Border relations at the Venice Biennale: should they prevail over transnationalism?

The most evident and troubling concerns with the Venice Biennale currently relate to how we deal, address and present border relations in an increasingly transnational and global world. Influential critics such as Robert Barry argue that in the art world transnationalism seems to be one of the essential qualities of whatever it  is we mean by contemporary art, yet at the Biennale, arguably, one can see how the festival demands that countries perceive themselves in a static notion of a nation, and present their country in a patriotic light. Placing many artists who have travelled to other countries in the situation where they have to return to their origin, sing a song of belonging that doesn’t really want them and “The art of not being who or where you were before?” (pp. 60 Laura Oldfield Ford, Art Review). There is a tension between talking about a transnational future and the present time at the Biennale, and  being forced to go back to ‘their pasts’ by going back to their country. 11751378_1037445519600210_1093989690_n Surely the world we live in today isn’t a national pavilion outdated in the contemporary world, where one is testament to one’s time more than one’s location? While national pavilions each do their own thing in the Giardini which is the main (and most historical, if you want) exhibition site,  there is a theme about identity running through the medieval dockyard buildings of the site of the Arsenale. Curated by Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, and educator, specializing in art history, only some work in the Arsenale is presented within distinguished national entities, whereas ‘All the World’s futures’ and the art work is presented in a more eclectic and chaotic way – arguably what the world is today. No distinctions, minuscule signage and markings and a frenzied fight for visitor’s attention leave space for individual engagement with the site(s).

photo credits: Jasmin Anderson, 2015
photo credits: Jasmin Anderson, 2015

While at the Biennale of course, some countries are yet to have an official presence. To name but one example, the Kenyan Pavilion is established, yet features a group show of more Chinese artists than Kenyan ones who claim their right and identity. It could be argued that until what some deem ‘impostors’ are eradicated and countries are able to globally inform international art communities of the pavilion ‘they’ will be presenting to the world at the Venice Biennale, borders may have to be sustained in such a context for the bid to aid cultural, social and political expression from previously oppressed countries who have experienced previous misrepresentation. To consider alternative centres or starting points for the history of art, as cultural output, audiences and collecting becomes more global is essential so the Biennale moves away from its past problems and criticisms. Jasmin Anderson


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