Tue, May 16, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Turning inward, looking outward

Venice Biennale taps artistic angst amid rising nationalism, while giving a voice to under-represented populations

AP, Venice, Italy

Asylum seekers make lamps last week as part of the work Green Light by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson during the press preview of the 57th International Art Exhibition Biennale in Venice.

Photo: AFP/Vincenzo Pinto

With nationalism on the rise, political engagement is central to the artistic dialogue at the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest contemporary art fair, which opened on Saturday.

From the main show, Viva Arte Viva, curated by Christine Macel, to 87 national pavilions in the Venice Giardini, Arsenale and throughout the historic city center, artists are contemplating the world around them and giving a voice to under-represented populations.

Macel said artists “are able to respond to this moment of complexity” even if art “should not be reduced to politics.”

The show runs through Nov. 26. Here are some highlights.


Berlin-based artist Olafur Eliasson’s Green light is an onsite workshop where 100 migrants create lamps lit by green bulbs from simple materials.

Visitors can engage with the migrants — for many a faceless, nameless category repeated on the news — maybe pitching in, maybe asking their stories.

Eliasson says being a migrant is not an identity, but a condition. “What we see is ourselves,” Eliasson said. “The migrants are a little bit like actors in a play. Fair enough. But I am doing it on the condition that they are volunteers. They are given a subjective space, they are not being objectified.”

An immigration lawyer and psychological counselor are among 90 volunteers participating.

The project aims to help the migrants learn skills, and build self-esteem, while exploring a platform that could be repeated in other contexts.


The Dutch pavilion examines the Netherland’s self-image as progressive and tolerant, which has been put to the test during Europe’s refugee crisis.

One film explores how the Dutch self-narrative papered over the difficult assimilation of mixed-race children of Dutch and Indonesian parents after Indonesia’s independence.

Artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh discusses the issues in three short films. Because the children entered the country smoothly as Dutch citizens, vast differences in their experiences have been overlooked, from those who were abandoned by their white fathers and impoverished, to the wealthy, well-educated arrivals who still found barriers to assimilation.


Phyllida Barlow’s show of sculptures for the United Kingdom’s pavilion titled folly isn’t about overtly about politics, but that did seep into the work as the Brexit campaign raged around her.

“As I was making the work, I began in April, before the referendum, I had this sense of unease, melancholia really, about this idea of occupying the British pavilion and what it means to be British ... when it’s leaving Europe and I feel I’m European,” Barlow said.

She said the mood permeated her sculptures, which while robust “show fragility, and a sense of things being uneasy.”


For the Hungarian pavilion, artist Gyula Varnai discusses the “viability and necessity of utopias” in his show titled Peace on Earth. He uses many defunct communist symbols, including a reproduction of a large neon Peace on Earth sign from a building in Hungary, to a rainbow made of 8,000 pins bearing Cold War-era symbols.

Curator Zsolt Petranyi said they asked themselves “is it true, that we can just speak about dystopias, that there is not any positive vision?”

He realized that technology has become utopia’s stand-in, “covering the deeper problems of today. Wherever you go, from China, to Africa, to India, if there is a new kind of television, a new kind of whatever, everybody is celebrating it.”

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