- la Biennale di Venezia
The next day I awake and see my clothes hung up like they have now become a person in their own right. They seem to be standing in front of me calling me back to the madness of the night before. The room smells like the Canal. My phone was in the thick brushed cotton wool trousers and I have no way of contacting anyone including The Smoker.
Hours pass in the dark room with the judgmental garments pervading over my isolation. Dark rain clouds explode and hammer on the rooftops of cars like bailiffs fists. I shower and change and leave the hotel. With no means of contacting the rest of the group I make my way to the Giardini like a zombie to a shopping mall.
I’m traveling on busses and boats for hours and the Giardini will be closed but I stay on course. I’m passing the Bridge of Sighs and I hear a scream from the land. I get off the boat and walk amongst the sundown revelers. I see some of the a-n people I had befriended on the Island and I explain my predicament. They take me under their wing and I feel an overwhelming sense of relief to have found them. We walk to the perfect pizza parlor tucked neatly away from the crowds down passageways adorned with crumbling Madonna’s and fresh roses. My worn, weary, angst polluted mind is comforted by empathetic tales of foolishness past. They are talking about writing and travel and Wales.
After eating we leave the pizza parlor and slowly wind our way through the streets. Our attention is drawn to some activity in a dark courtyard. We see the Biennale symbol, which now feels like a crucifix to a wondering pilgrim. We enter a dark tavern like space until we arrive a room with its own jetty onto the Grand Canal. It is the Kuwaiti Pavilion party. There is no sign of bloody ashen fig drinks but instead, a spread of fresh fruit of all kinds.
I gorge on black Grapes the size of plums and strawberries the size of tangerines. The grapes burst in my mouth and the juice flows like a spring. With every mouthful I can feel my body expel the pollution and angst. We make our way upstairs and into the show. There are frescos on the ceilings and every wall is decorated with all the pomp of a palace. The nude figurines on the walls are covered by thin foam wrapping. A Space Odyssey comes to mind.
A large bronze hand and the face of an unknown prince or sheik rest on white plinths that resemble Sol Le Wit sculptures. Super high definition screens show photographs of empty dust filled sports grounds and broken piers. I can’t make any assessment of what I’m seeing and I can’t face the art speak on the walls to help me through.
We drift out of the space and drift home to our respective pilgrims rests.
It is the next day I am more aware of the geography of the City and make my way back to the Kuwaiti Pavilion. The strawberries are packed up in punnets so I take one and make my way back upstairs. The limbs and face of a figurative sculpture where once just that. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, sculptor Sami Mohammad had been forcibly requested to create sculptures of Sadamn Hussian based on the quality of his work on display. Refusing the Iraqis would mean death, agreeing to the Iraqis would mean death by Kuwaiti hands. ‘Your damned if you do and your damned if you don’t.’ ‘The Woolwich Soldier’ and Deller’s imprisoned artist comes to mind.
Sami Mohammad’s work took on a new conceptual depth not because of the objects he intended but as artifacts of cultural war. It was the legacy of invasion that had made an old cultural gesture by the Kuwaiti establishment into evidence of their reassessment of the Modernization programme. I later read that the toppled statue of Sadamn was presented to the Kuwaitis as gift by the Americans and remains on display as a reminder of ‘The Crimes Of Sadamn’.
In the photographs I had seen the night before Tarek Al Ghoussein had shot himself barley visible amongst locations that were significant to Kuwaiti recent history, a stoke market, a school and the pier close to Kuwaiti’s attempt at off shore drilling. His earlier work had consisted of portraits in which his face could not be seen and portrayed, undefined, identity given his Palestinian-Kuwaiti family.
‘The K-Files’ in this pavilion where a combination of his undefined identity and that of Kuwaits own uncertain identity, struggling through modernizing, invasion and its aftermath. This Pavilion felt like a counseling session where the artists and the country are finding themselves.
The party is over and I am typically still here as is The Smoker. I’ve conquered the island and feel at one with myself. I’ve moved hotels and now reside in ‘Malcontenta’, in name only. I have taken to a diet of pizza and Belinis. I spend one last day and booze fueled but reserved night with The Smoker and a handful of a-n writers. We have all walked and drank till our bellies and soles are stretched. I pass my damp tobacco to the Smoker as a parting gift before retiring to Malcontenta.
