Art as a Political Game

Art as a Political Game

Activism November 11, 2011 / By The Economist
Art as a Political Game

The national pavilions at the Venice Biennale display the often complex relationships between artists and their nations' political viewpoints.

EVER since the Venice Biennale was launched in 1895, individual countries have offered their artists a showcase in national pavilions. Some are financed through their culture ministries, such as Italy’s, others, like Britain’s, through the ministry of foreign affairs. The Ukraine pavilion is paid for by a private collector, Poland’s via multiple sources. For 55 years there were fewer than 20 entrants, but in 1950 the number began to grow. This year, despite last-minute cancellations from Bahrain and Lebanon, there are 89 national pavilions, the highest number ever and up from 77 two years ago, proof of the global spread of contemporary art.

The scale of the Venice Biennale means that artists, cultural institutions and individual countries all vie, not just for attention, but for international recognition. The national pavilions take many forms, yet only a few make any real impact.

The fairground atmosphere puts a premium on art as a memorable experience rather than as a precious object. Pavilions that offer a convincing conceptual environment are the most celebrated. A number of veteran exhibitors have chosen this route, including Germany, which this year won the coveted Golden Lion award, the fair’s highest honour. But the most popular among artists is the Swiss pavilion. Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Crystal of Resistance” (pictured above) creates an idiosyncratic universe of ready-made stuff. Anarchic and politicised rather than orderly and neutral, the pavilion defies Swiss stereotypes. Mr Hirschhorn is an independent spirit who refuses to pander to political authority, fashion or the art market. His installation is filled with broken glass, silver foil, cardboard, Q-tips, plastic chairs, old mobile phones and colour printouts of low-resolution war photos, all held together by brown duct tape, a recognisable Hirschhorn motif. It is the antithesis of a boutique displaying luxury goods.

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