Venice Biennale Highlight #4: United Dead Nations

Appropriately for a building that still bears the name of a country that no longer exists, carved in stone above the entrance, the Serbian Pavilion (formerly that of Yugoslavia) at the 2015 Venice Biennale hosts a powerful comment on the fluidity and vulnerability of nationhood. Artist Ivan Grubanov collected the flags of countries that have ceased to exist to create United Dead Nations. In the foyer, a video explains his process, piling high the flags and pouring over them paint in the same bright colours from which they are constructed. Upon entering the main room of the pavilion visitors see the results of that process – pathetic heaps of dirty material that has lost its lustre, and underfoot a thin layer of dry paint, which has drained from the flags like a waning life source.

On the white walls, embossed in bold white letters, arise like ghosts the names and dates of these former nations, including Czechoslovakia, the GDR, and the USSR, which like Yugoslavia fell after the end of the Cold War. In a world struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing ideas of nationhood resulting from the challenges of globalisation and religious fundamentalism, the Serbian Pavilion offers a quiet moment for reflection among the dazzle of the Giardini.

Venice Biennale Highlight #3: Hope!

Considering the current conflict ravaging Ukraine, it’s no surprise that the country’s national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is highly policised. Within a confined glass cube on the waterfront, on the approach to the Arsenale, a host of young Ukrainian artists present works in response to the crisis. By combining them under the title of Hope!, curator Björn Geldhof announces the intention that the exhibition be viewed as aspiration for a positive and united future, with the transparent housing equally suggesting hopes for a new open and honest Ukraine following years of political intrigue and corruption.

The most eye-catching work within the cube is the performance piece Synonym for “Wait” by four-man art collective Open Group. During opening hours throughout the five and a half months of the festival, a member of the group will be sat at a desk in the centre of the room. He stares at a wall of nine monitors relaying footage from a series of security cameras installed outside the homes of young Ukrainian men who have been drafted into the army. In sympathy with the soldiers’ families, each Open Group member will be on hunger strike throughout the period of his observation, as they await the men’s return.

A number of other pieces are made up of photographs and collages constructed from newspaper contents, suggesting frustration with the media coverage of the conflict. Perhaps the most haunting of these works is Blind Spot. It comprises a series of photographs by Mykola Ridnyi, tantalisingly concealing and revealing details of urban destruction, alongside poignant verses by the celebrated countercultural poet Serhiy Zhadan, which relate injustices committed against individual Ukrainians caught up in the present turmoil.

In front of the pavilion is a smaller glass box containing the smashed and scorched concrete and metal remains of a bombed apartment block. The installation by Nikita Kadan provides a shocking reminder of the brutality of the conflict that continues to rage in these artists’ homeland, and reveals the challenges to their hope for peace in Ukraine.

Image: Top – Open Group, Synonym for “Wait”, live streaming video and performance, 2015; Bottom – Nikita Kadan, Difficulties of Profanation, 2015. Marble, steel, glass, earth, bean plant, glass and wood, 160 x 160 x 370 cm. Courtesy PinchukArtCentre.

Venice Biennale Highlight #2: Paperwork, and the Will of Capital

Among the tightly-packed displays in the cavernous main exhibition hall of the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale, Paperwork and the Will of Capital: An Account of Flora As Witness by US artist Taryn Simon stands out as one of the most thought-provoking and carefully-crafted artworks.

Simon’s installation explores the overlooked role of flowers as a form of soft diplomacy. The artist at first appears to be presenting them as silent witnesses to the establishment of international treaties and governmental agreements. Yet her focus on these objects gradually transforms them from innocent observers to conduits of complex political meaning, both as symbols of national identity and gestures of peaceful objectives.

In a series of vitrines, Simon presents a photograph of a floral arrangement from a particular meeting and a detailed analysis of its contents alongside a pressing of replica flowers. As these floral tokens degrade, mirroring the gradual disintegration of the contracts they have represented, Simon reveals the ability of even the most innocuous objects to be coopted as forms of propaganda in the interest of political and economic gain.

