At the last Venice Biennale, in 2017, even after Brexit and US president Donald Trump’s election, the world’s tumultuous politics seemed distant. In an interview with The New York Times, the exhibition’s curator Christine Macel said: ‘I’m very interested in politics [...] But not all art should be about politics. It’s only one dimension.’ The Central Pavilion opened with Mladen Stilinović’s photo series ‘Artist at Work’ (1978) in which the late Croatian conceptualist lay in bed, tired, sleeping, or dreaming. This, one reviewer noted, seemed symbolic of Macel being asleep to the roaring political shifts that were then occurring around the world.
For the upcoming 2019 biennale, the United States is conspicuously late to naming an artist at all for its national pavilion. For the last three editions, the American artists were announced in April (Mark Bradford in 2017, Joan Jonas in 2015) or February (Sarah Sze in 2013) of the preceding year. As we’re nearly into August now with still no word on an American artist, some believe it calls for concern, satirically and not. ‘King Turd and Trump State Department propose place name of David H. Koch above entrance to American Pavilion at Venice Biennale,’ wrote critic Jerry Saltz on Twitter and Instagram. Artist Justin Lieberman started an online petition with the semi-ironic suggestion that the US select the patriotic, pro-Trump realist painter Jon McNaughton. In one report on the delay in announcing a US artist, Paul Ha, the director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center (and co-curator of the 2015 US pavilion) commented forebodingly: ‘With the current administration, who wants to zero out the NEA and NEH – it is not really a huge surprise that it has taken so long [...] I hope it still happens. [I] would hate to be the one country that is not represented in the Giardini.’
But is the US really so late? And is there cause for concern? Only 25 countries have announced their artists so far. Over 80 came last year, and we can expect a similar turnout this year as well – Japan, Greece, Korea, China, Denmark, and the Czech Republic to name just a few have all still not announced their artists. The US is under no formal obligation to announce theirs until the end of the year. It is indeed unusual that the US hasn’t yet made their announcement, as they’re typically one of the first. But it also seems unlikely that Trump and his State Department, led by Mike Pompeo, are actively attempting to scupper the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Every country has a unique process of selecting for the national pavilions at Venice. The US, in the recent past, has usually had curators, mostly acting on behalf of museums, submit proposals for viable artists to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The State Department then chooses a commissioning institution, usually a museum, which in turn selects the artist. In the case of Bradford last year, the State Department chose the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, which organized his exhibition. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation technically owns the US pavilion’s building and the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation – along with the State Department, the Fund for Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, the US Information Agency, and private sponsors and individuals – help fund and organize the exhibition.
What seems more likely than an active attempt to do away with the American pavilion is that the White House’s shambolic state is to blame. Pompeo is already Trump’s second Secretary of State and has only been in office since mid-March, Rex Tillerson having departed after only 13 months (during the time that the US typically nominates their artist). The US still has over 30 countries to which they’ve still yet to name an ambassador. What the delay in announcing an American artist for Venice does suggest is that the US, under Trump, no longer takes its global leadership seriously, especially in socio-cultural affairs. Symbolically, this can be viewed as another regression, another step towards isolationism in a world that views globalization as progress. But it’s also largely a testament to the chaos plaguing the White House.
The delay in announcing an artist for Venice also doesn’t augur well for American federal arts funding, and the biennale tends to be a chance for both promoting relatively under-known artists as well as codifying the genius of well-known artists, as when Félix González-Torres was posthumously given the pavilion in 2007 (he died in 1996). But international exhibitions of this nature tend also to be loci of political debate. Pablo Picasso painted Guernica (1937), about the fascist bombing of the eponymous Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. At the 1990 Venice Biennale, the American AIDS activist group Gran Fury created a set of provocative posters about the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and sex, directly connecting it to death and suffering in a move that helped significantly alter the public’s views on the issue. And at the 1970 Venice Biennale, 24 of the 47 artists chosen for a group lithograph show at the American Pavilion, publically withdrew as a boycott against the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, including Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.
Art is a political battleground. The Central Intelligence Agency flooded money towards abstract artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock during the Cold War to show that America – and the capitalist framework – had far greater creativity than the USSR and communism. Even right now, in Germany, far-right parties are attempting to institute new cultural agendas to change the country’s perception of its past. (Last year, one of the leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany party Björn Höcke, according to The Financial Times, ‘called for a ‘180-degree revolution’ in this culture of remembrance, and attacked the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in the centre of Berlin.’) Cultural festivals that are as high profile as the Venice Biennale are chances for serious and lasting political criticism in a world deluged by ‘both sides’ rhetoric, in which it is increasingly difficult to make a resounding statement of political belief.
The theme of the upcoming biennale is ‘May You Live in Interesting Times,’ a quote from a speech by a British MP in the 1930s named Austen Chamberlain, citing ‘a Chinese curse’ (though in all likelihood, a Western construct). The biennale is largely about global turmoil and ‘post-truth’ politics. ‘At a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends,’ said the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, Ralph Rugoff, who will be curating the biennale, ‘it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference.’
Perhaps Trump is attempting to undermine a global-scale opportunity to criticize the US and his political efforts; but, for now, the more likely explanation seems to be that America is run by a shoddy, disorganized administration – a White House and a State Department that can barely hold on to and name its personnel, let alone begin to think about international art festivals. What it especially shows is that the US is no longer a country that leads; it is, instead, contented with seclusion and narrow domestic concerns. But, for now, we wait. Everyone knows that to compare this administration to any of the past is a fool’s pursuit – the US pavilion is not so much late as on Trump time, a frightening prospect in its own right.
US pavilion entrance, Venice Biennale, 2007. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Elisabetta Villa