Asian pavilions at the 54th Venice Biennale – first critic response


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The 54th Venice Biennale opened on 4 June 2011 with the theme ILLUMInations, giving this year’s Biennale a distinctly political feel. Art Radar brings you the highlights of the event, and finds out what the critics have to say about the Asian art at Venice this year.

“Turning up the volume on the political symbolism of artworks turned out to be a consistent experience at my first biennale,” opened Owen Sheers while covering the 54th Venice Biennale for The Guardian. Given the focus on national pavilions, the inclusion of new comers such as India and Saudi Arabia and the media attention that the Iraqi and Egyptian pavilions have received, it is unsurprising that the political situation in these nations has been prevalent in the discussions around what Venice is offering in 2011.

Click here to read more about the 54th Venice Biennale.

Curator Bice Curiger, speaking at a press conference earlier this year, related the theme to national identity. “Questions of identity and heritage have long been crucial in contemporary art. ILLUMInations emphasises the insight fostered by an encounter with art and its ability to sharpen the tool of perception,” she said.

The Arab Spring

“Much has been written about the major pavilions — France, Germany, the United States, and Japan — but this year the message was louder from some of the emerging nations,” wrote Arlene Cohrs and Susan Hayden for ARTINFO, listing Egypt and particularly Ahmed Basiony, Israeli artist Omar Fast and China’s Song Dong as notable figures at this year’s event.

Azad Nanakeli, 'Au (Water)', 2011, mixed media installation with audio, 280 x 320 x 200 cm. Image from

Azad Nanakeli, 'Au (Water)', 2011, mixed media installation with audio, 280 x 320 x 200 cm. Image from

Iraq has returned to Venice after a 34 year absence with a pavilion themed Acqua Ferita (Wounded Water) and featuring work by members of the Iraqi diaspora. Says Mary Angela Schroth, curator for the pavilion,

I wanted people to see the work of these artists and see that there are some untold stories. And I want people to see Iraq not as a thirty-year conflict zone but like any other country. We have deliberately got away from the war – [we] want to give it [Iraq] an identity.

The theme ‘Wounded Water’ doesn’t refer directly to Iraq’s politically turbulent past but addresses environmental issues, such as water shortages in the region. Sarah Greenberg, RA Magazine editor, wrote that although the pavilion was a “mixed bag”, Azad Nakaleni’s “colourful sculpture” (pictured above) expressed the theme well.

Christopher Lord of The National had some positive comments to make about the work, stating that “[though] there are some weaker inclusions in here, this is a national participation. This year’s [Iraqi] pavilion has found a home in an abandoned building not far from the Arsenale. Its cracked walls and harsh lighting give the space a haunted feel that carries the works well.”

Photograph of Ahmed Basiony in '30 Days of Running in Place'. Image from

Photograph of Ahmed Basiony in '30 Days of Running in the Space'. Image from

Egypt has also been listed by a number of publications, including Art-It Asia and ARTINFO, as an important pavilion to visit, with ARTINFO placing it in their 9 Best National Pavilions list.

Shying away from “underwhelming presentations of orientalist pastiche,” which according to Art-It Asia, is what Egypt has brought to Venice in past years, the country’s pavilion this year is a tribute to Ahmed Basiony, who was killed in Tahrir Square during the protests in Cairo in early 2011. The exhibition combines the showing one of Basiony’s last works, 30 Days of Running in the Space, with footage which he took in Cairo during the last three days of his life. Says Aida Eltorie, curator of the Egyptian pavilion,

We’ve had comments from people telling us that they’ve seen the Egyptian pavilion for twenty years and not once have they seen anything other than the traditional crafts in art. They were stunned to see that there is new media art in Egypt and that we were presenting that here.

Politics and the Biennale

Continuing the political theme, particularly in the pavilions that are new to Venice, Saudi Arabia’s was not without its share of controversy.

The country was represented by two sisters, writer Raja Alem and artist Shadia Alem, both born in Mecca, who created a large black elliptical wall. “The work seeks to challenge preconceptions between the East and West,” said Raja Alem. Entitled The Black Arch, the work combines lights, mirrors, moving projection and music in a modern fashion but attempts to maintain reflections of more traditional Islamic art.

