I am typing this with an inky thumb. I gained it when I successfully applied for a ‘Freesa’ – a ‘universal travel document’ – from the artist collective The Absence of Paths, which is representing Tunisia in this year’s Venice Biennale. Despite the light-hearted rigmarole involved – queuing, being questioned about my nationality and thumb-printed – the intention behind the performance (which is taking place across Venice) is a serious one. My visa was issued to me in a small blue booklet that includes sobering statistics about the refugee crisis (‘3.2 million people are currently in limbo’) and information about passports (a German one is the ‘most powerful in the world, with visa-free travel to 176 countries’). On its first page is a poem by the 13th-century Persian poet and Islamic scholar, Maulana Rumi, that includes the lines:
‘I didn’t come here of my own accord,
and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here,
Will have to take me home.’
The majority of the national pavilions in the environs of the Arsenale share the Tunisian Pavilion’s sombre mood about the state of the world and many are concerned with the refugee crisis. In the South African Pavilion, Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng's powerful joint exhibition uses interviews, soundscapes and filmic evocations to communicate stories of the dispossessed - from slavery to forced migration. Sislej Xhafa, representing the Republic of Kosovo, built a small wooden hut that is empty apart for a telephone that never rings. A sign on the outside of the structure reads: ‘Lost and Found’. Like a telephone book for the dead, the hut is accompanied by a publication that simply and starkly lists the names and birthdates of the 1667 men, women and children who are still missing from the 1999 war in Kosovo. Xhafa states that Lost and Found (all works 2017) is about ‘interaction, silence and presence; it is about living memory and about challenge’.
Which could also be a description of Bernardo Oyarzún’s installation in the Chilean Pavilion, Werken, comprising 1,500 contemporary masks made by 40 artisans from the Indigenous Mapuche community (of which the artist is a member) from south-central Chile and south-western Argentina. Around the walls flows a list of LED signs displaying 6,906 Mapuche surnames that have managed to endure despite state efforts to erase them. The effect in the dramatically lit gallery is chilling: the masks – which each have a distinct personality – stare out with a combination of threat and personality, evoking an atmosphere that is at once elegiac and defiant.
Elegy and defiance sums up much of the work on show in this section of the biennale: the modest and moody installation created by Tina Gverović and Marko Tadić for the Croatian Pavilion, ‘Horizon of Expectations’, uses flickering, grainy, super-8 film and text pieces to deal with issues around time with a focus on ‘uncertainty, tension or collapse’. Jesse Jones, representing Ireland, has created a strident film and sculpture installation, Tremble Tremble, that intertwines the biography of a woman from three million years ago, stories of 16th-century witch trials and contemporary debates around abortion (still illegal in Ireland). Nika Autor, who works with the collective Newsreel Front, is representing the Republic of Slovenia with her film Newsreel 63, a mesmerizing meta-documentary that was inspired by the artist’s attempts to understand a 19th-century fragment of film that was shot on the Belgrade-Ljubljana rail line, which is now notorious as a route for refugees. As a meditation on the symbolic role of trains in our collective imagination – in film, painting, popular culture and politics – Newsreel 63 is profoundly compelling.
At the New Zealand pavilion, Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17), is a reimagining of the French neoclassical wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (The Savages of the Pacific Ocean), which valorized Captain James Cook’s expeditions into so-called ‘primitive’ cultures when he travelled to the southern hemisphere in 1769 to document the transit of Venus. In Reihana’s 26-metre panoramic film installation, the wallpaper is transformed into an encounter between Polynesians and Europeans that, like a waking dream, visualizes the complexities of colonization and belonging, communication and estrangement via song, dance and performance.
With his ceramic, sound and film installation Life in the Folds, Carlos Amorales, who is representing Mexico, responds to the idea of failed states by inventing an ‘illegible alphabet’ that communicates a new abstract language – one that, unlike our current forms of communication, is incapable of cruelty. The work is inspired by Henri Michaux’s book of the same name that is about ‘being between things … the pages of a book or a newspaper, between countries and cultures and between opposed ideologies, between oneself and the other’. Instead of using recognizable words, language in Amorales’s new incarnation is enacted by puppet-characters created from a visual arrangement of these new ‘letters’ via the sounds of the ancient wind-musical instrument, ocarinas. Also harnessing sound is Cevdet Erek, representing Turkey, with his architectural and sound work, ÇIN, which will evolve for the duration of the biennale. The work was shaped by the fraught political situation in his home country: ÇIN is an onomatopoeic Turkish word that translates as the reverberation of sound in an architectural space, tinnitus and the sound of a bell: in other words, resonance, pain and ambiguity. On 5 May, Erek wrote a brief text that shares his thought-processes about the making of the work. It includes the lines:
series of events
most recent jolt
fabricator of tales
war and death
reset with new jolt
Who ever said that communication is easy? Which takes us to curator Cecilia Alemani’s Italian Pavilion. Featuring just three artists (in previous years, there have been up to150) – Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Roberto Cuoghi and Adelita Husni-Bey – and titled ‘Il mondo magico’ (The Magic World), Alemani has created a wildly dramatic exhibition that is both chilling and thrilling. The show is titled after a book of the same name written during World War II by Ernesto de Martino, an Italian anthropologist and philosopher who examined the importance of magic, rituals and faith to various cultures, especially during times of crisis. This vast exhibition is full of deep, dark spaces: this is a show that understands the metaphorical possibilities of shadows. For Imitazione di Cristo (Imitation of Christ), Cuoghi has transformed a vast section of the gallery into a workshop that produces a seemingly endless array of startlingly grim, life-sized models of a naked man that are laid out, funereally, in sinister plastic igloos. Inspired by the devotional figures illustrating the medieval text, The Imitation of Christ, the installation is a nightmare in which images of the tortured Christ are endlessly repeated in a deathly cycle – all endings and no beginnings. It’s a kind of sci-fi archaeology: time, here, is unhinged, non-linear, full of both threat and – going by the Christian iconography – rebirth, but of what, I’m not sure. Troubled, I climbed a set of steep stairs in order to see the dramatic, deceptively simple reflection of the gallery’s vaulted roof in a lake of black water: Andreotta Calò’s contribution to the show, which, like an outtake from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, momentarily confused the border between reality and its mirror. Senza titolo (fine del mondo) (Untitled, The End of the World) made me so vertiginous I almost asked a stranger to help me escape it.
Back on earth, I watched Husni-Bey’s compelling video, The Reading / La seduta, which involves a group of gentle, articulate young people attempting to make sense of the world via tarot cards. The tarot’s symbols prompt discussions around issues rooted in the real world: the environment, ecology, race and politics, energy and abuse. ‘When the earth dies, and resources are exhausted, what will we do?’ asks one earnest young woman. It’s a question echoed by seemingly countless artists from myriad countries in this small corner of Venice – but answers are thin on the ground.
Main image: Bernardo Oyarzún, Werken, 2017, Chilean Pavilion, Arsenale, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Italo Rondinella