The varied politics of National Pavilions can sometimes make you suspicious of an artist’s work – or, as with this year’s New Zealand Pavilion, become a challenge that some artists embrace with criticality and nuance. A review of a national pavilion, then, is perhaps, just as much a review of the curatorial decisions and commissioning strategy as it is of the artists and artworks.

Arriving at Venice Marco Polo Airport, the ornate and unexpected floor décor in the arrivals lounge and Schengen area volley between the seductive and the kitsch. It is a life-size laminated replica of the ceiling of Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, where clues to this opulent puzzle await.

Simon Denny’s endlessly complex and informative work, Secret Power – at times laboured, at times ominously hilarious – was based at these two sites, in the public space of the national library and a cordoned off area in the airport.

A public library is a repository for shared knowledge, and knowledge is what Denny deals in, although the accuracy is contestable. The artist has extensively searched online to piece together an archive display of state intelligence activity. A series of glass display cabinets containing server racks present the hardware, administrative documents and training tools gleaned from Denny’s own investigations into New Zealand’s international intelligence role and inspired by the Snowden NSA leaks.

Cartoons, training manuals and toys are reminiscent of the appropriated corporate aesthetic of earlier interventionists such as Gregory Scholette or the Yes Men. Taken from designs used by the NSA, the artist has secretly commissioned a former member of their in-house design team to create some new maps. I wonder if this character is fictional but a PR representative assures me this is not the case, pointing me to a Guardian interview with this unsuspecting Biennale exhibitor.

What distinguishes Denny’s piece from that of the noughties activist aesthetic is his relational approach to the two public spaces; his layering of renaissance art with contemporary information design suggests and disrupts narratives of history and power. With so much data, we leave knowing more without knowing what is real. Denny has succeeded in creating a transparency of structure that all the while conceals information.

Psychological interpretation

Elsewhere, Joan Jonas’ US Pavilion is also purposefully full – at times verging towards the cluttered – motifs, structures and characters make appearance and reappearance in a number of variated drawings, props and films throughout the five rooms of the pavilion. The threads of innocence and childhood, memory and nostalgia are boosted by metaphor and psychological interpretation.

Jonas’ oeuvre suggests a desire for purity of thought. Her grainy film projections of a troupe of children performing a series of activities and games harness a time long gone. However, this playful choice of repetition has its limitations – the overwhelming stimuli of visual aids and audio loops, much like actual consciousness, disperses fleetingly, eluding meaning and evading recollection.

The Zimbabwe Pavilion introduces three Zimbabwean artists whose works appear to interrelate and cross-inform one another – fitting for an exhibition that takes meaning from a number of Shona sayings, including “I am because we are”. Based around the concept of Ubuntu/Unhu and the changing nature of the individual’s relationship to society, it is a sophisticated and succinct exhibition.

Especially exciting are Gareth Nyandoro’s large-scale works on paper, opening up questions around his process whilst also conveying the bustle of markets and street vendors. These works are reminiscent of torn weather-beaten billboard posters. In fact, after cutting, scratching and inking the surface, Nyandoro peels back sections of the top layer of his works, his enigmatic technique creating an energy and rawness.

Hope and transparency

Standing within a temporary glass exhibition space on Venice’s Riva dei Sette Martiri, enveloped by the baking heat, a super-yacht to my left and restaurant terraces to my right, there is something incredibly poignant about this year’s Pavilion of Ukraine, titled Hope.

I am reading three poems from Serhiy Zhadan’s Why I’m Not Posting On Social Media Anymore. This is a collaborative work with photographer Mykola Ridnyi and as the centrepiece to the exhibition – literally the central supporting wall of the glass box – it backs onto and cannot be divorced from a huge photographic print of a spyhole.

Zhadan’s poems are about people caught in the middle: a chaplain who knows too much, weighted down by by the confessions of others; a blogger whose camera singles him out as a spy; an individual with ‘difficult opinions’, found dead at a roadblock. Writes Zhadan:

‘One day – some bastard
will definitely write heroic poems about this.
One day – another bastard
will say there’s no reason to write about this at all’

In this lunchtime calm, the glass box is largely unpopulated, apart from a young man who sits observing nine monitors. His back is to Zhadan’s text, eyes fixated on the CCTV pictures in front of him. These portray empty stairwells and entrances. There is something sinister about this activity – who do these entrances belong to, who is being watched and why? Walking round the back of the screens, nine further monitors display kitchen tables – more homely and personal.

Zhadan’s previous words cannot help but frame the discourse of the exhibition, standing in, as they do, for a curator’s wall explanation. My first instinct is to assume that these might be homes of watched dissidents. In fact, this is a work by Open Group and the live streams are of the homes of recently drafted Ukrainian soldiers.

The watchman in the gallery space is one of the four artists from Open Group, who throughout the exhibition will sit and wait for at least one soldier to return home, refusing to eat whilst there are no occupants at the tables. This is an emblematic piece for the show, crossing the line between hope and despair, both dark and patriotic in its presentation.

This tightly curated exhibition, easily one of the most publicly accessible in the Biennale, brings together works that consider the limits of social media, security technology and journalism. It is in itself a form of information media. Commssioned by the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine and organised and supported by the Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk’s art centre and foundation, it is an unashamedly public message, about anger as well as ‘hope,’ with art as its mediator.

Commemorative act

Awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation in the Venice Biennale, the Armenian Pavilion is sited on San Lazzaro, the Island of Armenians, within the Mekhitarist Monastery. The exhibition is a commemorative act that draws together over 16 artists from the diaspora brought about by the still unacknowledged Armenian genocide of 1915.

This State Is Sinking. From When Counting Loses Its Sense by Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas deals with the overwhelm of the archive and the impossibility of adequately representing genocide. Beautifully presented, typewritten texts are condensed over photographs, images and letters, tightly packed so that the content becomes near impossible to access. This work successfully conveys the desire to know, a striving for irretrievable knowledge.

There is a simplicity to the production values of many of the pieces in this show. Personal histories are presented at face value, not dressed up by editing – although at times these works tip over into unharnessed sentimentality and a lack of rigour. Not so with Sarkis, whose meditative works create a welcome pause in the space. The simplicity and elegance of pieces such as Croix de brique allow the viewer’s eyes to wander and explore the wider artefacts and stonemasonry of Armenian history that surround the works.

Humorous and sensitive, Nina Katchadoruian’s six-screen video installation, Accent Elimination, encapsulates the diasporic identity with a sophistication and warmth that captivates and intrigues. Three videos present Katchadoruian and her parents attending elocution lessons, each learning to speak in the other’s accent. A beautifully stilted conversation between the three is engineered on three further monitors as they each adapt and strain their voices, the tone of each conversation minutely changing inference and meaning.

Armenity is an ambitiously wide-ranging exhibition, at times messy, at times intensely moving. It scratches and grates, reveals and simultaneously obstructs encounters between the artworks and historic documents, containing several gems that might have been better served in a smaller exhibition. Perhaps it is more for the actual idea than its realisation that the Pavilion of Armenia deserves its Golden Lion.

The 56th Venice Biennale, 9 May – 22 November 2015.

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