A guide to the New East

Venice Biennale 2017

Explore this year's highlights from artists representing the New East

The 57th edition of the Venice Biennale opened earlier this month, with 120 artists in the central curated exhibition and 86 national pavilions (not to mention the collateral projects) spilling out from the Giardini and Arsenale to take over, what seems like, every single palazzo, deconsecrated church or outside space in the city. This year’s offering, titled Viva Arte Viva, is, according to curator Christine Macel, "a passionate outcry for art and the state of the artist". Given the shaky ground on which we increasingly find ourselves with the current state of global politics, Macel’s Biennale turns away from overt political statements to, instead, foster a space for self-reflection, community and creative retreat. By placing art’s inherent humanism centre stage it lets the artists do the talking. 

We've selected the New East pavilions and projects not to miss, in which the questions of borders, national and cultural identities and histories, utopias, and quiet modes of resistance are explored. 

Text: Anya Harrison 

Petrit Halilaj

Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night?

Petrit Halilaj’s monumental works are never too far away from autobiography, often drawing on the artist’s own recollections and experiences of growing up in Kosovo. In Do you realise there is a rainbow even if it’s night? (2017), Halilaj has collaborated with his mother to create giant performative sculptures of moths using traditional Kosovar fabrics and textiles, which he has in the past activated during lectures. In the Arsenale, they rest on the ground, climb the walls or hide all the way up in the building’s wooden rafters where they can be easily missed (especially when all attention is focused on pushing through the throng during preview week). Animals regularly feature in his works where they become metaphors for different facets of human nature. Moths have occupied a central place in Halilaj’s imagination since childhood and the fragility of the pieces in the Arsenale – half hidden, half displayed – are a “reflection on memory, freedom, cultural identity and life discoveries.”

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Gyula Várnai

Hungarian Pavilion

Várnai’s background in mathematics and physics, as well as his upbringing in Dunaújváros – a Socialist model city named “Stalintown” when it was first built and where he continues to live – come together to inform his Venice project Peace on Earth! Encompassing installation, interactive video works and sculptural pieces, Várnai looks to the promised utopian visions of the past – at the time of the Cold War – from the vantage point of the present. Várnai connects the past and the future in the video Lem (2017), in which the artist inserts his own questions about current dilemmas into a televised interview from 1970 with science fiction writer and philosopher Stanislaw Lem, confronting the present with futurist desires and visions of the past and the impossibility of making accurate predictions about the future.

In Rainbow (2013-17), 8,000 vintage pin badges displaying symbols linked to the Communist Party, organisations and companies, cities and movements form a pixelated rainbow – symbols of community and belonging that collectively build an image of faith in utopias. Neon Peace (2017) recreates the sign – itself modelled on Picasso’s "dove of peace" – that was installed in 1958 on top of the highest building of Hungary’s Stalin City. Long since removed from its original site in Stalin Town, Várnai’s remake poses questions about the viability of such utopian dreams in the mess of today’s global order, but – like the rest of the works in the Pavilion – also suggests the necessity of these ideas for each successive generation even if the reality is disillusioning.

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Geta Bratescu

Romanian Pavilion

A central figure of Romanian contemporary art since the 1960s, it is only in recent years that the 91-year-old artist has finally caught the attention of the international art world. It is perhaps not surprising then that a mini-retrospective, Apparitions, spanning the entirety of Bratescu’s practice is devoted to her and spills over into a second venue, the New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research at Palazzo Correr.

Bratescu’s art moves fluidly across media – from drawing, collage and tapestry to photography, experimental film and performance. Bratescu’s obsessive rendering of the female form – The Demoness (1981), Portraits of Medea (1979), Mothers (1997) and Women (2007) are just a few examples – attests to her decades-long preoccupation with what it means to be female and the alignment of femininity with art’s inexhaustible capacity to create and give shape. Bratescu is herself never far away, whether in Hands, a series of drawings from 1974 to 1978, and Legs in the Morning (2009), to Stone Giving Birth (1960s), in which a dimple on the smooth surface of a rounded stone suggests a trace of the artist’s own hand and attests to the forceful materiality of her works. At the same time Apparitions points to the importance of the studio as a space of interiority and creative retreat in works like The Line (2014), a film which focuses in on Bratescu’s hands as she draws a heavy marker across a blank page. Given that the first three decades of Bratescu’s work was made under the shadow of Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime, the studio space as artist sanctuary becomes a defiant stand against conformity.

