The Venice Biennial's central exhibition, its 77 national pavilion exhibitions, and its dozens of ancillary exhibitions (or "collateral projects") are accompanied by an equally copious number of events, performances and conversations that unfold during the preview days of the Biennial before it opens to the public tomorrow. For two days, I raced from one exhibition hall to another, trying to view as many of the performances as possible, before coming to the realization that it's best to let happenstance guide one's way. If you have the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time, a performance may sweep you up in its embrace.
This approach is not without its hazards: I circled the streets where Arto Lindsay's parade was to take place, only to get caught in a fierce downpour just as the parade was about to begin. As I ducked for cover under an awning, I bumped into two of the event's technical assistants who informed me that the parade was rescheduled for a less rainy day before rushing Lindsay's electronic gear to safety. In another instance, I waited in line to view Yoko Ono's performance preceding her discussion with David A. Ross. When only half of the people in line fit into the auditorium, the rest of us were delegated to watch the performance and discussion as a remote broadcast on plasma screens severely muted by the glare of the sun. This proved a daunting task for all but a handful of the most diehard Ono fans, and the crowd outdoors soon dispersed.
At more opportune moments, I happened upon events as they were just beginning. At the United Arab Emerates Pavilion, for example, I was handed an audio tour that offered tongue-in-cheek commentary about the Emirates' first inclusion in the Venice Biennial, expressing its hopes about what it could communicate globally about its cultural ambitions. Titled "It's Not You It's Me," the theme of the pavilion might be interpreted to mean "it's not the art that's the problem, it's the audience" (or more specifically, the the institutional context and the lofty expectations and demands it places on artists and their work). I usually don't listen to audio tours, and if I do, I rarely concentrate all the way through. But the self-mocking tone embedded in the mellifluous voice of this narrator captured my attention, and I listened long enough to understand that the press conference about to take place inside the pavilion was conceived as a staged performance, complete with lip-synching actors and an audience plant posing pre-scripted questions.
Conceived by the theater group the Jackson Pollock Bar, the "press conference" featured very attractive young stand-ins for UAE Pavilion commissioner Dr. Lamees Hamdan, and curator and filmmaker Tirdad Zolghadr. Their lip-synched speeches, (most-likely also recorded by voice actors) discussed how the UAE Pavilion sought to engage in "pro-cultural exchange" but also "challenged the global perception of art in the Western World." Zolghadr's recording countered that the Venice Biennial was the equivalent of the Oscars to the art world, and thereby not the type of place that fostered experimentation. In response, the work in the UAE Pavilion, as well as the performances of the Jackson Pollock Bar itself, offered self-reflexive commentary and critique about the Biennial's institutional set-up and the problematic nature of exhibition making in the context of a national (if not nationalistic) concept of a pavilion.
This methodology was curiously echoed in the exhibition "Palestine c/o Venice," taking place on Giudecca island. Situated in a more remote locale than the national pavilions, and not billed as an actual pavilion but as a collateral event, "Palestine c/o Venice," nonetheless packed a searing political punch. In remarks during the opening ceremony, Laila Shadid, the Palestinian Representative on the European Commission, rebuked the word "collateral" for too closely resembling the contested term "collateral damage" and suggested that the project be viewed as the revival of the Palestinian Pavilion after its absence from the Venice Biennial for 61 years. A mock press conference conceived by Ramallah-based artist Khalil Rabah's announced that the (fictional) 3rd Riwaq Biennale would be sprinkled throughout 50 Palestinian villages "chosen for their architectural significance," and would consist of "a series of journeys between fragmented locations." Commencing with the phrase "I have a dream," the various panelists (predictably all men) presented the concept of a Riwaq Biennial that would "present opportunities for protecting, utilizing and promoting cultural heritage in Palestine." As an extremely ironic gesture bringing to light the sheer impossibility of such an undertaking in Palestine today, the concept of the 3rd Riwaq Biennale posed questions about what role art can play for societies in perpetual crisis. Shadid answered this question best in her opening remarks by suggesting that the artists were the real ambassadors to Palestine in Venice, unapologetically disseminating the realities faced by the Palestinian people to a broader public.
Seen in the overarching context of a global Biennial, such performances offered an insightful critique of the hype and spectacle of the Biennial format itself. For more dispatches from Venice on these and other developments, visit Art in America during the coming days (or follow us on Twitter!)