Venice Biennale 2017: Rethinking Identity from the Basis of Art

September 4, 2017

Theseus’s Paradox, which questions whether an object whose parts have all been replaced can still be considered to be itself, has inspired philosophers, writers, and artists to reflect on the concept of identity. From ancient Greece to the present day, the discussion about the transformation of form and its impact on substance has fed an ongoing debate. Figures from Slavoj Žižek to Sygmunt Bauman, among other recognized sociologists, essayists and cultural critics, have devoted prolific reflection in describing and analyzing the questions that have carried the abandonment of a central conflict: class warfare. As a consequence, this conflict has broken up into a limitless number of struggles and diffuse grievances.

According to Žižek, in a contemporary society in which “culturally diverse worlds” proliferate, the principal problem is covered up by the concept of a “substitute escape valve” in the mode of “liberal multiculturalism”—the problem being the triumph of transnational capitalism and the homogenization it brings.[1]

Simultaneously, Bauman maintains that the process of globalization, the breaking up of  local communities, and the revolution of transportation systems have facilitated conditions for the “identity problem” to assume an unheard-of vividness.[2] In this context the debate grows around the notion of identity in function of the modern state-nation binomial, and there is an evident resurgence of nationalism as a response to migratory phenomenon rarely explained by considering the deep causes that have brought them to be.[3]  Form and content; conservation and change.

In these pages I suggest this barely-drawn conceptual axis as a narrative thread. A reading key to access the vast universe of art conceived by Christine Macel, curator of the 57th Venice Biennale titled “Viva Arte Viva.” Macel (France, 1969), art historian and chief curator of the Musée National d’Art Moderne - Centre Pompidou in Paris, proposes an expositive journey that possesses the determination of a declaration of principles: to center our attention on art and artists with the ambition to recover what’s truly human, with art as the catalyst.

With the premise that “facing the conflicts and alarms of the world […] art constitutes […] a last stronghold, a garden to be cultivated beyond fashion and personalism, representing an alternative to individualism and to indifference,” Macel has inaugurated one of the most anticipated exhibitions on the international calendar.[4] In it, she proposes a journey through nine “trans-pavilions,” to be read as chapters of the book, and not as compartmentalized and independent thematic units. The use of the term “trans-pavilions” initially acts as a semantic wink, inviting a lingering consideration of the traditional organization of national pavilions started by Belgium in 1907, a polemic aspect that today is frequently debated by artists, critics and intellectuals.

Taking as inspiration the insinuation proposed in the by-no-means coincidental use of the term “trans-pavilions,” together with a personal interest in the debate of the problematic configuration of collective identity in function of the nation-state binomial, I have the privilege to present a conceptual route, a map of ideas that tries to inquire into a complex  thematic that finds an echo in the proposals made by diverse artists in “Viva Arte Viva”.

Paulo Bruscky, Art is Packaged Any Way You Like It (2017)

Reflection upon the limits of the concept of “national representation,” as well as its insufficiency in a world that is ever more complex, has already been explored by Macel in her role as curator of France’s pavilion during the 2013 Biennial, then directed by Massimiliano Gioni, with the title “The Encyclopedic Palace.” On that occasion, France and Germany exchanged their pavilions with the purpose of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, signed in 1963 as a sign of collaboration between both countries. The gesture—creative, diplomatic and political at once—underlines the critical nature of the concepts of national identity, materializing in an individual show of the Albanian artist Anri Sala (Albania, 1974) for the French space and a collective show curated by Susanne Gaensheimer for Alemania, which included works by four artists of diverse cultural provenance: Santu Mofokeng (South Africa, 1956), Dayanita Singh (India, 1961), Ai Weiwei (China, 1957) and Romuald Karmakar (Germany, 1965).

