Apart from the need to hide in the shade of art during the hot vernissage of the Venice Biennale, it is always with anticipation that one enters the Arsenale and Giardini. The possibilities are neverending, but are also trapped within the walls of buildings, not to mention the town of Venice itself. During these opening days, the city of Venice transforms into a stage. It accommodates collectors’ megayachts, temporary constructions for exhibitions, and a different tourist crowd unphased by the town’s beauty. The walk from San Marco to the Giardini is always fast and accompanied with discussions on pavilions that, for anyone not involved in this micro-world, might sound like heated political debate.
Indeed, the nature of the Venice Biennale is quite political, at least in its structure.(1) It is unique in its antiquated format of national representation, which supposedly demonstrates a unity of modernities, culturally different but definitely belonging to the realm and vocabulary of the west. The power of politics is as solid as the stone-paved streets leading to the main venues. The “important” countries occupy the most beautiful and strategically placed pavilions. Old Europe greets you as soon as you enter the Giardini’s gardens, while the poorer nations are shoved elsewhere. This might be a simplistic way to view this mega-exhibition, but the truth is unavoidable: it is apparent who runs the show.
You could say that the 118-year-old structure of the Venice Biennale formulates a state within a state. It is both a civilized and crude expression of our understanding of art since the industrial revolution: a declared authority dictates whether or not a country might participate, an artist becomes a cultural representative, and a curator turns into an ambassador. This follows the same logic of the museum: if it is included within the frame, it must be art. Through their pavilions, countries prove their education, cultivation, and cultural appreciation. To paraphrase Marina Abramovic: “art must be beautiful, everything must be beautiful,” as long as it is civilized and regulated.(2)
I saw Cao Fei’s La Town (2014) in the Arsenale: a film created from maquettes and figurines, some of which were also presented within the installation space. La Town is a city in the throes of a zombie apocalypse, a myth told with a camera’s sweeping view over symbols of capitalism and its decay. We see whorehouses, politicians, applauding crowds, suburban nightmares with white fences, a f looded and neglected train station still in use, hotels with half-operating neon signs, carousels, and ghettos. Children are left unattended. A fake Venus di Milo stands at the center of a kitsch fountain. As the film progresses, we see muggings, rapes, murders, arrests, violence, riots, looting, and crowds chanting. Meanwhile, somewhere on the outskirts, there are beautiful scenes with rivers, beaches, and nudists bathing happily under the sun.
The story is narrated in a French dialogue between a man and a woman, expressed in a nouvelle vague tone that soon became recognizable. The script is excerpted from Marguerite Duras’s novel Hiroshima Mon Amour, which, in 1962, became a film by Alain Resnais.
“The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. An entire city will be lifted off the ground, and fall back to earth in ashes. … I meet you. I remember you. Who are you? You’re destroying me. You’re good for me. How could I know this city was tailor-made for love? How could I know you fit my body like a glove? I like you. How unlikely. I like you. How slow all of a sudden. How sweet. You cannot know. You’re destroying me. You’re good for me. You’re destroying me. You’re good for me. I have time. Please, devour me. Deform me to the point of ugliness. Why not you?”
In La Town, whatever “matters,” or should matter, is included within the “late-night museum”: a sequence towards the end of the film, in which everything from La Town is displayed as an artwork, including a man murdering his wife, an overturned police car, a couple making frantic love, and that same kitsch Venus de Milo fountain. In Cao Fei’s museum, the tiny figurines witness everything as we do: “people walk around lost in thought amongst the reconstructions” with nothing but “explanations, for lack of anything else.”3 This is the beauty of society translated into art: a visual representation of our contemporary condition.
Within the cool, comforting walls of the Arsenale, I suddenly realized how La Town is scarily reminiscent of my own town in Greece: Athens, the symbolic city whose ancient structures are echoed not only in the architecture of the Venice Biennale, but also in the nations for which these buildings were made. The Parthenon, which sits atop the Acropolis Hill, is seen in the west as a symbol of democracy and, in turn, capitalist modernity. It embodies what the west believes to be the tenets of civilization and classical beauty. Yet, Athens has suffered, along with the rest of Greece, an unprecedented crisis. And while contemporary Athens has few similarities with its ancient past, it shares many with La Town. The killing of a 15-year-old boy by a policeman resulted in riots and looting in December 2008, followed by the economic crisis announced shortly after in 2009. This in turn resulted in years of protests, decay, and degradation.
By summer 2015, a referendum was called with little warning (and which essentially divided the nation in two: those opposing European Union-imposed austerity measures and those in favour). The result was empty shelves in the supermarkets and police officers guarding banks as people—mostly elderly queuing for pensions—fought to withdraw money amid the panic that ensued once capital controls were imposed. As a nation, we had become “deformed to the point of ugliness,” like La Town. As German philosopher Jürgen Habermas stated, the “neoliberal impositions” created by the EU would “completely discourage an exhausted Greek population and kill any impetus to growth.”(3)
Today, Athens is my La Town. A failed utopia like the one Cao Fei visits in her film. The irony is that Athens, as with La Town, could be any town, anywhere. What better way to transcend the irony that our capitalist utopias will always fail us than through art? In the case of La Town, the “late-night museum” reveals the sublime disfigurement of real beauty—a reality we must first unveil before we can subvert it.
This, too, was reflected in the Venice Biennale, when Hito Steyerl, along with other artists, hung the Greek flag with the word “Germoney” written over it on the facade of the German Pavilion in the Giardini. Raising the flag was a means of demonstrating against the political maneuvers of EU leaders during those weeks. This act, if only temporarily, defaced the “beauty” of this small art-town within the town of Venice, just as Greece defaced the civilized notion of a compliant state, becoming a splinter in the eye for those who seek to uphold dominant capitalist agendas in Europe and beyond.
The capitalist model has shown us what it considers to be art. It has also shown us what it considers to be a proper and civilized democratic nation state—framed, as always, by western ideals that are so often imposed rather than embraced. The effects of this imposition are best described in the last scene of Cao Fei’s film, expressed against a backdrop as dark as the night. “I call your name, softly,” she says, and he replies: “But I am dead.”
(1) See the works of Jonas Staal, The Ideological Guide to the Venice Biennale, 2013.
(2) From Abramovic’s video work, Art Must be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful (1975).
(3) Interview with Philip Oltermann, The Guardian, July 16, 2015