IN AN UNTITLED FILM shot in Mosul on October 31, 2016, Francis Alÿs trains his lens on a desert landscape suspended in the pink haze of a sandstorm. A tank slowly careens in the distance, armed soldiers milling about in its path. In the foreground, one of the artist’s hands holds up a small white canvas, while the other applies paint, mostly in sand tones with a daub of crimson to match the flag of the Peshmerga—the Kurdish army—flying atop the tank. Using the canvas as both picture and palette, the artist dashes out a composition in situ. “I was originally drawing with pencil on one side and painting on the other,” Alÿs explained. “But that took too long.”
We were standing in front of the Gothic windows of the wood-paneled library of the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, home to this year’s Iraq pavilion, where Alÿs’s video (flanked by a squadron of small sandstorm paintings, all white paint smudged on linen) was featured as a kind of special guest. Curated by Ruya Foundation’s Tamara Chalabi with Paolo Colombo, the pavilion’s central thrust, “Archaic,” corralled poignant works by Iraqi modernists Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said alongside six contemporary artists, including Nadine Hattom, Luay Fadhil, and Sadik Kwaish Alfraji.
In a nod to its theme, “Archaic” opened with a series of vitrines showcasing forty artifacts from the Iraq Museum, dating as far back as the Halaf Period (6000 BCE). Most had never been out of the country; the few that had were looted in 2003 and only recently recovered by Interpol. “As you can imagine, it was a Herculean task getting these here,” Chalabi said, motioning to the two uniformed museum guards assigned to escort the artifacts. Across the room, curator Peter Eleey shook his head. “We just came from the Damien Hirst show, where Jay Jopling was giving us the spiel about how they dropped these sculptures to the bottom of the sea to fake ruins. It’s quite a comparison.”
Alÿs told me that his Mosul series, which he discussed in a 500 Words in February, was a way to test the relevance and irrelevance of artistic language in a context of conflict. It seems in Venice, it’s irreverence, not irrelevance, that poses the bigger threat. This year’s Biennial bumper crop of political interventions and socially minded initiatives was thrown into relief against the backdrop of Christine Macel’s florid “Viva Arte Viva,” a mostly depoliticized effort. The emphasis on aesthetics and process made some political intentions seem decorative. For all its good intentions, for example, Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light Workshop—originally conceived as a more comprehensive endeavor—was too easily misread as an exploitation of asylum-seekers. At the packed South African pavilion, films by Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng tread the thin line between gripping and glib. At the Slovenian pavilion, Nika Autor also struck a delicate balance, embedding video footage of refugee-seekers crowding onto the undercarriage of a train into a cinematographic lineage of locomotives on film, from the original shock of the Lumière brothers to the tramp antics of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. Meanwhile, the Tunisian pavilion—the country’s first since 1958—set up kiosks where visitors could apply for an alternative travel document, modeled after the Schengen visa. With the gut-punch title, “The Absence of Paths,” the project tackled the increasing difficulty (if not impossibility) of international travel for Tunisians and other North Africans.
Relevance aside, structurally, the Tunisian project replicated the gesture at the center of another of this year’s offerings: the NSK State pavilion. Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) was an interdisciplinary association, first forged in 1984 by three of Slovenia’s most radical collectives: IRWIN, Laibach, and Scipion Nasice Sisters. In 1992, NSK riffed on the fallout from the Slovenian secession and the ensuing dissolution of Yugoslavia (“Sleavenia”?) by establishing NSK State in Time, a pretender nation, complete with passports,which visitors could apply for at exhibitions.