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Katja Novitskova

Estonian Pavilion

While a large portion of the Viva Arte Viva show in the Giardini and Arsenale presents works that drip tactility (embroidery, fabrics and textiles abound), the Estonian pavilion veers off into an altogether different future-present devoid of humans. Working with ready-made images sourced online, Katja Novitskova has been a central figure in debates around information systems and the digital world, not least with her 2011 publication Post Internet Survival Guide. Not surprising then that If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes pays homage to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), at the same time addressing the relationship between how we process visual information, and its relationship to big data, new technologies, and ecology. Hers is a universe where technology and the natural world don’t so much collide as are fused together.

Novitskova’s signature “flat screen” digital prints on aluminium take over the space: a snake balances on the tip of its tail in a bathtub, a leopard stares out vacuously. Most trippy – or disconcerting – of all is a room full of mechanical baby rockers mounted by robotic bugs. Like something out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Novitskova’s “creatures” may be the natural result of the direction in which advances in digital technologies have taken us, but they also suggest a moment where their own autonomy has arrived.

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Sislej Xhafa

Kosovar Pavilion

A lone and fragile looking wooden shed stands at the corner of the Arsenale space reserved for the Republic of Kosovo’s Pavilion. A phone sits inside but never rings; a “lost and found” sign is stencilled in black paint above. The material modesty of Sislej Xhafa’s work belies its emotional potency. In Lost and Found Xhafa responds to the plight of families whose relatives remain missing since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999. For the opening days of the exhibition, a town crier figure periodically announces the names of the missing at random outside the Giardini. It is at once a memorial and a rendering of “human pain… the phone that never rings is from a true story of a father who lost three sons and one night the phone rang and the line was cut off. This father waited every night for four years for another phone call and he never got it. He died without ever hearing back about his sons.” And in the liminal space which Lost and Found inhabits it is perhaps also Kosovo’s plight – and that of its legal status – that is hinted at.

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Taus Makhacheva

Baida

Makhacheva’s latest performance, conceived specifically for the Biennale, takes place in the open waters of the Adriatic Sea. Yet come to the very end of the Arsenale, and all you are met with is a simple label providing the coordinates in the sea where several performers appear and disappear on a capsized boat transported from Dagestan’s Caspian Sea to Venice’s Laguna. Visually this is Makhacheva’s most sparse work, yet it opens up a space for aligning the narratives and histories specific to her native Dagestan with more global concerns. Baida, which means boats in Russian, stems from conversations the artist conducted with fishermen in the village of Starii Terek as well as “thinking about the current precarity all of us are willingly part of, the precarity of the art world and its extension to other worlds or maybe vice versa… Thinking how I turn my head away from the news on boats that sink around us, how I keep so many open tabs on news stories… until my computer crashes and they disappear seemingly by accident.”

Elsewhere in the Arsenale, an earlier film Tightrope (2015) shows a famous tightrope walker making repeated journeys between two mountains. Each time he carries across artworks by various Dagestani artists, using them as a balancing pole before placing these into a container reminiscent of museum storage. Through this risky endeavour Makhacheva evokes the fragile balancing act between tradition and the past, national history, local and global cultures.

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Mikelis Fisers

Latvian Pavilion

Perhaps one of the most humorous – and infuriatingly bonkers – New East offerings at this year’s Biennale, Mikelis Fisers What can go wrong still has me scratching my head days after. A palpable aura of mysticism abounds in the Latvian pavilion, yet step inside its darkened space and Fisers’ works will knock your sense of reality on its head. Wood carvings – the artist’s currently favoured medium for the simplicity and economy of its mark-making – display scenes set in familiar contexts (the Pyramids of Giza, the Champs-Élysées) but peopled by reptiloids and aliens straight out of a sci-fi “B movie”.

The captions speak for themselves: “Aliens Force Musicians to Defecate in the Orchestra Pit at the Metropolitan Opera, NY,” “Reptilians Heal Sterilised Mermaids from Depression on the Sinai Peninsula,” “Extraterrestrials Monitor Humanitarian Crisis In the Oligarch Organ Warehouse” (all works 2017). In an adjoining room, a light-and-sound installation “Reptilian Immobilises Hallucinating Darwinists” is redolent of a Garden of Eden but one that has been clearly stripped of its status as paradise. While Fisers revels in the esoteric – “My chisel is sharper than a sword, and it drags the bitter truth out of the darkness with all of its merciless nudity. WAKE UP!” – it is the purposeful ambiguity of his works, which sidestep any attempts at a common language or at having meaning placed on them, that is ultimately so refreshing.

