Attempts to break down the ‘Great Game’ alignment of national pavilions at the Venice Biennale are nothing new. In the last two decades we have seen newly formed nations occupy off-site buildings, protest pavilions, social meet-up pavilions – the infamous Manchester Pavilion, the New Forest Pavilion, the Pavilion for Anonymous Stateless Immigrants, you name it - there is a pavilion for it. The Scottish and Welsh Pavilions were originally almost regarded as protests against the looming British Pavilion on top of its hill in the Giardini, long seen as the ‘English’ Pavilion. Now the British Council are coyly marketing all three as part of the UK’s presence in Venice, a particularly poignant move as Scotland edges towards full nationhood following the results of the UK election, which coincided with the opening days of the Biennale.
Influenced by the 56th edition’s theme ‘All the World’s Futures’ and led by curator Okwui Enwezor from the perspective of the Southern Hemisphere, many of the former external pavilions have been gathered to the bosom of the Biennale and moved into the Arsenale. It’s almost as if they have been magically, magnetically attracted by the power and vigour of the mesmeric avatars in the Chinese Pavilion’s ‘Folklore of the Cyber World’, which is housed in an industrial building at the end of the massive exhibition promenade. The Albanian, Slovenian, Croatian, South African, Thai, Georgian, Singapore, Peruvian, Mexican and many more pavilions have moved into the main complex and have clearly benefitted from a more centralised position. The Mexican Pavilion has even made an artwork out of it - Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega’s giant metal structure contains impressive lagoon pumping devices and is constructed in the shape of a map, which when seen from a stairway from above, shows the migration of the pavilion across Venice to its final resting place.
Water is also key in the Tuvalu Pavilion. In a rather obvious symbol of rising sea levels, visitors are asked to walk an unsteady plank across water in Vincent Huang’s installation ‘Crossing the Tide’.
The Pavilion of the Holy See (The Vatican), also in the Arsenale and appearing for the second time, is showing an unexpectedly secular mixture of artists exploring the theme ‘In the beginning…the Word became flesh’. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s installation ‘Haruspex’ takes the bodily connotations of this theme quite literally. Her impressive latticework of pigs’ intestines stands out both for its unusual medium and unexpected attractiveness.
Some national pavilions, whether within the inner sanctum of the Arsenale or not, have discovered the power of hiring effective Italian marketing companies. The Azerbaijan pavilion made its presence clear with a giant advertisement on the waterfront by Piazza San Marco - the first thing to be seen on arrival, making you think its pavilion was on site in the Square, instead of being tucked away discreetly in San Stefano. The Mexican Pavilion went one step further – its distinct blue billboards for the exhibition ‘Possessing Nature’ appear on street furniture in the most unlikely parts of Venice.
Possibly the best comment on the shifting nature of nationhood and its national pavilions came in the Serbian Pavilion, formerly the Yugoslavian Pavilion, within the Giardini. Ivan Grubanov has collected ‘dead flags’ of nations that no longer exist, coated and distressed them with chemicals. Starting appropriately with Yugoslavia, his ‘United Dead Nations’ include the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Tibet and many others in an attempt to question: “the notion of the nation represented in our post-global times by putting in focus the nations that no longer exist as such, but whose ghosts are still conditioning the geo-spheres they had occupied.” The Union Jack may yet enter Grubanov’s installation.
There has been much criticism about Enwezor’s ‘All The Worlds Futures’, mainly on the basis that it retreads too much ground covered in his Documenta 11 exhibition. However, I would disagree and suggest that the challenge, which has motivated the ‘shifting pavilions’ comes from his uncompromising curation of serious, engaged work from around the world. It seems that the criticism raised thus far has come mainly from the camp of critics and curators who see the overtly political nature of Enwezor’s globally inclusive programme as threatening to their own version of Venice – as the perspectives of the pavilions shift with a more democratic amount of attention placed on previously minor exhibitors, so too will the direction and relevance of the Biennale as a whole.