ArtReview Asia previews ten Venice National Pavilions

HD film installation, 10 min 30 sec, dimensions variable. © the artists, Summer 2015 ARA Previews
HD film installation, 10 min 30 sec, dimensions variable. © the artists, Summer 2015 ARA Previews

Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho (Korean Pavilion)

You’d think that All the World’s Futures would be a decently all-encompassing theme for the Venice Biennale, but in anticipation of Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho’s timeand- relative-dimensions-in-space-melding multichannel film installation The Ways of Folding Space & Flying, housed in the Korean national pavilion, it’s tempting to ask: why just the one world, Okwui? Developing their News from Nowhere project for its debut at Documenta 13 (2012), Moon & Jeon worked with fashion designers, scientists, artists and product developers to create ‘design fiction’ objects adapted to a world suffering the after-effects of environmental apocalypse, then deployed them in El Fin del Mundo, a two-screen work imagining the need to create art as a still-compelling force at the end of days. Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor’s theme should be right up their curious and super-collaborative alley, so long as their thoughts haven’t long since left this planet for other, less doomy alternatives.

Heri Dono (Indonesian Pavilion)

For those of us still stuck on earth, Heri Dono’s Trokomod might offer safe passage across the planet’s surface and through its cultural battlefields. The heavily armoured 7.5m-long offspring of the Trojan Horse and Indonesia’s Komodo dragon, Trokomod is a terrible lizard with a soft heart: the ceiling of the rattan-clad interior is dressed in a batik tapestry decorated with symbols relating to Indonesian cosmology and religions. This invasion via armoured reptile, then, is a friendly one, though Dono is still showing his acerbic edge and dark wit: as well as da Vinci’s tank designs and Chinese tractors, Trokomod makes pointed reference to Indonesian maritime affairs and fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s policy of blowing up illegal fishing boats. Built out of scrap metal from the junkyards of Bandung and Yogyakarta, this anthropomorphic – and apparently amphibious – armoured vessel will be studded with telescopes through which can be spied exoticised artefacts of European culture, including eighteenth-century costumes complete with wigs, a prosthetic leg used in the First World War and a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867). Given Capital’s central role in Enwezor’s international exhibition – which centres on a continuous seven-month reading staged by Isaac Julien – Marx’s critique of political economy may be a cert as Venice’s hip book of the season (pack a sturdy handbag and get working on those biceps, bookworms), but there are other texts, and other thinkers, at play here too.

Tsang Kin-Wah (Hong Kong Pavilion)

Tsang Kin-Wah’s nineteenth-century philosopher of fetish is Friedrich Nietzsche – the great moustachioed god-burier inspired his Ecce Homo Trilogy I (2011–12) and will make a return for The Infinite Nothing, the text-loving artist’s new four-part video installation. Echoing Tsang’s own soul-searching as he questioned the devout Christian beliefs that he’d carried through his teenage years, The Infinite Nothing intertwines swirling strings of words with found footage, starting with the image of the river, its eddies symbolising the commencement of a cyclical spiritual journey.

Chiharu Shiota (Japan Pavilion)

No river will be troubling the two boats enmeshed in Chiharu Shiota’s The Key in the Hand, which the artist’s previous form leads us to imagine will be caught within a delicate but apparently impenetrable mesh of threads, like objects just out of grasp in the fog of memory. Last autumn Shiota put out an international call for keys no longer needed. She guaranteed that if sent to her for use in Venice, no names would be used and no keys would be returned – these objects, symbolising hundreds of locked doors and abandoned pasts, will be poured into the mix, representing a more intimate, global history than the grand narratives of capital and colony under discussion elsewhere. 

Tie a String Around the World (Philippine Pavilion)

Genghis Khan had a more ambitious vision for twine, according to Filipino director Manuel Conde’s 1950 biopic, which concludes with the great conqueror surveying far horizons from a mountaintop and promising to tie a string around the world and lead it to the feet of his beloved Li Hu. Genghis Khan (1950) was shown as part of the Venice Film Festival in 1952; this year it makes a return in a newly restored print, anchoring contemplation of territorial ambition and the fragility of nationhood in threading together islands like so many beads. Bringing the subject forcefully into the present, Jose Tence Ruiz is constructing an installation inspired by the rust-fretted hulk of the BRP Sierra Madre, a tactically grounded battleship making its presence felt in the disputed West Philippine Sea. Shown alongside a three-screen installation by Mariano Montelibano III, which extends the theme of the depleting resources and fraught geopolitics of the ocean, the staunch sociopolitical engagement of this first Philippine Pavilion since 1964 hints at Genghis-like ambition.

