It’s a bit full on being in a city who’s modern economy is almost solely built on tourism. The first description of Venice I’d heard from an Italian was in conversation with a student in Bologna, she simply described it as ‘Disneyland’. I took this as a reference to the reduced spectacle, the disposable, factory-made entertainment set out for people who have the money. This sentiment hung around as I experienced my first (and realistically, only) Venice Biennale. The Biennale is broken into three sections. It began as one: The ‘Giardini’, which is the most historic, generally seen as the most important area of pavilions, and was where the Biennale began. The other two sections have been subsequently added over the years. There is the ‘Arsenale’ which is sort of the B team, another ticketed area, and then there are other participating countries strewn about the place in different venues that you can see, generally for free. The Giardini has all the big players; Germany, the States, the UK, France etc. Now, I didn’t expect the Biennale to change my world, or really have any political weight. I was not however, prepared for a shamelessly imperialist clusterfuck of ego and privilege.
There is an unsurprising information drought on the history of the establishment of the now ‘Israeli’ pavilion in the Giardini (the official Biennale website has chosen to erase it from their timeline), but the Biennale has included an Israeli pavilion since the construction of the ‘state’ in 1948. The inclusion of Israel and the exclusion of Palestine in an international event makes a very clear political statement. Organisations that do not engage in BDS — a call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian right —implicitly support the apartheid regime. The content that sits inside of the building, (which has unsurprisingly remained faint and diluted when/ if Palestine and the regime is mentioned) is irrelevant when its funder is the same body that administers the genocide of the people who’s land it has stolen. And this is what the pavilion represents. Stolen land, the oppression of its people. Indifference. Imperialism.
That went through my mind, right before I moved next-door to the States, and then on to the Australian Pavilion. Touring a colonial showcase. Complacent colonisers commenting on what they see as ‘interesting’. The privileged pick-and-choose, take-it-when-I-want-it mindset manifests in both structure and content.
This isn’t new or unique in the arts. White people have been making work that ignores the platform built on historic racial oppression that supports their ability to make, and be successful in the arts forever. In Aotearoa, we see it all the time. Either complete political complacency, or politics through a homogenised, post-colonial ‘kiwi’ lens. In this context however it is also paired with the idea of representation.
The implications of taking part in a nationalist event is that you are in fact assuming the perceived role of representing a nation. In the context of Aotearoa, a colonised land, the effects of colonisation inform every aspect of socio-economic existence. The statistics of our population from western education standards, income, incarceration and healthcare (among many others) are indicative of the fact that colonisation not only created these inequalities, but its existence as a ‘post-colonial’ nation relies on the perpetuation of them. Token attempts by a racist, neoliberal banker-led government, and those that preceded are nothing but distractions from any real attempt at justice, reparations, and self-determination. This can only happen in Aotearoa if, at the very least, the document that is the key to belonging for all pākheā and tauiwi —“the only document that can legitimately serve as the basis for the modern state of Aotearoa”— and a correct interpretation of said document is realised. Decolonise, or side with the coloniser.
forgetting history and replacing Māori as the indigenous people of Aotearoa, for the idea of a
‘homogenised New Zealander’ in order to feel comfortable with, and ease the guilt of the privilege enjoyed by Pākehā at the expense of Māori. This manifests in paranoia and outright racism, sitting alongside a structural racism aimed at silencing dissent, delegitimising and assimilating indigenous voices, and othering non-whites who aren’t seen to fit this ‘kiwi’ identity.
These are the parliamentary politics of this colonised land. This is our context.
This however should not be a context the art ‘community’, which prides itself on being ‘progressive’ and ‘critical’ is complacent in, mirroring facets of oppression. In a situation such as the Venice Biennale, where the implications of representation and nationhood are at the forefront, where ‘the worlds futures’ is the tagline, surely there should be an attempt to at least recognise the context of a land before claiming to represent it?
The first and most obvious conscious disregard for this is a seemingly simple question self-identification. Shamelessly selling ‘New Zealand’ at Venice is a bit old school really. Is ‘Aotearoa at Venice’ not as aesthetically pleasing on an NFL volunteers shirt? The worry about people not knowing ‘Aotearoa’ is a concern within the context of simply trying to sell the country’s art scene as relevant. But even so, the least that could be done is include both names: the colonial, internationally known name, and the actual one. The fact that Aotearoa is unknown internationally is a problem that will only be addressed, and will only move toward a solution if international participation is approached differently. There needs to be change: Creative New Zealand doesn’t have to take any responsibility for being part of that change, but not doing anything simply perpetuates the issue, signifies indifference. Decolonise, or side with the coloniser.
Indifference is a good friend of privilege. The fact that there is a pākehā male representing Aotearoa isn’t new or surprising. But maybe a question we should ask is what are the responsibilities of someone with social privilege representing a colonised land in a situation like the Venice Biennale? I’m not really interested in reviewing Denny’s work. He got a bunch of information on what is an important issue. He used his $700k to produce a massive amount of content on that information in a contemporary aesthetic. Great. What interests me however is how the position Denny fills is approached, and how the context of the land he represents is framed; how even though the nationalism of the biennale is so central to the whole event, artists assume this role above real engagement with localised issues. A pākehā can just forget Te Tiriti when it suits, can pick and choose when to recognise its significance, can remain complacent, even when, as is in Denny’s case, they are commenting on an issue inextricably linked to the document. It is an irony when white artists attempt to comment on issues of social justice, while in turn are exercising their privilege to ignore and forget.
This privileged indifference is something the contemporary art structures of Aotearoa know well, and consciously choose to engage in. Whether the biennale is considered relevant anymore to the progression of contemporary art is arguable. What isn’t, however, is the conscious indifference of a privileged sector of society which in-turn perpetuates the structures that oppress us all. From Aotearoa to Palestine, decolonisation is the only way forward, and just as sitting on the fence when it comes to Israeli apartheid, indifference through neutrality in any struggle automatically results in siding with the oppressor. The contemporary art structures in Aotearoa, and the people who make up these structures need to decide which side they’re on.
Ella Grace McPherson-Newton