For the first time in 60 years, the Palestinians have a presence at the Venice Biennale. I reported on this feat for The Economist's More Intelligent Life this past summer.
In 1947 a handful of Jewish artists living in Palestine erected a Palestinian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. A "Palestine" flag waved in front of the simple structure, built with money raised from Italian Jews. Its presence at the Biennale was fleeting. The Palestine flag was soon traded for an Israeli one once the British Mandate expired and the State of Israel was established.
But now, over 60 years later and after quite a bit of negotiation, there is once again a Palestinian presence at the international Venice Biennale. Called "Palestine C/O Venice", this exhibition features six pieces by different artists and plenty of food for thought.
The Palestinians have never been granted a national pavilion, owing to their odd territorial status. Attempts to establish one have long been scuttled. In 2003 Francesco Bonami, the director of the Biennale at the time, announced his intention to establish a permanent Palestinian presence. This prompted heated accusations of anti-Semitism in newspapers around the world.
"I saw Venice as a platform to not only open up a discussion on Palestine, but also to see what could come out of such a proposition," Bonami explains to me. But his proposal was mooted by right-wing Italian political groups and official stipulations that only countries recognised by Rome be allowed to participate (owing to the Biennale's state financing).
Undeterred, Bonami collaborated with two Bethlehem-based artists, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, to create "Stateless Nation" for the Biennale in 2003. This installation peppered the sprawling main Giardini exhibition centre with ten different oversized Palestinian travel documents (ie. passports and identification cards). These towering facsimiles signified both the Palestinians' dispersal throughout the world and their necessary preoccupation with identification papers (owing to travel restrictions in Israel and the territories). One of the structures was provocatively placed between the Israeli and American pavilions.
"We asked ourselves, how can we represent Palestine, which in the context of the Biennale is considered a non-state," says Petti. "We saw these travel documents as a microcosm of Palestinians' world through their non-belonging to the nations surrounding them.
Hilal and Petti also have a piece in "Palestine C/O Venice", situated in a monastery 30 minutes away from the main grounds and on view until September 30th. Called "Ramallah Syndrome", the installation consists of a padded cell in which visitors sit in darkness and listen to a soundtrack. For about ten minutes, the sounds of beating hearts mix with tractor hums, and heavily accented voices proclaim in English: "We are imagining stability... sometimes I forget there is an occupation...if you just go North, South, wherever there is a checkpoint. Reality says we are under occupation……we absolutely need to be one people."
Shadi Habiballah, an artist whose multi-channel video and animation work ("Ok, hit, hit but don't run", 2009) features a bird's eye view of playful (and occasionally naughty) black-and-white figurines (pictured below), is glad the show wasn't hijacked by "dialogue". This he felt would have been distracting and unproductive. "The only reason to speak with them is because of the conflict," he says. "It's more of a spectacle without a purpose."
That, it seems, is precisely what Mikdadi was trying to avoid. "People may come through here and ask Where is the war?" she says to me. "We have the right to have a life and not always respond to an Israeli situation. We are quiet artists just like anyone else."