In addition, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar (1956), residing in New York, proposed for the same context (but for the Chilean pavilion) an installation titled Venezia, Venezia (2013), that reflected on the organizing structure of the Biennial, based on geopolitical criteria, endorsing a system of inclusion-exclusion via the national pavilions. Jaar’s work opened with a photograph of the artist Lucio Fontana (Argentina, 1899–Italy,1968) visiting the ruins of his studio in the center of Milan, which had been bombed during World War II. The installation reached its focal point with a large rectangular tank from whose waters—dark green, similar to that of the canals in Venice—miniature scale reproductions of the national pavilions located at the historic site of the Gardens emerged at regular intervals: the incongruence of global conflict hidden beneath the pious mantle of the world’s oldest international art exhibition.

This discursive line is that from which the cartography of “Viva Arte Viva” extends, continuing to reveal today, with its own architecture, the fingerprints of a century lacerated by two great wars and relatively recent territorial disputes. The fiction to which the modern construction of national identity contained in the nation-state via an arbitrary delimitation of territory—which tries to present as homogenous the diversity that coexists in this space—resonates as a diffuse but persistent echo.[5] [6]

From this perspective, we begin from an unsettling observation. It takes the form of a sign that, contradicting itself, signals the entrance to the Serbian pavilion, located in the site of i Giardini at the Biennial, in which one can still read in capital white letters: “Yugoslavia.” A word unfolds a tale. The inscription, situated in the center and up high in the expositive space, is immediately transformed into the narration of a dissolved ex-Yugoslavia, and not only involuntarily underlines the most recent geopolitical changes, but highlights in particular phenomena so delicate—and problematic—as the construction of the collective experience of identity around the term nation-state. As Bauman affirms, “the fragility and status of the perennial provisionality of identity cannot continue to be concealed. The secret is of the public domain.”[7]

Serbian Pavilion (formerly Yugoslavia), located in The Gardens

Facing a climate in which the exaltation of the national has taken on diverse and vivid contours, just as much on one side of the Atlantic Ocean as the other, totalitarian discourses and the stigma of otherness as a threat—for the construction of national identity establishes a dynamic in which “us” is always opposed to “them”—takes form, and a reflection is proposed through works that make evident the artist’s capacity to visually articulate one of the most worrisome contemporary problematics.[8] Art assumes the responsibility of reintroducing questions that politics abandons, manifesting the necessity to move from anecdote to analysis, from description to criticism.

Green light, art workshop by Olafur Eliasson in which immigrants, refugees, students and the public are invited to participate

A State Without Borders or Territory

In effect, one of the collateral events accompanying the main exhibition of the Venice Bienniale becomes particularly relevant in this context. The fascinating architecture of the Venetian Renaissance, the ancient Palazzo Ca’ Tron, constitutes the exhibition site for the NSK State Pavilion—which remained open until July 15, 2017—a kind of “spiritual state” that indiscriminately hosts all those who wish to become citizens of a state without territory nor national borders.

NSK State Pavilion, 2017 at the Palazzo Ca'tron, IUAV University of Venice. Photo courtesy of IRWIN

The concepts of nation and identity, together with the dehumanized bureaucratic processes through which anyone seeking humanitarian asylum must pass, are acutely interpreted by contemporary artist and NSK citizen Ahmet Ögüt (Diyarbakir, 1981), the curator of the entire process of passport issuance. In this site-specific project, intellectual, physical and emotional requests are synthesized into a disquieting result. The NSK State, created in Slovenia in 1992 by the artistic collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK)—almost simultaneously with the geopolitical reconfiguration of Yugoslavia before its definitive dissolution in 2003—assumes an ethical and political posture, denouncing the entitlement of western neoliberalism as responsible for the economic, political and social devastation that forces millions of people to abandon their countries of origin. This is one of the most worrisome current crises in Europe that produces unrest and feeds debate about the fragile categories of ius solis and ius sanguini.

NSK, NSK Passports (2017). Photo courtesy of NSK

Us. Who?

Critical reflection, through aesthetic terms, around identity and how otherness is key in the construction of “us” in relation to “them” is also emphasized in the work of Carlos Amorales (México, 1970), developed for the Mexican pavilion, titled Life in the Folds (2017) and curated by Pablo León de la Barra.