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Radenko Milak

Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina

In University of Disaster, which takes its name from the eponymous book by philosopher Paul Virilio, Radenko Milak confronts us with painterly images of natural catastrophes: fires, explosions, Chernobyl. Elsewhere, he has collaborated with Roman Uranjek, one of the founders of Slovenia’s IRWIN and NSK groups, to present similarly bleak but beautiful diptychs of social and political disasters caused by war and conflict: 7 April 1991, Kuwait Oil Fires #1 (2017) takes us back to the First Gulf War. 7 February 1477, Thomas More was Born (2017) pairs a reproduction of the cover of Thomas More’s Utopia with Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, an emblem of the Russian Revolution and its doomed vision of a new world – a vision of utopia that ultimately led to disaster. Yet it also suggests the reverse: the seductive pull that catastrophe exerts. Bringing together ideas of “disaster” and “desire” is “not meant to oppose them”, according to the pavilion’s curator Christopher Yggdre, “but to understand what can compel humanity to desire its disaster, or even, to understand how desire, such as the desire to create, can be the antidote to contemporary disaster.”

The exhibition’s guest artists expand on the binary themes of disaster and desire. Sidsel Meineche Hansen confronts the landscape of contemporary digital pornography in a VR piece Dickgirl 3D(X) (2016), while Lamin Fofana’s techno music installation Witness (2017), uses electronic music to reflect the horrors of forced migration. Most mesmerising and haunting of all though is the performance work of Nils Bech with Ida Ekblad, Echo (2017), a song of unrequited love that reverberates with me long after I leave the pavilion.

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VAC Foundation

Space Force Construction

VAC Foundation’s inaugural exhibition, housed in its new, permanent outpost in Venice, brings into dialogue new site-specific commissions and recent pieces by international contemporary artists with iconic works from the Soviet revolutionary past. Taking its title from Lyubov Popova's painting Spatial-Force Construction (1921), the exhibition invites international contemporary artists to respond to the visionary ideals set up by Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Varvara Stepanova and others that art be a vehicle for social and political change. The result draws a lineage between then and now in exploring how and in what form ideas formulated a century ago can bear relevance today and inform our consideration of art and its relationship to society.

In a show that – for obvious reasons – abounds with images of Marx and Lenin, Tania Bruguera's Isasthenai (2017), where members of the public have their likeness sculpted in clay only to see their image destroyed and reformed as a portrait of the next visitor, consciously challenges institutional power and control. In Óptica Bronstein (2017), inspired by Leon Trotsky’s Mexican exile, Pablo Helguera and Yevgeny Fiks invite the public to a free eye consultation to “test” its political views. During the preview guests were also offered a “tasting menu” of sorts by Taus Makhacheva, whose Stomach it included a bunch of carrots wrapped in paper printed with Mayakovsky’s poems, bread coupons and hay bread, and a lollipop in the shape of Lenin’s head, a sensorial navigation through the years of famine that followed the Revolution.

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Irina Korina

Good Intentions Arsenale

Known for the large-scale immersive environments that she fashions out of everyday “poor” materials, Irina Korina’s Good Intentions (2017) is an altar to kitsch. At first glance it’s a two-storey construction out of corrugated metal flanked by a pair of grandiose fake brick columns, clearly meant to mimic the Arsenale’s architecture. Inside all is aglow. Neon light fixtures in the shape of various insignia line one wall, while the rest of the space is given over to ornate wreaths of artificial flowers of varying sizes, a stalwart of official, funereal rituals. Good Intentions takes as its starting point the growing ‘cult of death’ around state commemorations of fallen soldiers in Russia to make a pointed comment about the false promises and artifice behind the increasingly nationalist and patriotic lines projected by Russian state organs in recent years.

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Nika Autor

Slovenian Pavilion

An experimental film that takes as its starting point a video taken on the Belgrade-Ljubljana rail line – a now well-trodden route taken by refugees – Nika Autor’s Newsreel 63 delves into a “visual investigation of railways and… its historical, social and political narrative”. Autor is a member of Slovenia’s Newsreel Front collective, a group that reactivates the newsreel as the filmic format best suited to portraying instances of social and class struggle while simultaneously interrogating the newsreel’s use as an ideologically driven form of committed, political cinema. In Newsreel 63, she takes us on an essayistic journey of spliced montage scenes and commentary that reflects on the symbolic role of trains and railways in our collective memory and imagination. “Even before cinema won over the masses and tied itself to the cinemagoers’ gaze, the train offered a similar experience of gazing,” says Ciril Obertsar, co-editor of the publication that is intrinsic to the show. “The panoramic view through a train window already separated the observer from what they observed… The separation from the observed environment… was completed by cinema with its projector.” The result is an immensely watchable and self-reflexive work that addresses how news is produced and disseminated, civil rights and the emotional effects news distribution can have.

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