At the Biennale, the new merchants of Venice trade in soft power rather than spices

Taking part in the art extravaganza is a way for countries to prove their cultural credentials

VENICE, ITALY - MAY 09: Lorenzo Quinn’s Building Bridges by Halcyon Gallery during Venice Biennale 2019 on May 09, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Halcyon Art International)
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What brings you to Venice for the 2019 Biennale? For one German performance artist, it is simple. For several days, he will walk the streets in one of 19 different hats.

Last night it was a jaunty orange fez. Tonight it is an empty catering-size empty yoghurt pot, the handle serving as a chin-strap. If it is a statement, he chooses not to share the why or what.

Eccentrics aside – and there is no shortage of those – there are many reasons for participating in the world’s greatest art show, which attracts half a million visitors every year. According to the official guidebook, at least 40 countries are present at the 58th Biennale, which opened to the public earlier this month.

Just the As take you from Albania to Azerbaijan. China is here, representing 1.2 billion people, but so is Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island state in Micronesia with barely 100,000 citizens.

The alphabet of artistic origins includes India, Malta, Peru, San Marino (the fifth smallest country in the world) and Russia (the largest country in the world). Z is for Zimbabwe.

Throw in nearly 150 other exhibitions, artistic events and galleries and the streets of Venice are even more overwhelmed than normal. The crowds overflow the usual tourist haunts of St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace into the neighbouring Biennale enclaves of the Arsenale and Giardini.

FILE PHOTO: Tourists walk on a bridge as a gondolier rows his gondola near St.Marks Square in Venice, Italy, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo

The theme of this year’s event is “may you live in interesting times”, a saying generally claimed to be an ancient Chinese curse but in fact attributed to a 1930s British politician, Sir Austen Chamberlain.

Some might think it appropriate that the quote is as questionable as much of the art on display but in any case, it is a concept ignored by most of the artists taking part.

Mongolia combines the work of German musician Carsten Nicolai, who “intervenes with Mongolian throat singers to translate this ancient medium of oral expression into a contemporary art form”.

Georgia has chosen an installation that features tiled surfaces, sinks and flowing taps. Visitors soon took to referring to Rearviewmirror, Simulation is Simulation, is Simulation, is Simulation as "the bathroom showroom", only distinguished from the real thing by the inclusion of a video in which the artist Anna KE shuffles backwards around her studio, her rear end bared to the camera.

Such absurdities do make a telling point, though, about the direction of contemporary art, at least in such a crowded arena as the Biennale. Exposure here – literally, in the case of KE – depends pretty much like anything these days on social media.

To be successful at Venice 2019 means followers and gifs, and the art being created increasingly tends to reflect this. Much in the way modern chefs plate their dishes for appearance as much as taste, so modern artists seek fame through Instagram and Twitter.

The Lithuanian offering, Sun & Sea, replicates a beach with a dog and real sunbathers, who periodically burst into song, backed by frantic barking and which, probably inevitably, has won top prize at the Biennale. Judges of the Golden Lion award called it "experimental" in its "unexpected treatment of national representation" and a "critique of leisure".

The Philippine entry has glass floors that appear to reflect into infinity and are most popular with small children. Madagascar has debuted with I Have Forgotten the Night, or dozens of sheets of black tissue paper hanging from the ceiling, with the virtue, at least, of being inexpensive.

The same cannot be said of the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Buchel, who has brought along the rusting hull of a fishing boat that sank off the coast of Libya in April 2015, a tragedy in which about 800 migrants drowned and only 28 people survived. It was recovered at a cost of nearly $11 million and now sits in the shipyard where Venetian trading vessels of old were built and once generated much of the city’s wealth and power.

That the rusting hull is displayed on the quayside without obvious context (there are quite a lot of rusty old boats in Venice) has provoked outrage among art critics, who see it as a distasteful and insensitive exploitation of human suffering.

epa07551783 The arrival of the Icelandic Christoph Bucher artwork 'Barca Nostra', the fishing boat with 700 migrants on board which sank in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, in Venice, northern Italy, 06 May 2019. The boat will become an artistic installation within the 58th Biennale of Art that runs from 11 may to 24 November.  EPA/ANDREA MEROLA

And yet Barce Nostra (Our Boat), now repurposed as an "art installation", has not only been widely publicised and photographed in mainstream and social media but it might also have received the ultimate accolade. A mural, apparently by Banksy, of a distressed refugee child has appeared on a wall in the neighbouring Dorsoduro district. Even more reason to click and share.

All of which makes the UAE's effort rather brave, given that it requires more than an attention span of a few seconds. Nujoom Alghanem's installation Passage uses poetry and video on twin screens that reflect similar themes of struggle from both a real and fictional perspective. It is a work that needs time and contemplation, far removed from a quick hit on social media.

Taking part in the Biennale is an obvious way for many countries to promote their cultural credentials to an international audience. These new merchants of Venice trade in soft power rather than shipping and spices; in the case of the Gulf countries, defying perceptions that the region is only about oil and expensive cars.

Nujoom Alghanem, Passage (installation view), 2019. Courtesy National Pavilion UAE - La Biennale di Venezia. Photo credit: Barbara Zanon

The UAE has been an established participant at the Biennale for the past decade and Arab countries, particularly from the Gulf, are well represented in Venice this year. Bahrain is represented by no less than six artists.

Iraq is here too, although the artist, Serwan Baran, is based in Beirut. In the past, Iraq has shown recovered artefacts looted in the chaos after the American invasion. Even though Fatherland reflects the region's conflict, perhaps simply the fact that it is original and new represents progress.

Kazakhstan said it was coming for the first time, then cancelled, apparently in a reflection of the country’s current financial and political uncertainty. Algeria followed suit after the fall of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika two months ago, although, in a very Biennale-esque gesture, a group of Algerian artists have shown up with an alternative “guerrilla” pavilion.

Location is everything, of course, especially in a city bisected by water. China has made it – just – to the farthest edge of the Arsenale, but Iran is cast to the watery backstreets, compensating with a huge poster hung on the wall of a palazzo on the Grand Canal, visible to every passing gondola and vaporetto water taxi.

India took a raincheck on the last three Biennales but has returned to exhibit eight contemporary artists on the theme of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.

Zahrah Al Ghamdi's 'After Illusion' at the Saudi pavilion, comprising 52,000 leather creations. Misk Art Institute 

Also back is Saudi Arabia, after an 11-year absence. Its national pavilion features After Illusion, a work by Zahrah Al Ghamdi, with huge illuminated parchment screens awash with thousands of mysterious objects that could be seashells or seed pods, but in fact have been individually crafted from leather by the artist and her friends.

This gentle work is interesting because it speaks to more than just the outside world about Saudi’s burgeoning cultural scene, Sponsored by the country’s new ministry of culture, it is also a signal to ordinary Saudis back home that the reforms spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are sincere, and that artistic and cultural pursuits are considered worthy endeavours, as reflected in the burgeoning cinema and art industries on home turf.

These quieter messages will last longer that a few seconds on an Instagram feed, even if the temptation at the Venice Biennale is to stand out from the crowd by making as much noise as possible. Substance counts as much as style. Like our German friend with a yoghurt pot for a hat, what really makes the difference is that even without it, he still stands at more than 6ft 4in tall.