Venetian Snares (1)

Opening week at the Venice biennale is already drifting into the mists of time, so before it disappears completely, I’d better write the long planned article about some of the highlights of the pavillions, with a particular focus on the ex-Yugoslav republics.

One of the key cultural events of this year’s biennale, was the appearance of Kosovo as an independent republic, for the first time. Curated by Katrin Rhomberg, this was a one-piece show by the young artist Petrit Halilaj, in the Arsenale. Halilaj’s career has been on a steady upward curve for the last three or four years; based in Berlin, the artist has already extensively exhibited in Germany, and has solo shows planned for the next twelve months in Brussels, Kassel, and the National Gallery of Kosovo in Priština. It was clear to see that the official opening was genuinely emotional, a real visceral feeling amidst all the surface glitter of Venice, for the Kosovar delegation and their guests.

Halilaj’s installation also functions as an atavistic exclamation mark. His piece I’m hungry to keep you close…is initially a puzzling and claustrophobic experience. Tons of earth from Kosovo, mixed in with branches and twigs, form a little ecosystem in a small space, mounted ponderously on iron legs.

The mass of earth is formed in the shape of something akin to a 1970s-imagined spaceship; inside, the viewer walks slowly through a hollowed out core of musty, all-consuming, enveloping earth. Tons of material were transported from near to Halilaj’s home in Kosovo to Venice, to make the installation. As such, we are invited to think about travel, border-crossing, memory, and the ‘scripts’ of nationality and locality that are unwittingly coded into us, as part of our earliest experiences. The installation also provides a very deft metaphor for the experience of exile and life as an itinerant artist; Halilaj shuttles between two or three places regularly, in different countries, for family and career reasons. Overall this is a subtle and engaging piece of work, inviting the viewer to look again, repeatedly.

If Halilaj’s work was one of the major success stories of the Biennale from the South-Eastern European region, then Kata Mijatović’s Arhiv Snova (Archive of Dreams) project was certainly one of the more high profile. On the day I arrived in Venice, the artist was rowed down the Grand Canal in a white gondola, sleeping. By the time of the opening of the pavillion that evening, the white gondola had been laid out in the open air, a stroke already rowed in the  development of an avowedly relational show. Curator Branko Franchesci had a very tricky space to deal with – a poky, dimly lit corridor and a fairly small room where it was difficult to show the work effectively. The interactive content was the most interesting perhaps, with over 700 people having contributed their memories to date; those interested can keep up to date via the facebook page. What will be done with the information in the future, and how it is used, remains to be seen.

The BiH pavillion  in S. Samuele was nearby to two other regional pavillions- Montenegro and Slovenia.  For Montenegro, Irena Lagator Pejović’s Image Think exhibition showed four separate, rather beautiful minimalist sculptures and drawings, that animated a claustrophobic, tight space. This was particularly the case in the two tetrahedrons made from softly lit gold thread in a darkened space, one of the most striking memories of opening week- a piece called Further Than Beyond.

Part Two, featuring Serbia, Macedonia, and the best of the rest (France, Poland, Romania) will be posted later.

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