Twenty-five years later, NSK State now boasts roughly fifteen hundred citizens, many of whom are more than happy to flash their passports when asked. “I once traveled between Paris and Berlin just showing my NSK passport as my ID,” Hans Ulrich Obrist bragged over dinner. “I heard IRWIN’s Roman Uranjek used his diplomatic pass to get out of traffic violations in Ljubljana,” added artist Luchezar Boyadijev—an NSK diplomat himself. Once essentially a Cool Kids Club for the more progressive fringes of the 1990s art world, the NSK State took on a different dimension in 2006, following a frantic influx of applications from Nigeria, where word had circulated that the passports were tantamount to Slovenian citizenship. In 2009, members of the artist collective traveled to Lagos to meet with some of the applicants in person, quite literally facing the real repercussions of an ideological wager.
When NSK State decided to have its own pavilion, they followed Biennale protocol, selecting two curators from their citizenry—Zdenka Badovinac and Charles Esche—who then scoured the same list to select the representing artist, Ahmet Öğüt, and published an accompanying reader called The Final Countdown: Europe, Refugees and the Left, with contributions from NSK citizen Slavoj Žižek, Boris Groys, and Agon Hamza. Öğüt offered an architectural intervention, warping the entry space to the Ca’Tron so that visitors were forced up a perilously steep, Museum of Illusions–style incline if they wanted to get a look at the materials on display. Once inside, Öğüt had placed the NSK passport station along the outer edges of a trampoline. “It’s a heavy subject, so I wanted to bring a little levity into the space,” the artist reasoned. To mark the opening, the NSK invited Žižek to speak, an event open to all NSK citizens. (Those without the necessary papers could apply for a visa at the door.)
In another cross-national project, Bosnia and Herzegovina hosted the “University of Disaster,” an initiative of artist Radenko Milak in collaboration with the congenial crew at Paletten, the Swedish art journal fronted by writer Fredrik Svensk and curator Sinziana Ravini. On the top floor of the palazzo, Milak’s gorgeous watercolors and hand-drawn animations of events like Chernobyl and Hiroshima may have set the tone, but from there, “disaster” took on extravagant interpretations. Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s Oculus Rift animation Dickgirl 3D(X), 2016, endowed viewers with magnificent breasts and an electric-blue plasma phallus used to repeatedly penetrate a giant chortling sex potato. I tried to avert my eyes from the bobbling mass, but the goggles wouldn’t let me look away. The most effective representation of disaster may have been the most intimate: Echo, a searing performance by Nils Bech staged in a tiny makeshift bedroom covered in a quilt of Ida Ekblad paintings. Curled up beside a small effigy on the bed, Bech drizzled his limoncello vocals over the room, crooning on loop: “It’s all over now . . , It’s all over now.” There wasn’t a dry eye (or an unbroken heart) in the room.
Thankfully, the week ended on a note of hope—hope as in a glass half empty but the drink too bitter anyway. The Saturday the Biennial officially opened, I ducked down to Pistoia. Not far from Florence (or the interplanetary Centro di Luigi Pecci), the stately Tuscan town is host to dealer Giuseppe Alleruzzo’s gallery, SpazioA, where curator Martha Kirszenbaum had organized “Waiting for the Sun,” a spirited group show featuring Dora Budor, Margaret Honda, Matthew Lutz-Kinoy, Laure Prouvost, and Reza Shafahi, a seventy-six-year-old painter who launched his art career only a few years back, following a collaboration with his son, artist Mamali Shafahi.
Making the most of the context, Budor developed her installation around the region’s signature design collective, Archizoom (frequent collaborators with and participants of the influential Superstudio, also founded in late 1960s Florence). Budor placed one of Archizoom’s foxy white vinyl couches in the gallery’s center, directly under a suspended streamlined machine (something between a light fixture and an ashtray) that showered prop ashes onto the pristine surface of the sofa below. “I was thinking about 1816, ‘The Year without Summer,’” Budor told us. That year increased volcanic activity—triggered by the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora—and temporarily altered the climate, cloaking much of the planet in the kind of sandstorm haze Alÿs had tried to capture in his paintings. Whether it was the artist’s intention, Budor’s work was a reminder that dark ages have come and gone before, that the sun eventually comes out again. It may be naive of me, but that was a sentiment I could drink to.