Shadia and Raja Alem, 'The Black Arch'. Image from

Shadia and Raja Alem, 'The Black Arch'. Image from

“No driving, no voting and yet women are apparently allowed to represent the nation at Venice as if their work was as harmless as tatting,” wrote Laura Cumming of The Guardian, questioning the presence of Raja and Shadia Alem at the Biennale, especially given recent protests in Saudi Arabia about a woman’s right to drive, organised by the Women 2 Drive movement.

Others see this as an opportunity to allow visitors to access Mecca and see relationships between the Muslim city and Venice. Dina Ameen, director of post-war and contemporary art department at Christie’s auction house, said “it is an amazing work; I believe that this represents a dialog between cultures. As far as I am concerned, this work realises what I consider to be the original message of art, which is to break down barriers.”

Mona Khazindar of the Paris-based Arab World Institute contradicted Cumming and said that “the response to the work shows that it is a matter of price, not only for the Kingdom but for Saudi art and women as well.” With regards to the work itself, ArtintheCity wrote that The Black Arch was “a complex and immaculately executed installation.”

Aidan Salakhova's sculptures covered in sheets at the Venice Biennale 2011 (left) and 'Waiting Bride' (right). Image from

Aidan Salakhova's sculptures covered in sheets at the Venice Biennale 2011 (left) and 'Waiting Bride' (right). Image from

The subject of women and representation was brought up again at the Azerbaijan pavilion, following a visit from their president before the opening of the exhibition. Two large scale sculptures make up a significant part of the work that Azerbaijan is presenting at the Biennale. Black Stone is a marble sculpture that depicts the black stone of Mecca, a sacred Muslim relic, within a frame. It is said the sculpture resembles a vagina and, as reported by Rob Sharp of The Independent, was deemed too offensive and covered with a white cloth along with one other of artist Aidan Salakhova’s sculptures, Waiting Bride.

Interactive video art attracts attention

Gaining a lot of attention this year is India’s inaugural presence at Venice as a nation. The country’s exhibition is appropriately named “Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode” and shows work by artist Gigi Scaria.

Gigi Scaria, 'Elevator from the Subcontinent', Indian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011. Image from

Gigi Scaria, 'Elevator from the Subcontinent', Indian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2011. Image from

Listed in The Independent article “Three to See“, compiled by writer David Lister, Scaria’s Elevator from the Subcontinent requires visitors to press a lift button and walk into a space in which a video screen moves down, giving the viewer the illusion that they are taking a trip upwards. The screen depicts images within an Indian metropolis and the participant ascends through different classes in society.

Lister deemed the method a “novel and affecting way of presenting an artwork – though some found it too claustrophobic.” The feeling was shared by RA Magazine‘s Sarah Greenberg, who places Scara’s work in her list of “Things I loved at the Arsenale”. She explains the work as “literally a lift that you step into filled with video installations that simulate descending down into India, [making] you feel mildly seasick.”

Sound and music also big hit

The Heard and the Unheard” is Taiwan’s offering to this year’s Biennale. The show features the work of Hong-Kai Wang and Su Yu-hsien. Wang’s work is entitled Music While We Work and involves sounds recorded at various places of work and production in Taiwan, including a 100-year old sugar factory. Su Yu-hsien’s offering, called Sounds of Nothing, features three albums recorded by a group of Indonesian boatmen, a garbage picker, and a homeless man he found under the bridge of a national highway. The work is presented at the Sound Library/Bar set-up at the pavilion.

It seems that contemporary art deals best with contemporary issues and the recent developments in West Asia have certainly brought contemporary work from the region into the spotlight. Highlighting the focus of this year’s Biennale on nationhood, identity and the political, The National wrote that “Basiony’s presence at the Egyptian pavilion wouldn’t have happened without the events of the past six months, and there’s a refreshing immediacy about this show.”


Related Topics: biennales, art events in Venice, political art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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