Perhaps the most visceral installation in the Biennale will undoubtedly be missed by most visitors and was nearly missed by me. Located at the end of the east wing of the Arsenale is the pavilion of the principality of Andorra, “the largest of the little states of the world,” located in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It was only by happenstance that I caught it. One needs a boat to cross over from the Main Arsenale site to the east section which had been restored in 2013 so that more countries could participate. We were too early for a boat, but we noticed a well-dressed man and a younger man demanding that a Biennale staff get them a boat! Introducing ourselves, I learned this was the curator of the Andorra Pavillion and his son. He invited us to ride over on the poor workman’s boat that had been commandeered. Once there, we began making our way through the vast interior- installation after installation of rather commercial Chinese contemporary art. Finally, we turned the corner and saw the amputated horses by the Cuban artist Javier Balmaseda.
He was so happy to be able to speak Spanish with someone; “the best breakfast I could have,” he said. This gentle young man with dreadlocks had created a powerful and wrenching installation of ten life-sized 3-d horses, very realistically rendered, whose legs had been cut off, and in their place propping them up were mechanic’s tools- car jacks, stacked wheel interiors, etc. The reference was to the time in Cuba where people were starving, but to kill a horse for meat meant 15 years in prison. Balmaseda remembers that some Cubans to avoid prison cut off the horses’ legs for meat, a haunting horrific event that has stayed in his visual memory since his childhood. Accompanying the figures of the horses were beautiful freely drawn sheets of horses and tools. The impact was incredibly strong, perhaps the most emotional pavilion of all. This was the first time Andorra had been represented at the Biennale.
In the Chilean National Pavilion, Alfredo Jarr elegantly and poignantly attacks the Giardini, the emblematic site of the Venice Biennale containing the national pavilions of those countries who dominated the political landscape prior to and after WWII. To understand Jarr’s work, one has to understand the history and layout of that section of Venice originally set aside for the Biennale, the Giardini. At the top of the first allée of the Giardini lies Great Britain; France and Germany flank it. Then Russia and Japan; the U.S. holds the axial view of the second allé to the right, and to the left of it, very close, is Israel’s pavilion. Gradually, other countries have built pavilions in the spaces in between. The Giardini’s second main allée, the one perpendicular to Great Britain’s, is the Italian revolution pavilion, which these days is used as one half of the exhibition space given over to the honored curator of the Biennale, this year, Massimiliano Gioni from the New Museum. Finally, behind the Italian pavilion, in the very back, across a small canal and bridge are the pavilions of Austria, Serbia, Romania, Greece, Poland, and Egypt.
Jarr’s native country, Chile, does not have a permanent home in the Giardini. Nor do any African nations or countless others. Like others, Chile has rented space in the Arsenale, the old naval yard nearby. There are only two pieces in Jarr’s installation in the Arsenale- one a light box with an image of Lucio Fontana scaling the rubble of his bombed studio in Milan in 1946, the other, a huge steel box-like structure filled with water. Slowly, a bit of silver filigree appears on the surface of the water that slowly becomes trees and buildings as the form rises up out of the water. Finally, all the pavilions of the Giardini appear, water pouring out of the buildings and avenues, like receding flood waters, until the model is lifted to its full height. It pauses, and then gradually begins to sink, the high waters of Venice flooding the Giardini, the water rising and rising until the Giardini disappears underneath the surface. Jarr’s point is that these imperial super powers represented by the Giardini pavilions are meaningless in the global world these days. Jarr submerges the old hegemonies of the former great powers repeatedly as the model mechanically rises and falls. The piece questions the very notion of national identity. The photograph shows Lucio Fontana, an Italian born in Argentina, in the ruins caused by U.S. and German bombs, further illustrating his point – Fontona, “a global artist” living in a foreign country, ruined by imperial power is a link to Jarr’s own biography, a Chilean, living in N.Y., also a witness to the formidable power of the military dictator.
The Hungarian Pavillion was assigned to artist Zsolt Asztalos, who created an installation entitled Fired But Unexploded. One sees actual unfired bombs and photographs of bombs of various manufacture and period, which had malfunctioned for some reason. Elegantly displayed, the shapes and colors of the bombs are seductively beautiful, but we are not told if they are completely inactive, or were discovered and subsequently disarmed. Videos project moving images of landscapes where the unexploded bombs were located. Each bomb enclosed in a vitrine, or represented by photographs are classified by type of bomb (e.g., FRAG-20lb- 20lb fragmentation bomb), the country that made it, and the time of production. These modernist forms were meant to maim and kill and destroy. Asztalos provides a partial narration that makes the atmosphere ominous. Like many pavilions, there is a link to the “Encyclopaedic Palace” show’s theme of cataloguing, obsessively collecting unused found objects, arranged/ displayed by type. Massimilliano had miniature houses; Asztalos has bombs. The artist used the bombs as symbol of conflict among us. They exist as elements of continuity of the recent past to the present, and into the future — interrupted on personal, local, regional, and global levels- art in the service of processing the brutal traumas of late twentieth and twenty first century.