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The Nordic Pavilion (detail). Photo: Ferruzzi/National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design

The Baltic and Nordic Exhibitions at the 56th Venice Art Biennale 0

Agnese Čivle

What will the Baltic and Nordic countries be showing at the 56th Venice Art Biennale, and why? To the best of its ability, contacted the curators of the national exhibitions from these countries to find out some things: how did they chose the artists to present this year; what is the concept behind their exhibit; and last but not least – what is the main message they want to send, and why have they chosen to present it at this point in time.

Unfortunately, the Danish exhibit is still shrouded in mystery – both the exhibit's organizers and the internet are mum. All that's known is that in the main exhibition, Denmark will be represented by Danh Vo, the internationally renown Vietnamese-born Danish artist who already participated in the central exhibition of the 55th Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace.

The plans of the other Nordic countries for the Biennale are clear. Having left aside in 2011 the tactic of presenting one unified exhibit for Norway, Sweden and Finland, this year it is Norway's rotational turn at exclusively organizing the Nordic Pavilion. Norway will be showing a sound installation by the American-born artist Camille Norment.

Sweden will be represented at the Biennale with a solo exhibition by Swedish artist Lina Selander in the Arsenale, while the Finnish artistic duo IC-98 will be transforming the reconstructed Finnish Pavilion (the Alvar Aalto-designed structure was damaged by a falling tree during the 2011 Biennale) into a space that makes one ponder a world that, although devoid of humans, still bears the scars of humanity's actions upon the ecosystem.

As in the 2013 Venice Biennale – in which Estonia created a cosmopolitan conversation by putting Polish-born curator Adam Budak and Tallinn-based Hungarian artist Dénes Farkas in charge – Estonia will again be using the services of a non-Estonian, namely, the Italian Eugenio Viola, curator of Naples' MADRE Museum of Contemporary Art.

Two years ago, Lithuania's exhibition consisted of a group show featuring artists from both Lithuania and Cyprus; this year it is in the hands of two Lithuanians – curator Vytautas Michelkevičius and artist Dainius Liškevičius. Notably, Latvia's neighbors to the north and south are both referencing in their exhibits the period of time when the countries were under Soviet rule – Estonia speaks about the discrimination faced by the director of a collective farm due to his sexual orientation, while Lithuania takes a look at the relationship between the artist and the totalitarian regime, including cultural isolation and the search for Western culture in Soviet Lithuania. The installation created by Latvia's artists – the peculiar 'microcosm' that men create in their garage workshops – also touches upon a phenomenon of the soviet era, garage cooperatives.

- Museum -

Palazzo Zenobio, Fondamenta Soccorso, Dorsoduro 2596, 30123 Venezia
May 9 – November 22, 2015

Artist: Dainius Liškevičius
Curator/Commissionaire: Dr. Vytautas Michelkevičius

Museum, installation view from first show in National Gallery of Art in Lithuania (former Museum of Revolution), 2012. Photo: Arturas Valiauga © courtesy of the artist

The following information was given by Dr. Vytautas Michelkevičius, Curator and Commissionaire of the Lithuanian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2015

The Essence

“Museum” is an ongoing artistic research project in which Dainius Liškevičius interprets, with subtle wit, fairly recent collective Soviet Lithuanian history and recreates it from the individual perspective of a fictional artist, but inserting autobiographic elements as well. Through its atmosphere, which is saturated with everyday objects, “Museum” also confronts the viewer with the thorny issues of the artist’s relationship with a totalitarian regime, cultural isolation, and the search for Western values both in Soviet Lithuania and the entire Soviet Union.

Dainius Liškevičius has created works dedicated to three dissident revolutionaries. These and other works have been incorporated within a larger piece comprised of fragments of the Soviet era (books, objects, etc.) and contemporary artifacts. 

Within a dense installation (a cabinet of curiosities) created using the language of contemporary art, the viewer is immersed in events of controversial political protest that were initiated in occupied Lithuania and Leningrad by three ambiguous revolutionary figures during the 1960s–80s. Dainius Liškevičius rewrites the history of Lithuanian art by proposing that these events be interpreted as cases of underground art, political performance, and art destruction that were prohibited in those times and thus did not exist.

