Welcome to Iraq and Otherwise Occupied
Iraq and Palestine at the 2013 Venice Biennale
Two Arabic speaking nations, with separate trajectories of contemporary art production, and whose names conjure memories of international interference, occupation and conflict, took up residence at the 55th Venice Biennale. Welcome to Iraq, and Otherwise Occupied, the titles of the Iraq and Palestinian exhibitions respectively, both play with linguistics, in a bid to subvert stereotypes or associations with these locations. The Iraq pavilion's invitation-as-exhibition-title works to upend preconceptions of the country, with the exhibition showing the work of 11 Iraqi contemporary artists in a Venetian building in Ca' Dandolo, which had not been previously used for the biennale. Otherwise Occupied presents two artists, born in Palestine within the 1948 borders, and positions itself as an intervention into the Venice Biennale, neither an official or unofficial 'pavilion' but an opportunity to ask questions on the nature of categories and the inevitable political implications categories have when considering Palestine, the nationhood of 'imagined communities'.
Curated by Jonathan Watkins, Director of Birmingham's Ikon Gallery in the UK, Welcome to Iraq 'insinuate[s Iraq] into the space', a slightly odd choice of words that calls to mind a spy or infiltrator. Nonetheless, it is set up as an environment to regard contemporary Iraqi art and culture, whilst sipping on black tea, reclining in a comfortable chair and reading about the country via a selection of books on politics and culture in various languages. Provided texts (most of which were penned by western writers) include: Barry Unsworth's Land of Marvels, Kanan Makiya's The Monument: Art and vulgarity in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Caecilia Pieri's Baghdad Arts Deco: Architectural Brickwork 1920-1950.
In amongst the side and coffee tables leaden with books, and tapestries, rugs and other soft furnishings, were the works of these 11 artists, comprising drawings, video, painting and sculpture. Abdul Raheem Yassir's cartoons adorned the entrance hall of the space, and delighted in their light-hearted and cunning wit, taking to task the Iraqi police force, the Iraq war and its aftermath, and everyday life. The collective WAMI (Yaseen Wami and Hashim Taeeh) presented Untitled (2013), an installation of cardboard replicas of furniture, paintings, books and sculpture. Fitting out this room entirely with cardboard constructions, with details such as slippers, books and a vase with sticks for flowers faithfully imitated, it was a critique of the elaborate adornment of Iraqi homes, and similarly the grand Venetian building in which it was situated. The use of found and cheap materials stands in sharp contradiction to the aspirational, gilded rooms pursued in Iraq, even as the country as a whole faces shortages and economic decline.
Yet, despite the curatorial invitation to be immersed in Iraq; via certain selected cultural markers that included art works, texts and refreshments, in reality the space itself, in all its Venetian glory, dominated the exhibition. Contrary to the title, one was in no doubt that they were in Venice. Here, the curator missed an opportunity to ask what it really means to 'insinuate' Iraq into Venice, and to explain why a nation as a whole needs to be represented rather than the voices of some of its exemplary artists.
This was the third time Palestine has had a representation of sorts at the Venice Biennale (firstly in 1948 and secondly in 2009), despite Palestinian artists having been represented across national pavilions over the years. Otherwise Occupied was curated by the American University in Cairo's Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bruce W. Ferguson and the director of the Palestine Art Court - Al Hoash in Jerusalem, Rawan Sharaf. On the ground floor of the Palazzo Ca' Giustinian Recanti, in the state art school in Venice, are presented a pile of cardboard boxes, an invitation to viewers from Bashir Makhoul in Il giardino occupato (2013), and a screening room for Aissa Deebi's The Trial (2013). The title is a reference to Kafka's eponymous, incomplete novel, and mirrors the fictional fate of its protagonist, Joseph K. Through interrupted language and behaviour, an absurd and fatalistic pattern emerges in Deebi's The Trial that describes the real life prosecution of Daoud Turki, a Palestinian poet and activist who, in 1973, was tried for treason at Haifa District Court. Notwithstanding, these literary affinities, and compelling subject matter, the video feels clunky and unfinished. The slightly clumsy installation and frequent mistranslations or misspellings in the subtitles added to this sense. On the one hand these 'errors' sought to further compound the feeling of the absurd and injustice of the video, but on the other they came across as exhibition oversights, and a sense of rushed production.
Participation and social interaction is utilised by both exhibitions to engender a closer proximity to the ideas underpinning the works and the curatorial framing of both exhibitions. In Otherwise Occupied, Bashir Makhoul's Il giardino occupato overtook the gardens leading off from the space with cardboard boxes and structures that the artist constantly added to throughout the course of the exhibition. Many of the boxes had cut-out images, shapes, and statements that ranged from the mundane to the profound. These were contributed by the artist and by visitors to the pavilion. One particularly poignant juxtaposition occurred when a box with the inscription 'End Apartheid' (in English) sat atop one that read, in Hebrew 'Forgive us'. Palestine's do-it-yourself boxes asked the viewer to reposition themselves in regards to the highly politicised, sensitive and for these reasons contentious territory of settlements and the constantly shifting, and receding Palestinian borders.
On the other hand, Iraq's effort to create a social space for experiences, exchange and conversation was intended to spill over into the works, and further to an understanding of the greater socio-political climate. A charming gentleman offered me tea and biscuits upon arrival at the Iraq Pavilion, and amidst the hectic pace of my Venice Biennale experience, this simple gesture of generosity and an invitation to spend some time, and contemplate the work was not lost upon me. And yet, given the inevitable time restraints upon most visitors to the Biennale it was somewhat an unrealistic expectation to create a true social space within this context.
Indeed, one could argue that this context should have been an opportunity to learn about Iraq through the lens of the artists, not a host of textbooks written about culture and traditions from expatriates. Despite the warm hospitality, unfortunately the work became subsumed by the surroundings. In a similar way, this correlated with the awkwardness of Deebi's video work, which was counterbalanced by the open space of Makhoul's occupied garden. In both instances, there was an effort to subvert certain expectations and viewing experiences, by opening up spaces for interaction and participation. While Otherwise Occupied achieved this through the work of its artists, in Welcome to Iraq there was an irreconcilable juncture between a curatorial approach steeped in notions of relational aesthetics and work that didn't necessarily call for audience participation.
 Press Release for The Iraq Pavilion (http://www.theiraqpavilion.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Pavilion-of-Iraq-at-the-55th-International-Art-Exhibition-la-Biennale-di-Venezia.pdf)