Now I am arriving at the Iraqi Pavilion. It is a warm inviting place. The Pavillion is entitled ‘Welcome To Iraq’. I tell the young woman at the desk I am press and would like some information about the show. With a look of caution She responds by saying there is no more information. I have heard whispers of people being in fear of descent from other countries.
Although this building still has an opulent feel it is more homely. I am welcomed into the kitchen were a local baker has been trained to make Iraqi tea and baked delicacies. I sit at the thick wooden table and breath in the flavors accompanying the gentle noises of tea pots and dishes being dispersed amongst the guests.
Walking through the rooms I see comfortable chairs and shelves and tables crammed with literature about life in Iraq, which now boasts a rising population of immigrants and refugees of its own. I’m drawn to framed cartoons that remind me of the Guardian’s Steve Bell but with a subtle satire and loose draftsmanship, perhaps akin to that of David Shrigley. Two of the cartoons by ‘Abdul Raheem’ stand out. In one an artist is pictured at his canvas. He is painting a falling bomb, which can be seen falling in front of him. In the other a man sits gagged in front of what I assume to be a reporter holding a microphone as he fiddles with a recording device.
One picture shows an artist clearly communicating what he sees, whilst the other shows the paradoxical failure in attempting to communicate through the media. There is a clear sadness in the bomb drawing but perhaps Raheem is saying art is the only way to explain what Iraq endures to the world.
In the same room there are very traditional paintings by Bassim Al-Shaker, Liam Spencer comes to mind.These works are so traditional, the only reason they appear to have any place in this exhibit is to emphasize the everyday life Iraqis try to maintain amongst the political and social unrest. Al-Shaker’s work is deliberately traditional and features scenes from the southern marshlands, an area that has also neglected to adopt any of the advancements of the modern world. This area is said to have suffered greatly under the now toppled Sadamn.
Both Iraq and Kuwait and England have a self-analytical approach to their Pavillions. Who are we in the world today as the invaded and the invaders. Deller attacks the establishment but gives voice to the forgotten weapons with clever and sensitive juxtapose. Despite what I thought about the emptiness of the impact pieces, there was an atonement on offer with his attack. Deller looks for the positives in a Britain that has politicians struggling to define it in a way that Kuwait’s art does. Iraq has invaded, been invaded and now welcomes those from war torn countries into its complicated cities. All three of these countries owe each other their modern identities atop of their ancient pasts together.
I step outside and sure footedly board a gondola that takes me across the Grand Canal glistening like emeralds in the afternoon sun. Climbing onto the jetty I’m faced with a slightly less grandiose building with a large reflective window that gives it a slightly more modern façade whilst reflecting the emerald water. I am at the Irish Pavillion featuring the work of Richard Mosse.
For ‘Enclave’, the artist and his team have traversed the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Shooting in 16mm Mosse employs a discontinued military surveillance film to document his exploration a of landscape boasting rolling hills and valleys not unlike that of Ireland. The camera picks up a hint of infrared that transports me into a land of rubies. Each projection is hosted on a tangible maze of screens allowing for a dreamlike passage through the dark installation.
The recordings show Congolese heavily armed fighters stalk through deep purple hued jungles and villages to a soundtrack comprised of what sounds like rushing water and the repeat of a high pitched radar signal. I think of Ridley Scotts ‘Aliens’ and the soldiers in their terrifying alien environment.
The supporting text explains “art’s potential to represent narratives so painful that they exist beyond language, and photography’s capacity to document specific tragedies and communicate them to the world.”
I cannot help but fall back into the foreign stereotypes of Ireland as an Emerald Isle awash with bloody unrest. Mosse’s installation is either a retelling of a world he knows or an exploration of a world he and many Irish people are attempting to leave behind, Emeralds or rubies aside.
Venice has been invaded by art about invasions and conquerors and their insecurities. I feel I have conquered Venice but only after conquering myself.