuminates the face. Upon entering, I briefly toured the installation. The rooms were full and the chairs were almost all occupied by motionless people, focused on the videos. This exterior observation of bodies with which I shared the space was partly a preparation for Neves Marques’ subject matter: humans without a definite identity, together in a fictionalized and bizarre space, in the cosmos where the notion of borders also vanishes. Vampires represent the symbolic place of marginal beings, genderless, living in groups (non-nuclear families) and seeking survival in eternal life. A spaceship is usually associated with sterility, cleanliness, rigidity, and routine. However, the vampire ship was a personal, warm and comfortable place where they chatted and shared affections. The experience in the pavilion is complete. Dynamic in the venue’s use and a delicate but surprising conceptual construction.

This set of pavilions and many others, with the American one by Simone Leigh and the English one by Sonia Boyce, converge in the singular notion of structural change, in all senses and possibilities. The Biennale is a location of many social, political, economic and artistic layers. The artists have spoken. On the whole, there is a common language that stimulates further reflection on the programme of the whole structure that takes over Venice twice a year.

The Venice Biennale can be visited until November 27, 2022.

With a background in Arts and Humanities (Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon, 2018) is a public programer and an independent curator in contemporary art. Currently, she is taking a Master in Fine Arts in Curating from Goldsmiths University of London while dedicating her research to non-conventional exhibition spaces and alternative curating methodologies. (portrait by Hugo Cubo, 2020)

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