Regional artists largely fit the post-utopia feel at this year’s Venice Biennale
Hassan Khan's Composition for a Public Park. All photos by Dan Jakubowski

“The End of Utopia,” reads an advertisement in Venice’s Campo San Geremia for an exhibition of US artists Jacob Hashimoto and Emil Lukas. While not technically part of the 2017 Venice Biennale, its tagline could easily describe biennale curator Christine Macel’s sprawling and sometimes vague ode to artistic creativity. Backing away from the self-consciously political mode of Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Biennale — a call for art engaged with political debates surrounding global inequality, sectarian violence, and widespread dispossession of the commons — Macel has titled her show “Viva Arte Viva,” celebrating art’s ability to re-instill humanist values and provide openings for critical self-reflection amid the chaos of contemporary existence. In this return to an earlier, more modernist approach to artistic production, I heard echoes of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, which approached artworks as potential pockets of contemplation removed from the circuits of exploitation and economies of atrocity that make up the modern world.

Macel’s show depends on artist-directed initiatives to create a federation of microtopian enclaves, each offering a world away from the world from which to cultivate a studied view on the state of things. So it simultaneously argues for a close to utopian political thinking – an opening onto the dystopian – and sees the ends of utopia realized, if only in a limited fashion, in these projects.

Lebanese composer and artist Zad Moultaka’s SamaS is exemplary of the dystopian bent. Moultaka has created a nightmarish doppelganger of Venice’s San Marco Basilica in a cacophonous warehouse, mimicking the basilica’s gold encrusted mosaics by covering one wall with thousands of coins, their gleam deadened by dim lighting. At the center of the room towers a Rolls-Royce Avon MK 209 airplane engine, a monolithic paean to the unholy intersection of war, industry and commerce. Speakers at the periphery of the cavernous darkness blare a moaning threnody recorded in the language of the ancient Akkadians, an echo of long-collapsed empires that once dominated the Mesopotamian region. As the lights in the space shift slowly from an intense crimson glare into almost complete gloom, the plane engine appears and vanishes, its form reminiscent of the finger-shaped stele that purveyed the ancient Babylonian law code of Hammurabi (held by the Louvre in Paris). In Moultaka’s vision of the Middle East, law is replaced by force, formal justice having given way to bombs that fall from planes.

The Iraqi and Syrian Pavilions each present group shows riven by the question of living through chronic war. A palpable sense of unfolding apocalypse consumes them too.

captionThe modernist paintings and relief sculptures of mid-century Iraqi artists Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al-Said are put forth as models of all that was lost during the calamitous US-led sanctions and invasions of Iraq. Their combination of colorful formal inventiveness and traditional Iraqi content speak to a vibrant alternative modernism that was brutally foreclosed during the passage between the 20th and 21st centuries. Selim’s Pastoral of 1955 evinces a boldly geometric abstraction in its representation of a village scene in bronze relief, with signs of influence from Surrealists like Alberto Giacometti and Juan Miró. The pavilion suggests that the sort of artistic cosmopolitanism demonstrated in Selim’s work has been all but obliterated by decades of foreign occupation and civil war.

Anas Al Rassawi

Of the artists at the Syrian Pavilion, Anas Al Rassawi presents the most powerful work in a series of collages built up from Xeroxed images of troops, civilians and victims of wartime barbarity. Adhered directly to the wall with strips of masking tape and overrun with vicious painterly scrawls, they present a world out of joint, one in which atrocities mimic the imagery they produce, becoming both garbled and infinitely repeatable in their daily reiteration.

Installation view of Marwan’s work

Syrian painter Marwan, who died last year, represents an appropriate hinge between the biennale’s tragically dystopian and privately utopian approaches. Part of the main exhibition, his disquieting canvases show faces in various stages of muddy deliquesce, built up from layers of heavily applied oil paint even as their forms seem to melt between the brushstrokes. Marwan lived in exile in Berlin following the Suez Crisis of the late 1950s, developing close working relationships with German expressionist painters like Georg Baselitz and Eugen Schönebeck. Marwan’s “heads,” as he referred to them, have a strangely tactile, worked-over meticulousness that attracts sustained viewing yet their transformative grotesquery also inspires revulsion.

Abdallah Al Saadi’s Al Saadi’s Diaries

Emirati artist Abdullah Al Saadi’s miniature mixed-media works also demonstrate a deeply private response to wider political realities. Al Saadi’s Diaries are a voluminous set of notebooks and scrolls in little metal boxes. These precious documents, written from 1986 to the present day, speak of the artist’s experience as a traveler throughout the United Arab Emirates as he has engaged with traditional artist communities. From 2003-4, he converted his truck into a mobile exhibition platform and began exploring the deserts and mountains around his home of Khorfakkan. His tiny records describe the daily lives of smaller Emirati communities, eschewing the accelerated glass and steel experience of quickly growing cities like Dubai and Sharjah.

