Balancing national pride and personal politics at the Venice Biennale

Venice, Italy CNN  — 

The NSK State has an anthem, passports, stamps, and consulates, but no territory. Founded by the Slovenian artist collective IRWIN in 1992, it’s a radical art experiment that challenges concepts of migration, colonialism, history and identity.

And now, 25 years later, the NSK has an unofficial pavilion at the venerated Venice Biennale, the so-called Olympics of the art world, where more than 80 nations compete for the coveted Golden Lion award.

The NSK State exhibition sees featured thinkers, artists and social workers questioning what it means to be European, and what it means to be stateless. There is a passport office processing applications for NSK passports, run by refugees waiting to have their own citizenship applications processed. These employees will work full-time at the pavilion until the Biennale ends in November.

In an international exhibition such as this, a stateless pavilion makes a definitive statement.

“This project tried to draw a line to become a sort of gate towards something that will project us into the next future, or in the future understanding of belonging, the future understanding (of) new identities, and the new future understanding of citizenship,” said Mara Ambrožič, who directed the pavilion.

“If this is or is not a political act, it’s definitely something that we can see moving further in time as a state and a project.”

This type of anti-state thinking is all well and good for an artist representing a state that doesn’t exist. But for artists partnering with the governments of real countries, the Biennale represents a spectacular challenge. How does one represent an entire nation with pride, while simultaneously critiquing it?

For some, this is more than a mere creative test. According to Lee Daehyung, curator of the South Korean pavilion, the featured artists – Cody Choi and Lee Wan – would not have been able to show their work at the Biennale if former president Park Geun-hye had still been in power.

"Venetian Rhapsody, The Power of Bluff" (2016-2017) by Cody Choi

Park was removed from power and arrested in March on charges related to abuse of power, accepting bribes and leaking important information. She was also reported to have maintained a cultural blacklist of thousands of dissident artists. She was replaced by liberal politician Moon Jae-in after an election earlier this month.

“For the last 50 years, the political pendulum in Korea has swung from the left to the right, meaning that when a new government came, artists with opposing political views are essentially blacklisted. But hopefully president Moon breaks that pendulum and we end up with a more inclusive policy … All artists are watching with a keen eye,” Lee said.

With this in mind, it seems remarkable that both Choi and Wan stayed largely clear of overtly political themes at the pavilion, focusing more closely on the complexities of Korean identity.

But perhaps it’s unfair to expect artists to always take an overtly political stance.

Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, who represents Iraq this year with works developed on the front line with the Iraqi troops in Mosul, notes that artists have always taken diverse stances in moments of political conflict.

“A couple of years ago I did an investigation on what a bunch of famous artists were doing in 1943, midway through WWII,” he said. “One will find all kinds of positions, from engagement to disengagement, from victim to witness, from hero to villain… However, looking back, all attitudes have something that makes them historically fascinating. How can one not admire (Irish author Samuel Beckett) for joining the resistance in occupied France? How could one criticize Matisse for turning his back on war – this human madness – and focus his energy on the cut-outs series he was then starting? All adopted or were imposed different roles, there is not one model.”

"Tremble Tremble" (2017) by Jesse Jones

Jesse Jones aligned more closely with the Beckett model, seeing the Biennale as a chance to speak out against the state of women’s rights in her native Ireland, focusing on access to abortion, which is still largely illegal. Her exhibition, “Tremble Tremble,” reclaims the witch as a feminist archetype in a powerful statement about self-determination.

“The feminist politics of the work feel very timely in Ireland, and I really hoped to make complex ideas around body autonomy and the self-determination of women accessible, and create an experience for people that would allow a way to feel the politics of the body rather than represent a story,” she explained.

“Politics is an inescapable part of how we live our lives and what freedoms we have, and how we are with each other in the world. It is connected to the most intimate parts of our lives.”

"Faust" (2017) by Anne Imhof

However, in the end, the top prize went to a work that straddled the lines between the overtly political and the benign: Germany took home the Golden Lion for artist and choreographer Anne Imhof’s “Faust.”

Barking guard dogs meet you at a wire fence at the entrance of the pavilion. Inside, you walk along a raised glass floor, under which chains, knives, paints, and lighter fluid are placed. Dead-eyed performers dressed all in black move like zombies through the room. Some crouch into the exposed space underfoot, where they squirm and light fires. There is a sense of helplessness. Critics have detected S&M and totalitarian undertones. (Fittingly, it was held in a building the Nazis redesigned in 1938.)

“My work stands for the grace of thoughts, for liberty, for the right to be different, for gender nonconformity, and the pride of being a woman in this world,” Imhof said in her acceptance speech, according to the Associated Press. “The piece we developed for the German pavilion makes transparent the past but it speaks to the future.”

Judging from the popularity of the piece, which had a permanent queue both during the preview and the public performances, Imhof has tapped something that resonates internationally. Whether her victory is taken as an act of national pride or dissidence, remains up for discussion.

The Venice Biennale runs through Nov. 26, 2017.

CNN’s Allyssia Alleyne contributed to this report.