Artist Carlos Amorales and curator Pablo León de la Barra play ocarinas in the context of the installation Life in the Folds in the Mexican Pavilion

Amorales, who left his city of birth at the beginning of the 90s with the intention of developing an autonomous aesthetic language, established himself in Holland, then returned fifteen years later. Once he was settled in the Netherlands, where he studied and began his path in the art world via performance art, he had his first experience at the Venice Bienniale in 2003, and participated, with four other artists from diverse cultural provenance who were all active in the country, in the “We are the World” curatorial project conceived by Rein Wolf for Holland’s pavilion at the Bienniale, directed by the critic and curator Franceso Bonami and titled “Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Spectator.” The exhibition proposed to underline the insufficiency of the concept of national representation, locating Holland as an open and multicultural country. Upon an entirely different stage—the exact opposite, Amorales would say—from that of 2003, La vida en los pliegues (the original title in Spanish)—is a product of an extensive process of research and artistic creation that involves multiple levels of reading in which visual, musical, and textual elements commingle. In this work we can observe the interest developed by the artist in language, the function of the image with respect to the text, and the study of works of figures in relief that are interested in the non-verbal aspects of language, such as Mirtha Dermisache (Argentina, 1940–2012) and the painter and poet Henri Michaux (Belgium, 1899–France, 1984), additionally inspired by the homonymous book Life in the Folds.

Installation view of Life in the Folds

The genesis of Amorales’ installation is found in the production of coded language, composed of abstract and arbitrary forms, a creative product of the artist that is the starting point for the letters of an alphabet that takes the form of ocarinas, moving within this multiple textual, plastic, and musical register. Between the immaculate walls of the Mexican space located at the Venetian Arsenal—a reproduction of the ascetic lines of the white cube—what is exhibited are poems composed in this new language created by Amorales. The challenge begins exactly there: to transcend the perplexity, confront the unknown and overcome the first obstacle of incomprehension to discuss the most stereotypical interpretations of reality. Sheet music, composed especially for the alphabet-instruments that transcend the limits of graphics and text, visually complements the salon.

The enigma of the work finds its denouement in the 13-minute short that narrates the history of a family of immigrants that, having reached a new neighborhood, are rejected, insulted, and finally lynched by the local inhabitants of the place. Among the folds” of Amorales’s work an un-deferrable worry reappears that alludes to the migratory phenomena involving Europe and the rest of the continents, underlining intrinsic problems with the unceasing mobility of contemporary humans.

Iconographic Manipulation and Collective Identity

The accent falls on quite a different aspect in the case of Werken (2017), a project by the Chilean artist Bernardo Oyarzún (Los Muermos, 1963) who from his beginnings has dedicated himself to exhaustively researching indigenous and popular culture in Chile. The installation is composed of more than 1,500 Mapuche masks in natural wood, hung upon steel posts that form a nearly ritualistic circle in the center of the exhibition space. The general lighting of the room is dim and suggestive. In the half-shadow, and halfway up the wall, red lights flash from two large LED displays, from which thousands of last names from an ancestral and original culture of the territory slide upon the wall. The work shows, in the same mode that a preceding series titled Réplicas (2011) did, the use of highly symbolic elements by the part of the state in the fictitious construction of an identity for an artificial country, particularly evoking the piece Réplicas de Filiación (2011), composed by pre-pressed lead plates in linotype on which are found inscriptions of the Mapuche patronymic also present in the work Werken.

Bernardo Oyarzún, Werken (2017) at the Chilean Pavilion. Photo courtesy of the artist

The use of ancestral images transformed in nationalist iconography reveals political, economic, and discursive strategies that the artist defines as “cynical,” by which he induces the artificial construction of the notions of collective identity, state, nation, and territory. Politics that hide the violent history behind which are concealed the mechanisms of constitution of the geographic limits of the state. A wound that crosses the history of the entire continent. In Werken—‘messenger’ in the Mapuche language—the ancestral cultures so often forgotten and overwritten by the colonial and post-colonial processes conquer the viewer’s attention, setting off an attentive and detailed observation that transcends the effective moment of the aesthetic experience.