Achraf Touloub

Alternative mediums provide inspiration for other intimate expressions, such as those of Moroccan artist Achraf Touloub, who creates “skins” from oil painting, nylon, and gesso. These biomorphic wall-hangings exist somewhere between painting and relief, pressing out from the walls with undulating lines that barely contain swelling protuberances. Younès Rahmoun, also from Morocco, presents tiny sculptures made from spherical lamps ensconced in hand-woven woolen hats in Taqiya-Nor. Exhibited in a darkened gallery, the work points toward his interest in the intersection of traditional craft and technological innovation while also suggesting a warm, home-like womb for what remains of the autonomous subject in contemporary reality. Saudi artist Maha Malluh creates one of the main exhibition’s more impressive works from 2,400 audio cassettes recorded by religious leaders for the instruction of women in proper behavior. Titled Food for Thought “Amma Baad,” the variously colored cassettes are arranged into a mosaic that spells out Arabic words. Exhibited as part of the biennale’s “Dionysian Pavilion,” it takes these mass-produced objects of conservative social control and recycles them as a boisterously colorful exclamation of female creativity.

Maha Malluh’s Food for Thought “Amma Baad”

While constructed entirely out of mass-produced commercial objects, Hassan Sharif’s sculptural jumbles represent some of the most idiosyncratic and willfully fun artworks at the biennale. The Emirati artist, who also died in 2016, is given a kind of ersatz retrospective titled Hassan Sharif Studio (Supermarket), which mimics the style of late capitalist hypermarkets with metal industrial shelving and repetitious, display window-like artwork placement. Polychromatic bundles of rubber flip-flops, heaping piles of knotted nylon rope, and plastic funnels erupting aluminum foil are some of artwork-cum-consumer products in Sharif’s contemplation of the rapid commercialization of the UAE during the late 20th century.

Hassan Sharif Studio (Supermarket)

Of the two Egyptian artworks on display, Hassan Khan’s Silver Lion-winning Composition for a Public Park (top) is by far the most powerful in its beguiling use of directional speakers. Creating three different sonic environments in the verdant Giardino delle Vegini behind Venice’s Arsenale, the work’s enchanting mix of clapping hands, classical Arabic music, spoken text and a string quartet reverberates through the garden’s gently sloping landscape and manicured greenery. The speakers stand like strange, quasi-human contraptions in the lush environment, some of them playing recorded dialogues that require careful listening, coupled with subtle spatial exploration to discover amid the louder musical components. As the last work in the Arsenale portion of the show, Composition comes as an almost-magical denouement, a sonic trick that produces a gentle spatial envelope cut off from the hectic, multi-project displays of the rest of the show.

Representing Egypt at the nation’s official pavilion in the Giardini, Moataz Nasr’s heavy-handed filmic allegory comes off as clumsy and ill conceived in comparison with its narrative of rural Egyptians standing up to their supernaturally empowered fears. As a metaphor for Egypt’s current political situation, the film is far too crude, failing to engage with any of the knotty historical tangents that have led to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency. Additionally, Nasr’s appropriation of the almost exact exhibition and display design used in Ahmed Basiony’s posthumous show at the Egyptian Pavilion in 2011 reads not only as a gesture of bad taste, but also as an unintended commentary on the tragic collapse of the regional uprising movement since the initial protests demonstrations during which Basiony was killed in 2011. Nasr’s safe political allegorizing pales in comparison to late artist’s direct activist engagement.

The Absence of Paths

Finally, The Absence of Paths is a project initiated by the Kamal Lazaar Foundation’s Lina Lazaar, who also co-runs the online Ibraaz forum, for the first Tunisian Pavilion in 50 years. At three locations in the city, visitors can approach kiosks and fill out a visa application form. After a brief questionnaire issued by officious pavilion personnel, participants are issued a “freesa,” a passport-like booklet that declares one “only human.” The document reads, “In accepting this Universal Travel Document, recipients effectively endorse a philosophy of universal freedom of movement without the need for arbitrary state-based sanction. The Universal Travel Document is therefore intended to form the basis of a silent protest and is not, in and of itself, recognized by traditional government institutions.” Like much of the politics on display at the biennale, Lazaar’s intervention imagines a microtopian reprieve from state violence rather than a confrontation with it.

A short walk from one of these kiosks I found another message on a Venetian alley wall, this one scrawled in crude graffiti. It read, “No borders!” It’s a nice thought, one imagined playfully by Lazaar’s project. But one imagines presenting the “freesa” to Moultaka’s bellicose plane engine only to have a rain of bombs answer its call for universal human dignity. These two visions, one dominated by a keening lament for our current situation’s hopelessness, the other driven by a naïve humanist optimism that seems utterly discredited, are on abundant display at the biennale. In this, the show mirrors much of the politics of our present moment, and that reflected image is perhaps its most valuable, if depressing, contribution.

Dan Jakubowski 

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