The figure of the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre walking across the sands of the Baltic dunes in 1965 recurs in various spots, symbolizing a flash of freedom in a restrictive period. The installationMuseum” excites collective and personal memories from a bygone, yet still recent, epoch.

Dainius Liškevičius. A work by an unknown artist. Object, 1970–1980?, Photo: Arturas Valiauga, © courtesy of the artist

The Main Message and Its Importance in Today’s Context

There are different layers of messages that we want to convey through different roles: as commissioners, as curators, as artist, as representatives of Lithuania. Artist Dainius Liškevičius presents a very specific case study, but it is not only relevant in exploring the depths of the Soviet totalitarian regime. It is also a possible model for dealing with present-day hegemonic powers, and their impact on the public discourse and the freedom of the artist. We can also interpret “Museum” as a new kind of patriotism that rethinks the new democracies’ national myths and their attempts to create legitimacy for a contemporary nation-state. The presentation of “Museum” as a national pavilion is a transgressive act that turns it into an institution with greater authority than museums normally have.

To my mind, the project “Museum” is very relevant to be shown at the national pavilion of a young democracy like Lithuania, which just recently celebrated its 25th anniversary of restoration of independence from the USSR. I think that young countries and the art that they produce within the Biennale context is still interesting because of its political and social stance, whereas many 'older' pavilions expose more established or market-orientated artists. Dainius Liškevičius’ project is not a typical political activism project because it has been made with very subtle wit and irony, and it has a very strong aesthetic layer that invites the viewer and only then confronts him/her with its political content and the issues of artistic freedom and freedom of speech – not only in the former USSR, but today as well.

Dainius Liškevičius is an artist who is still to be discovered internationally; he's made a great collection of very different works that represent the radical socio-political changes that have taken place in Lithuania since the early 1990s.

Dainius Liškevičius. A cross. The object is built out of seven Soviet-period rolls of Svema film (sensitivity ranging from 32, 64, 65, 130 to 250 ASA) left over from the performance in memory of Romas Kalanta, 2010. Photo: Arturas Valiauga, © Courtesy of the Artist

The Principles Involved in Selecting the Artist

The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, together with the Council of Culture, always makes an open call for participation in the Venice Biennale. As a curator, I proposed to our team, the Nida Art Colony of the Vilnius Academy of Arts, that we invite the artist Dainius Liškevičius and his project “Museum” to take part in the competition – and our proposal was selected.

- Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman’s Tale -

Palazzo Malipiero, Campo San Samuele, San Marco 3199 Venezia
May 9 – November 31, 2015

Artist: Jaanus Samma
Commissioner: Maria Arusoo
Curator: Eugenio Viola

Haying, 1963 / 2015. Found photo, pigment print. Copyright of the original photo: Pavel Kuznetsov, Estonian Film Archives. Courtesy: Jaanus Samma

The Essence

“Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman's Tale” is a fragmentally fictive opera that portrays the life of Juhan Ojaste (1921–1990), a Soviet Estonian collective farm chairman, war hero, and 'family man'. In 1964 he was arrested and then expelled from the Communist Party due to his involvement in homosexual acts. A degrading trial was followed by a sentence of one and a half year of hard labor. Following the loss of his social status, as well as his dignity, family and job, Ojaste was forced to move to a different town and he could hold only menial positions. In the end, he was murdered by an alleged Russian male prostitute, just a year before Estonia regained independence and homosexuality was decriminalized.

The exhibition brings together archival materials from Soviet Estonia with the elegant aesthetics of opera.

The following information was given by Eugenio Viola, the curator of the Estonian Pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennale

The project is displayed in the form of a multimedia installation, suspended between different instances and diegetic levels: the real and the fictive, the archive and the opera, life and the theatrical transfiguration of it. Hybridizing these different sources, Samma created a series of micro-stories – tranches de vie – with an overpoweringly alienating atmosphere. They are immersive but morbid, and the documentary approach gives way to the voyeuristic demands of its representation and mise-en-scène. The viewer will inevitably become an intruder by proxy.