The Artist as Messenger

In the artist there undoubtedly resides the capacity to articulate the most urgent arguments and sensibilities of an era, small trajectories in the creative process that flow together to synthesize material and content in a work of art. From that perspective, the opportunity that the Venice Bienniale presents, together with other manifestations in the art world, has immeasurable value. The accent on the consequences and implications of the critical situation of refugees in Europe and the migratory phenomena that transcend the frontiers of the old world—reintroducing a reflection in the real of the construction of collective identity and its articulation with the notion of the nation-state—is a pressing problem that crosses diverse languages and materials for many contemporary artists.

Cynthia Gutiérrez, Cántico del descenso I–XI.2014 (2017) at the Mexican Pavilion

Macel’s proposed program of underlining the centrality of art and artists recalls Merleau-Ponty’s considerations of the primordial mission of the painter in the capacity of making an artwork emerge from the perceptive continuum.[9] From this fusion of one with the world there germinates the definition of the contours of a primal, indistinct, and chaotic reality, starting from the human being but above all rising from the creative ability and gaze of the artist. Art makes it possible to transcend absolute rationalization as a totalitarian scheme, comprehending within a stratosphere that precedes language—life within the folds?—the unique and indivisible moment of perception, the aesthetic experience. The artist as messenger of the invisible, of what remains hidden, veiled to the ordinary glance. This precious ability allows for the interpretation of the present from a new perspective, at the same time as it appropriates themes and preoccupations that cannot be postponed, examining them under a completely new light. Thanks to their sharp observations and extraordinary sensitivity, artists offer a diverse mode of looking at and understanding the world, returning the multidimensional character of invisible things for the profane gaze.

[1] In his 1997 article titled “Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Culturalism,” Slavoj Žižek makes a detailed analysis of these concepts: “The problematics of multiculturalism as it is imposed today—the hybrid coexistence of culturally diverse worlds—is the mode in which the opposite problem is manifested: the massive presence of capitalism as a universal global system. This multiculturalist problematic gives testimony to the unprecedented homogenization of the contemporary world.” Slavoj Žižek, “Multiculturalismo o la lógica cultural del capitalismo multinacional” en Estudios Culturales: Reflexiones sobre el multiculturalismo, Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1998, pp. 175-176.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Intervista sull’identità, Editori Laterza, 2012, Kindle Edition.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, “De peregrino a turista, o una breve historia de la identidad” in Hall, Stuart y Du Gay, Paul (comps.), Cuestiones de identidad cultural, Buenos Aires, Amorrortu, 2003, p. 40. Also see Stuart Hall, “Introducción: ¿quién necesita ‘identidad’?” Ibíd. p. 13.

[4] Christine Macel, “Viva Arte Viva”, Biennale Arte 2017 Guida Breve, catalog of the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, May 2017, p. 38.

[5] “The idea of ‘identity’ and of a ‘national identity’ in particular is not ‘naturally’ born from human experience, nor does it emerge as a lapalissiano [evident by and of itself] ‘concrete fact.’ It’s an idea introduced by force in the Lebenswelt [world of life] of modern men and women, it has arrived as a fiction” in Bauman, Intervista sull’identità, op cit.

[6] Stephen Toulmin makes a detailed analysis of the constitution of the modern state identifying the Peace Treaty of Westfalia, signed in 1648, the origin of the nation-state confirming to the limits of a territory and analyzing the preceding and posterior events that made possible its origin and evolution. In Stephen Toulmin, Cosmópolis. El trasfondo de la modernidad, Barcelona, Península, 2001, pp. 134-135, 197.197.

[7] Bauman, Intervista sull’identitá, op cit. p. 13.

[8] Ibid.  

[9] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’occhio e lo spirito, s.l, SE, 1989.