Wu Tien-chang (Taiwan Pavilion)

The sixteenth-century prison at the end of the Bridge of Sighs is a suitably surreal location for Wu Tien-chang’s beguiling exercises in photographic kitsch and manipulation, which use the gloss of artifice to reveal multiple layers of constructed human identity. Clad in a ghostly latex skin, the seductive central figure in Wu’s Farewell, Spring and Autumn Pavilion’s video installation will embody some of the complex struggles of Taiwan’s postwar culture, and nod to the venue’s history as a beautiful site of incarceration. Wu’s interest in the enduring plausibility of the photograph will see him push credibility to its limits in a series of accompanying pictures showing elaborately staged and digitally transformed tableaux. And what’s wrong with a spot of manipulation, after all? Even nature gets in on the act – have you seen all the multicoloured fuss that happens when light meets a raindrop?

Sarkis (Pavilion of Turkey)

Taking his cue from just such a spectral display – a phenomenon the Istanbul-born artist refers to as the ‘magical breaking point of light’– Sarkis is dressing the Turkish Pavilion in mirrors, panels of stained glass and works in neon. Accompanied by a composition by Jacopo Baboni-Schilingi, Sarkis’s installation, titled Respiro, is a reminder of the deeper elemental forces at play beneath all the territorial disputes, the waves of indifferent sound and light, and the rainbows that predate human pugnacity yet have come to symbolise a covenant of peace. Mount Ararat, site of said biblical rainbow, is in the far east of Turkey, in the province now bordering Armenia, where the sacred peak is known as Masis, something that would not have escaped the attention of Sarkis, who this year represents both countries. In the latter case, he forms part of a 16-strong team of artists from the Armenian diaspora – among them Nina Katchadourian, Melik Ohanian and Anna Boghiguian – marking a century since the genocide of 1915. Listed as the first genocide of the twentieth century, it is one of the “darker, more ugly periods” alluded to by Enwezor in describing the 120 years since the Biennale’s debut.

Armenity (Republic of Armenia Pavillion)

The titular concept of Armenity reflects the sense of disjunction, injustice and rootless fellow-feeling that is said to characterise the survivors of the genocide and their descendants. This centenary ‘transnational assembly’ will take place in the Venetian lagoon, in the Mekhitarist Monastery on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where in 1816 Lord Byron studied Armenian to distract himself from a torturous love affair. ‘I found that my mind wanted something craggy craggy to break upon’, wrote the poet at the time: the cultural offering of the island seems no less obdurate some two centuries later. 

Kamol Tassananchalee (Thai Pavilion)

There has been some crackling in the Thai press about the selection of septuagenarian ‘National Artist’ Kamol Tassananchalee for this year’s Biennale, and what now seems an inevitable Facebook fizz over whether any one artist can ‘represent’ a country of 67 million. Dividing his time between Thailand and Southern California, Tassananchalee’s red and earth-toned – sometimes sand- and earth-specked – canvases meld oneiric forms, Buddhist symbolism and cosmology with references to the artist’s own working practice. Sure, it’s not hip, photogenic performance art, but with All the World’s Futures’ ferocious critique of capitalism, conflict, migration and environmental disaster, is there not still space in Venice for serene, abstract beauty, and possibly even the proagrarian? 

Unen Enkh (Mongolia Pavilion)

A point driven home too by Unen Enkh and Enkhbold Togmidshiirev, both of whom draw on the strong material associations of Mongolia’s pastoral heritage, deploying felt, animal skin, horsehair and dung, as well as a building tradition of spare, lightweight structures in their work. For Enkh, these come together in elegant, organic sculptures that perch on spindly legs or hang from near-invisible hairs. Rejecting the safe confines of his nation’s first Venice pavilion, Togmidshiirev will instead carry his ger (yurt) with him as a nomadic pavilion to be erected as a home and personal performance site in the city’s public spaces. A spectacle that should, if nothing else, give the self-pitying ‘nomads’ of the artworld pause.

Read all responses to our Venice Questionnaires 2015 edition published so far

This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia

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