Aesthetics of Prudence and Distraction?
The Venice Biennale Arab Pavilions, part two
Strong works of art, even if generated by a specific locale or concern, communicate meaning on multiple levels and transcend geopolitical boundaries. Artworks that operate on a surface level only—or, worse, that are placed in a curatorial context that only invites one-dimensional interpretation—remain anecdotal, a curiosity to the viewer. Unfortunately, however, the latter is the case for the disappointing first participation of Bahrain in the Venice Art Biennale, as it is for the Iraqi pavilion.
In 2010, Bahrain won the much-coveted Golden Lion for best national pavilion at Venice’s Architecture Biennale. The Bahraini contribution to the Architecture Biennale, entitled Reclaim, examined the rapid transformation of the Bahraini coastline. For this project, photographer Camille Zakharia, who is also participating in this year’s Bahrain pavilion at the Art Biennale, made a beautiful photo series of fishermen’s huts dotting the coast. It is startling how Bahrain got it so right with the architecture contribution, and was so off the mark with the Art Biennale.
Even more, since the artists selected for the pavilion are themselves good artists. Lebanese-born Zakharia is a remarkable photographer and creates beautiful collages that speak of the fragmentary existence of being in exile. Mariam Haji and Waheeda Malullah are both amongst the most promising Bahraini women artists, each dealing with political and gender issues—Haji through drawing and photography and Malullah through photography and video. However, the projects and practices of these three artists have little in common thematically or aesthetically. What do the postcard-sized collages of a personal correspondence and photo archive by Zakharia have in common with the photographs of an abaya-clad woman holding a bunch of balloons traversing the streets of Bahrain by Malullah, or the rather bombastic life-size self-portrait of Mariam Haji victoriously riding a white donkey surrounded by a herd of horses?
If anything, the show does justice to its hermetic title: In a World of Your Own. All three artists’ projects could have made sense separately as solo exhibitions; however, put together in the total absence of a curatorial premise, they dilute each other and become clichéd vignettes. This is a rushed and clumsy display of their work in what is otherwise a beautiful and prominent space in the Arsenale.
The logistics of putting together a show under the challenging conditions of working in Iraq is no small feat.The Iraq Pavilion has its share of problems, too. However, curator Jonathan Watkins, director of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery and the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Art and Culture in Iraq, should be commended for working with artists inside Iraq, rather than their more accessible counterparts in the diaspora. The logistics of putting together a show under the challenging conditions of working in Iraq is no small feat. This being said, Welcome to Iraq runs the risk of reeking of didactic disaster tourism translated into a curatorial concept. Its very title already sets out parameters of “othering,” which makes it difficult for the Iraqi artists involved to occupy a shared space with the Biennale at large, and Biennale visitors in particular. Whether it is the invited Iraqi artist or the Biennale visitor, in the context of the Iraqi pavilion, someone always remains a stranger in this year’s showing.
The curatorial emphasis on narratives of resilience, resourcefulness and survival overshadowed the artistic presence in Iraq’s show. The stark contrast between the lush Palazzetto Dandolo and the harsh reality of Iraq’s collapsing infrastructure is unsettling to a degree that becomes uncomfortable. This is not to say that Abdul Raheem Yassir’s political cartoons and Jamal Penjweny’s photo portraits of ordinary Iraqis who hide their faces with a life-size picture of Saddam Hussein are not of interest—on the contrary. The cardboard furniture of the WAMI collective and some of Cheeman Ismail’s paintings on household objects combine craftsmanship with a deeply personal and national narrative. But amongst the carpets and kilims, the tea and the Iraqi biscuits, these artistic interventions become too much of a spectacle.
For its third participation in the Venice Biennale, the UAE opted for a solo show by conceptual artist Mohammed Kazem. A protégé of Emirati conceptual art pioneer Hassan Sharif, Kazem presents an immersive video installation with a 360-degree projection of the sea. The project is part of his ongoing exploration of water and the sea—in particular, the sensation of being lost at sea—which he started in 2005 under the title Directions. The installation is expertly executed and the whole experience induces a mild feeling of seasickness. The question, however, is whether anything meaningful is produced beyond a technologically smart set-up. It all wears a bit thin for an artist well known for his conceptually engaging and poetic body of work.
Kuwait, another first-time participant, shows a well-installed exhibition curated by Ala Younis, but it too lacks zest. Moreover, it all feels a bit too static and poised, and therefore a bit dull and characterless. Younis juxtaposes the practice of Kuwait’s master sculptor, Sami Mohammed, with a photography series by Tarek Al-Ghoussein. Mohammed’s projects were nationalist and celebratory in nature; he sculpted larger-than-life statues of Kuwait’s sheikhs. Ghoussein inserts himself in his own photographs at dilapidated sites of former grandeur like the Al-Nasr sports club, the National Assembly and the Kuwait Stock Market. The exhibition conjures up a wealth of complex questions about architecture, monuments and nationalism. Yet it is all so carefully and tentatively formulated that it loses its critical edge and its ability to make a statement.
It is rarely a good idea for artists to curate their own exhibitions, and the Egyptian pavilion is a case in point. Khaled Zaki curated his own work alongside that of Mohammed Banawy for a pavilion that can only be described as a serial accumulation of clichéd kitsch. Granted, Egypt is going through a tumultuous time and has seen more ministers of culture in one year than you can imagine—and the artists only had forty days to produce their project. Still, sometimes it is better to cancel participation than to stoop to the level of bringing faux cave paintings, mosaics, bronze-cast dervishes and bronze sarcophagi-cum-spaceships together all in the name of uniting science, humanity, civilization and the whole universe. The situation in Egypt is dire, but this should not be an excuse for such an embarrassing showing at the Venice Biennale.
The 55th Venice Biennale runs from June 1 to Novemeber 24, 2013, in Venice, Italy. More information is available on their website.