The act of representing is political. We always speak from a specific historical and social location to others, which is mediated by unequal power relations. Every artwork, should it choose to respond to its site-specificity or not, will be affected by it. ‘For a work of art—and herein lies its incredible power and complexity—can construct the exhibition as much as it can be constructed by it.’ (Filipovic, Hal and Øvstebø, 2010, pg. 17)
The concept of biennials, an exhibition recurring every two years, started with the Venice Biennale in 1895. In the first wave of globalization, the right for cultural autonomy remained the privilege of nation-states and colonial powers, which also colonized the Giardini of Venice by building their pavilions, while the rest were thrown together in the Arsenale separated with blurry boundaries. Giardini houses permanent pavilions and the Arsenale houses temporary spaces – changing every year. Through this divisiveness, the biennale draws a metaphorical distinguish between the first world in the Giardini and the third world in the Arsenale, developed versus undeveloped.
When comparing the British Pavilion’s artwork in the 2019 Venice Biennale to the Indian Pavilion’s artwork, a prominent political power dynamic is exposed. One housed in the Giardini in an architecturally permanent building in the centre of an upward slope, above the rest of the pavilions and the other is housed within 4 walls that might not exist tomorrow.
Arising from the relief of permanence, Cathy Wilkes’ artwork is ambiguous, hidden under vague poems that raise questions, but no answers are given. The curator, Dr. Zoe Whitley says, ‘Everything is possible, but nothing is certain.’ With no labels, no information at the door, the viewer is expected to walk out with their own meaning of the work. I’m not saying that this is anyhow wrong, but this kind of ambiguity is the privilege of those with recognised positions on the art map and the privilege of those that don’t need to justify their position in the global artworld.
In contrast, the Indian pavilion, in an attempt to justify its position as culturally significant, curated a show around the Idol of Indian Independence, Mahatma Gandhi. India and Indian artists don’t seem to have the privilege of escaping the political powers that shaped its being as they struggle to reclaim meaning from the ruins of colonialism. The pavilion itself becomes a non-violent protest to the western hegemony it is placed under while at the Venice Biennale. Although the colonized countries are independent, they are not decolonized from the struggles of emancipation. India to this day strives for acceptance and legitimacy of its culture, tradition, language, longs for recognition and seeks equal status.
The Venice Biennale can never be devoid of the political power dynamics and incentives that made it in the first place, hence, every work of art exhibited in it is subjected to theories of globalisation as a means of continuing colonialism.
So, to answer, the politics of location is unavoidable, more than it is necessary.