At the Venice Biennale, Four Pavilions Tackle National Politics Head-On

Artsy Editors
Jul 2, 2015 3:47AM

The Venice Biennale’s spread of national pavilions has long served as a platform for countries to showcase their most impressive art. But the Biennale has equally acted as a mirror to global conflict, power fluctuation, and social change. This year brings a slew of ardent responses to current political and social realities as well as national strife, which are deeply ingrained and glaringly fresh. In three films, we walk through the Icelandic, Indian, Pakistani, and Ukrainian pavilions to see installations that surface bold commitments to equality, solidarity, and peace. 

Iceland: The Mosque

Christoph Büchel’s Icelandic Pavilion has proved to be the most controversial project at this year’s highly political Biennale. For “The Mosque,” the Swiss-born, Iceland-based artist transformed a former Catholic cathedral into a functioning mosque and Muslim community center. Although the church sat unused for more than 40 years prior to the pavilion’s opening, the conversion unearthed conflicting opinions about the activities that should be permitted inside the building, highlighting religious tensions in Venice. On May 22nd, Venetian police requested the closure of the installation—more than five months earlier than the artist had intended. Here, we explore the mosque’s interior and how the Venetian community—Muslims, Catholics, and art-world visitors alike—have interacted with the contentious pavilion.

India and Pakistan: My East Is Your West 

This year, India and Pakistan are represented at the Venice Biennale for the first time. In an expression of solidarity, the two countries, often in conflict, installed projects under a single title, “My East is Your West,” and the same roof, Venice’s 17th-century Palazzo Benzon. Here, we pass through the the palazzo’s velvet-covered rooms to discover projects from Shilpa Gupta of India and Rashid Rana of Pakistan. Both exhibitions surface deep-seated issues of border geography, class struggle, and identity in a region mired in political controversy. Gupta’s focus is an extensive researched-based exploration of the border fence that separates India and Bangladesh. In an ongoing performance, an actor writes on a long, scroll-like cloth that accumulates in a towering pile—it’s length represents a tiny fraction of the 3,400 kilometer barrier between the two countries. Rana offers a live video feed that connects a room in the palazzo to a small structure in Pakistan. Lahore locals and visitors to the Venice Biennale interact, erasing geographic boundaries and highlighting themes of globalization.

Ukraine: Hope!

Ukraine, a country in the throes of a crippling conflict with Russia, this year installed a glass pavilion in the middle of one of Venice’s most trafficked streets. The sheer structure is a nod to the country’s plea for political transparency and autonomy. Ukrainian artists Yevgenia Belorusets, Nikita Kadan, Zhanna Kadyrova, Artem Volokitin, Mykola Ridnyi and Serhiy Zhadan, Open Group, and Anna Zvyagintseva explore narratives of freedom, imprisonment, optimism, and fear on both national and personal scales. Here, curator Björn Geldhof explains the stirring power of art in a nation seeking hope. 

Artsy Editors

Films directed by Poppy de Villeneuve.

Explore the 56th Venice Biennale on Artsy.