At the Egyptian Pavilion, Artists Cry for Peace
When it comes time to hand out the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion on Saturday, chances are Egypt won’t be the country called. Its contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale is definitely the weirdest exhibition in the Giardini—and quite possibly in Venice at large. But of everything I’ve seen over the past three days, it left me feeling the most conflicted. Where art is concerned, that’s typically a sign something interesting is going on.
The installation, titled “Can You See?” was created by three artists—Ahmed Abdel Fatah, Maher Dawoud, and Gamal Elkheshen—with Hany Al Ashkar, the creative director of marketing firm Brandology Egypt, serving as commissioner. The room has been carpeted in light grey and is filled with what looks like some kind of small animal’s amusement park. A narrow path created in white MDF and covered in astroturf winds around the space, creating ramps, steep drop-offs, and passageways. A handful of Samsung tablets have been set up on stands throughout the space in a way that has the visual cues of a pretty lame corporate-sponsored “art” show. A soundtrack that might take the title “Meadow in Springtime” on Muzak plays.
The tablets have their cameras pointed at a logo pasted onto the fake grass that spells out “PEACE” in both the Latin alphabet and Arabic script. As it turns out, the ramps and paths also create this same insignia if viewed from above. When pointed at the logo, the tablets begin to display a virtual environment as if it’s happening in the room in real time. When I found a free tablet, a group of cartoonish bunnies were frolicking around on the turf. Cute.
On opposite sides of the screen are a plus sign and a minus sign. It’s interactive! Push the plus, and butterflies join the bunnies in their fun. Push it once more and flowers sprout out of the plastic grass. Push the minus, on the other hand, and gone goes Peter Cottontail and friends to be replaced by cockroaches (one press) and tarantulas (two presses). Upon a third press, the whole thing gets engulfed in flames.
It sounds pretty cheesy. And, well, it is pretty cheesy. But it is also surprisingly moving. The almost DIY, amateurish nature of the whole project cuts through the pomp and high production values that enshrine so much in Venice (exactly the kind of stuff that make pavilions like that of Sarah Lucas miss the mark this year) and allows it to speak.
For artists from a country that has been the epicenter of a revolution and subsequent turmoil for the better part of five years now to reach out to the world and seemingly say, “We want peace; look at what can happen if you simply choose positive action,” is a gesture of uncommon hopefulness in the contemporary art landscape. They’re so excited to share this message that all four circle the pavilion helping visitors use their app and pass on that energy. They’ve even listed their mobile numbers and social media handles on the pavilion’s informational materials in a seeming nod to the networks that have driven social and political change in their country.
But are they too excited? This is, after all, not an independent project within “All the World’s Futures” or at some offsite location. It’s a national pavilion, in the Giardini, that expressly lists the “Ministry of Culture, Arab Republic of Egypt” not as commissioner but as curator. Maybe this is some reverse-coup by the ministry, a meta-commentary on the rather negative record of the country’s current regime, which overthrew a democratically elected government by force, places tight controls on journalists, and, as President Obama recently put it, engages in “continued imprisonment of non-violent activists and mass trials.” If so, it deserves a standing ovation.
Where national interests are concerned, however, a healthy dose of skepticism rarely hurts. There are plenty of countries that participate in the Venice Biennale that have less than stellar human rights records and not-so-free-and-open societies. And in each case, a responsible viewer must ask to what extent they might be getting played by the work on view. Al Ashkar was not reachable for comment at the mobile number listed on Friday morning, but the commissioner’s concept suggests that the piece is indeed a call for freedom, “because freedom is what leads to a better, luminous path.” I hope that’s true. But I’m also not quite ready to swallow it all without giving it a good chew first.