Image: Installation shot from Paperwork and the Will of Capital: An Account of Flora As Witness by Taryn Simon, 2015, in Room 2, Arsenale, 56th Venice Biennale.

Venice Biennale Highlight #1: Albanian Trilogy

To celebrate the relaunch of ESPIONART, the Cold War art blog, this week presents a series of Cold War related highlights from the 56th Venice Biennale, open now until 22 November 2015.

Top of the list is the artist Armando Lulaj’s exhibition at the Albanian Pavilion in Arsenale, entitled Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems. Curated by Marco Scotini, the exhibition presents three recent films by Lulaj charting extraordinary episodes from Albania’s Cold War history and the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

The most eye-catching piece in the exhibition focuses upon an unlikely victim of Hoxha’s regime. As the leader became increasingly fearful of an attack by the USSR following the disintegration of Soviet-Albanian relations in the early 1960s, the Albanian navy responded to the sighting of what they believed to be an enemy submarine by launching a missile at it. The unfortunate target turned out instead to be a whale, and its skeleton is now held in the Museum of Natural History in Tirana. The skeleton is temporarily on loan to the exhibition in Venice, and alongside it the film It Wears as It Grows (2011) presents this unfortunate animal’s remains as a representation of the damage of Hoxha’s regime.

Another passer-by who came a cropper in Hoxha’s Albania was US Air Force pilot Major Howard J. Curran. After entering Albanian airspace in December 1957, Curran was forced to land in the country and was only released after two weeks of interrogation. The film Recapitulation (2015) explores the less favourable history of his aircraft, which was moved to an Albanian castle that had been reimagined as the country’s Weapons Museum. There it remains to this day with the label “American Spy Plane?”, the question mark added in 2009 in an attempt to appease the United States.

Hoxha’s increasingly unpredictable paranoia left an indelible mark on Albania, most obviously in the form of his programme of “bunkerisation” that continues to pockmark the surface of the country. The last film in the exhibition, NEVER (2012), focuses on another monumental leftover from the communist leader’s 40-year reign. In 1968 the Albanian People’s Army led hundreds of young people in spelling out ENVER in enormous painted white stones on the side of the Shpirag mountain, over a distance of approximately 36,000 square metres. After the end of Hoxha’s regime in the early 1990s attempts were made to remove the stones, but napalm and military machinery failed to erase the offending letters. NEVER documents the state of the installation in 2012, as the persistent activity of local villagers together with the natural effects of the shifting terrain, vegetation, and the elements have gradually morphed the dictator’s first name into the English word NEVER.

As well as the whale skeleton, Lulaj’s three films are accompanied by further archival material to present a fascinatingly rich, disturbing and yet surprisingly playful historical account of the Hoxha years.

Top – Installation shot of Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems by Armando Lulaj at the Venice Biennale, 2015; Bottom – screen shot from NEVER by Armando Lulaj, 2012.

Recommended Read: Politics and Painting at the Venice Biennale

Nancy Jachec. Politics and Painting at the Venice Biennale, 1948–64: Italy and the Idea of Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008.

The 55th Venice Biennale closes later this month, bringing to an end another spectacular exposition of current trends in international contemporary art. The Biennale underwent a 6-year hiatus during World War II before resuming in 1948, just as the Cold War was starting to come into full effect. From then on, every two years the event brought art to the forefront of international relations, providing a fascinating snapshot of cultural developments in increasingly hostile nations.

pizzinato2In this book Nancy Jachec provides a more eurocentric account of art during years that have been largely dominated by the history of American Abstract Expressionism. She successfully challenges these often black-and-white accounts of the ‘triumph’ of American painting, instead exploring how European artistic identities formed and developed in the shadow of the Cold War.

On sale from Manchester University Press.

Image: Armando Pizzinato, Liberation of Venice [Liberazione di Venezia], 1952. Oil on canvas. Collection CGIL Direzione Nazionale, Roma.