Chairman, 1954 / 2015. Found photo, pigment print. Copyright of the original photo: The National Archives of Estonia. Courtesy: Jaanus Samma

The Main Message and Its Importance in Today’s Context

Obviously, I can’t speak from an Estonian point of view because I am Italian, but I truly think that the message connected with “Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman’s Tale” is universal, and it is for this reason especially that it is an extremely interesting subject. It starts form a micro-historical perspective, recuperating a hidden private story of homo-discrimination during Soviet Estonia, but at the same time, it aims to reflect on the intolerable excesses of social, political, cultural, religious, and gender violence that afflict, by extension, society as a whole – and which continues to the present day. For this reason, the title recalls computerese – in order to underline this link with the present. It is necessary to face these kinds of issues at this particular moment in time because we are witnessing an uncertain present – a rekindling of old and new particularities, and the insurgency of new forms of religious and sectarian fundamentalism. Art is always on the side of co-existence.

The Principles Involved in Selecting the Artist

Basically, Jaanus Samma and I applied to the open call for the Estonian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Following application guidelines we sent a detailed proposal, and an international jury selected our project.

- Armpit -

Pavilion at Arsenale
May 9 – November 22, 2015

Artists: Katrīna Neiburga, Andris Eglītis
Commissioner: Solvita Krese (Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art)
Curator: Kaspars Vanags

Photo: Andrejs Strokins

The installation is a sculpturally constructed system combined with a video story that conjures up the peculiar 'microcosm' that exists in men's garage workshops. It is based on Katrīna Neiburga's narrative on the phenomenon of garage workshops – for hours (or even days) on end, some men disappear into their 'lairs' to do all sorts of mysterious things that have a meaning and point known only to them: fixing old mechanical things, making fishing floats, whittling wooden figures... Andris Eglītis, creator of the installation, will build the large-scale wooden structure which will give the viewer a physical experience/journey into this infantilized environment. The massive wooden structure will be supplemented with Katrīna Neiburga's video narrative giving an intimate look inside the worlds that these men have created and into which they gladly immerse themselves.

- Hours, Years, Aeons -

Alvar Aalto Pavilion of Finland, Giardini di Castello
May 9 – November 22, 2015

Artists: IC-98
Commissioner: Raija Koli
Curator: Taru Elfving

IC-98. A View from the Other Side, 2011. HD animation, 70'00, stereo sound. Written, directed and drawn by IC-98, animated by Markus Lepistö, music by Markku Hietaharju, improvised on the grand organ of Turku Cathedral

The following information is from Taru Elfving, curator of the Finnish Pavilion for the 2015 Venice Biennale

The Essence

The artists of IC-98 are known for their animations and installations creating metaphorically charged realms of ambiguous coordinates. These landscapes are shaped by interlaced forces of nature and technology, navigation and exploitation, climate and migration. In Venice, the viewer will be invited to enter this world.

The scene for IC-98’s new mixed media installation is set by the pavilion, as designed by Alvar Aalto and built in 1956. As a historical document, it tells the tale of the nation and its growth: the welfare state and its arts scene owe their existence to the ‘green gold’ of Finland’s vast primeval forests. Today the legacy of the forest industry consists of vigorously managed fields of trees – not that different from a garden. 

IC-98 transform the Pavilion into a chamber that guides viewers into the Giardini on another plane of temporality: deep time begins to resonate through fleeting cycles of life, and space appears as infinite dark matter. The garden as a microcosm of knowledge and colonial power over the world of cultural diversity, as well as biodiversity, now appears as a realm governed by neither rational modern man nor deterministic linear time.

IC-98. A View from the Other Side, 2011. HD animation, 70'00, stereo sound. Written, directed and drawn by IC-98, animated by Markus Lepistö, music by Markku Hietaharju, improvised on the grand organ of Turku Cathedral 

The Main Message and Its Importance in Today’s Context

The new work by IC-98, “Hours, Years, Aeons”, encapsulates the artists’ long-term critical investigations – from the boardrooms of power and the bounds of public space to ecological frontiers – into an epic new work within which matter and myth merge in the face of today’s seismic shifts. They aim to show us a world without human beings, but where the long-term effects of humanity are still present, echoing what may be the end results of the Anthropocene. Stepping onto the threshold of this distant future in the Giardini also suggests the possibility, or even the necessity, of thinking about other futures in the present.

