PRINT September 2009

Claire Bishop

Jackson Pollock Bar, Opening, 2009. Performance view, United Arab Emirates pavilion, Venice, June 3, 2009.

THE VENICE BIENNALE is a dinosaur of cultural politics. After the biennial boom of the 1990s, the mother of all international art shows seems more akin to nineteenth-century extravaganzas than to the experimental exhibition formats promoted by new generations of curators in Havana, Istanbul, and Gwangju, or via the roving Manifesta. The Giardini’s antiquated structure of freestanding national pavilions clings to a geopolitical power map largely static since the 1930s, reinforcing a model of representation that even São Paulo’s grandstanding classic finally abandoned in 2006. And yet, perhaps depressingly, national representation in Venice remains a target of aspiration for newly independent countries (Croatia, Lithuania), global latecomers (China, Singapore), and even dissidents (Wales and Scotland, whose participation is grouped under “Collateral Events”). Among the influx of new contenders this year are several from the Middle East, not all of them nation-states: Palestine, Iran, Abu Dhabi, and the United Arab Emirates. The last pavilion, curated by Tirdad Zolghadr and titled “It’s Not You, It’s Me,” is notable for being the only venue in this year’s Biennale to reflect openly on its raison d’être.

Located near the end of the Arsenale, the UAE pavilion immediately announces its self-reflexivity in four panels of wall text whose size, font, and snappy tone cut through the generic labels that dutifully line the Corderie to that point. A first section of text sums up four challenges facing the curator of this particular pavilion (the size of the space, the eccentricity of national showcasing, the art world’s exhibition fatigue, and qualms about the UAE—presumably with regard to the federation’s culture), while a second section puts forward four solutions (dividing up the room while showing as few artists as possible, highlighting the world’s-fair subtext, being self-reflexive, and offering no apologetics). Against the backdrop of this punchy introduction, assistants in designer-logo abayas invite audiences to take an audio guide. Scripted by London-based architectural writer Shumon Basar but read by Lamees Hamdan (the pavilion’s commissioner), its monologue begins with soothing words: “After all the art you’ve seen so far at the Biennale, maybe you’d appreciate something lighter on the eye and on the ear. Guess what? That’s OK!” Hamdan then elaborates the proposed analogy of Biennale and world’s fair before succinctly introducing the first of the pavilion’s five components—thirty-one large, square-format photographs by Lamya Gargash of the UAE’s one-star hotels. Rather than describing these images as works as art—they are fairly generic Düsseldorf-style efforts—the audio guide frames them ethnographically, as the unseen counterpart to Dubai’s main claim to fame, the Burj Al Arab, that fin-shaped seven-star hotel.

With a simple change of channel, the same audio headset accesses sound tracks for five video projections in a work by the Berlin-based dramaturge and curator Hannah Hurtzig, each one featuring a conversation between two people in positions of power or expertise regarding the development of visual art in the UAE: a minister of culture, a Sharjah-based businessman and collector, the CEO of Saadiyat Island (the cultural district currently being developed in Abu Dhabi), an editor of the journal Bidoun. Normally this kind of “talking heads” video leaves me cold, but deployed here—under the title Nation Builders, 2009—it provides essential context, introducing key figures while discreetly leaving more challenging questions to the viewer. The conversations remain politely deferential to the predominantly male display of power we are witnessing—more akin to cultural agency–sponsored research than to the (hopefully) counterhegemonic work of an artist. This is reinforced by a plasma screen showing the “making of” these videos in an evidently upmarket hotel (perhaps the Burj Al Arab?).

Lamya Gargash, Ferrari Hotel, 2009, color photograph, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4“. Lamya Gargash, Sima Hotel, 2009, color photograph, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4”. Lamya Gargash, Al Andalus Hotel, 2009, color photograph, 47 1/4 x 47 1/4". All from the series “Familial,” 2009. United Arab Emirates pavilion, Venice

Installed nearby are high-end maquettes of museum infrastructures existing or under construction in the UAE, including Jean Nouvel’s Louvre franchise, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim (so obscenely vast it verges on parody), and the Culture Village Dubai. These “national expo” components are placed next to more conventional works of art from a variety of periods, including Hassan Sharif’s conceptual and body-art documentation (think standard-issue black-and-white photos with typewritten texts) produced between 1979 and 1984. In the context of so much cultural engineering, Sharif’s work seemed to offer a glimpse of old-school artistic integrity, until someone suggested to me that he was—in keeping with the pavilion’s overall tone of distanced irony—probably invented by the curator. Even if this were true, I’m not sure it would matter: Authenticity is hardly a pressing concern in the UAE (Abu Dhabi is, after all, building a simulacrum of the Giardini for its own future biennials).

This attitude was underscored in the pavilion’s final component, a complex performance during the Biennale’s opening week by the Freiburg, Germany–based group Jackson Pollock Bar. Titled Opening, the twenty-eight-minute event was based on an edited transcript of a UAE-pavilion press conference given by Zolghadr and his commissioner at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2008. This version was then recorded by actors and, at the pavilion in Venice, lip-synched by two other actors (upgraded look-alikes of Zolghadr and Hamdan). The highlight was a journalist (“John Smith”) asking pointed questions from the audience, also entirely lip-synched for the live event. The effect was riveting, not just for the actors’ ability to lip-synch an entire discussion—as well as feign the bored restlessness that epitomizes all press conferences—but also for the content of Smith’s questions: Isn’t culture in the UAE a top-down initiative? Isn’t it true that only the rich can survive as artists there? Shouldn’t the country be dealing with its appalling immigrant-labor conditions before buying up Western art history? (Actually, this last question is mine, but there was no opportunity to join in.)

Through this performance, and in the pavilion as a whole, Zolghadr has managed to ventriloquize his own ambivalence about the UAE, but only while promoting and complicating the Western perception of this country. He acknowledges international unease about the UAE’s voracious cultural development, but only by displaying this alongside artists usually absent from the promotional literature. And in this regard, perhaps Zolghadr ventriloquizes the ambivalences that should beset the curator of any state’s pavilion: the use of art as a display of national prowess, whether (or not) to show the domestic context for cultural production, and the question of how to be critical in the hype-rich, time-poor world of the Biennale. The UAE pavilion includes very little art but an awful lot of curatorial authorship that stays just on the right side of knowing glibness. Zolghadr has pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of setting himself at a distance from the goals of his funders while managing to serve them anyway (as evidenced by this article). This is doublespeak at its double-edged finest.

Claire Bishop is an associate professor of art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.