IC-98. Arkhipelagos (Navigating the Tides of Time), 2013. 3-channel HD animation, 20'00, silent. Written, directed and drawn by IC-98, animated by Markus Lepistö

The Principles Involved in Selecting the Artists

The artist duo IC-98 has an extensive catalog of ambitious projects to date, as well as a committed critical practice engaged with internationally topical debates. The philosophical and political themes running through the works of IC-98 profoundly resonate against the rich context of Venice. The curatorial aim has been to offer the artists a unique opportunity to produce a new, site-specific work for the Biennale.

- Excavation of the Image: Imprint, Shadow, Spectre, Thought -

Pavilion at Arsenale
May 9 – November 31, 2015

Artist: Lina Selander
Curator: Lena Essling
Commissioner: Ann-Sofi Noring

Lina Selander. The Offspring Resembles the Parent, 2015. © Lina Selander. HD video, colour, mute and sound 12:00min. With Oscar Mangione

Since the Nordic Pavilion has been completely given over to Norway this year, Sweden will be represented at the 56th Venice Art Biennale with a solo show by Swedish artist Lina Selander (1973) at the Arsenale. In her film and installation work, Selander always studies the situational coincidences that have historically marked the demise of an existing system, thereby giving room for the start of something new. At the core of her work are studies and factual archives that usually form a dialog with some other work of film, art or literature. Selander's works give one the ability to go on a journey of intuitive associations and meanings.

As Selander stated in an interview with Kunstkritikk in the summer of 2014, the Biennale exhibition will feature several installations created in 2014 and slightly earlier, as well as a film made in cooperation with Oscar Mangione, editor of the magazine Geist. The film will touch upon two of Selander's latest works, “Model of Continuation” (2013)  and “Silphium” (2014)

- Rapture -

Nordic Pavilion, Giardini di Castello
May 9 - November 31, 2015

Artist: Camille Norment
Commissioner: Office for Contemporary Art Norway (OCA)
Curator: Katya Garcia-Anton, Director, OCA, in collaboration with Antonio Cataldo, Senior Programmer, OCA

Photo: OCA/Magne Risnes

This year the Nordic pavilion has been completely given over to Norway, and on May 6 it will be officially opened by Norway's Queen Sonja.

The pavilion's exhibit for the 56th Venice Art Biennale will feature a site-specific sculpture and sound installation by Camille Norment, an Oslo-based American artist. A musical piece to be played on the glass harmonica has been specially composed for the exhibit. This 18th-century instrument is composed of a series of glass bowls or goblets graduated in size upon a metal axis, which produce musical tones when turned by a treadle. The bowls lay above a trough of water that moistens their edges. Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing the mechanical version of the instrument, and at the end of the 18th century it had become a popular instrument played by the likes of Mozart; Paganini called it “the organ of the angels”. The instrument was banned for quite a while because people believed that the glass harmonica could not only heal people, but that it could also bring people to a state of ecstasy, and even arouse women in a sexual manner. Some thought that the sounds could scare animals, induce premature labor, and not only bring on melancholy, but also make one insane.

Photo: OCA/Magne Risnes

In Venice, Norment will study what sort of reactions this music will elicit in her specially made multi-sensory space – what sort of relationships between the sound and the body will these sculptural and architectonic stimuli create.

- Danh Vo -

Pavilion at Giardini

Commissioner: The Danish Arts Foundation Committee for Visual Arts Project Funding: Gitte Ørskou (chair), Claus Andersen, Bodil Nielsen, Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, Jacob Tækker
Curator: Marianne Torp and Tine Vindfeld

Danh Vo, We the People. Photo: via Contemporary Art Daily.

Danh Vo will represent Denmark and he will also be curating an exhibition at Venice's Punta della Dogana. The Danish artist produced limited edition artisanally produced bottles of tequila.