The Controversy

The Egyptian Pavilion and the Venice Biennale

Drawings by William Powhida; essay by Paddy Johnson 

This paired essay and drawing story examines controversies at the Venice Biennale and the Egyptian Pavilion that highlight issues of inaccurate representation, lack of transparency, and the undermining of suffering.

 

When art is co-opted for self-serving purposes, somebody always suffers. I have a friend whose breakup paintings were taken from storage by his ex-girlfriend and shown at a gallery run by a close friend. The show launched without his knowledge, and the press release depicted him as a pathetic fool. While the show led to numerous opportunities for this artist, many sneered at his pain, and he could enjoy none of his success. It sucked.

 

That’s pretty bad, and the bigger the venue, the worse the moral offenses. Take the Venice Biennale, an event that attracts the world’s best curators and artists and is so large it’s almost impossible to fathom. Officially, the 58th Biennale di Venezia includes its marquee exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff; 89 separate shows launched by countries from all over the world; and 21 collateral events; not to mention all the unofficial art happenings launched during this time. The flagship exhibition spans two buildings (the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion), with a combined square footage of nearly 50,000 feet. For reference, that’s roughly the size of a football field. Approximately 500,000 visitors attend each iteration.

 

Enter the opportunists. Perhaps due to the growing corruption and upheaval around the world, the scale of missteps by this year’s worst offenders reached spectacle level—sometimes by design, as in the case with conceptual artist Christoph Büchel (Icelandic/Swiss), and sometimes just through idiocy, as in the case with the Egyptian Pavilion. In each case, though, the willingness of artists and individuals to warp art to fit their agenda inflicts suffering on those exploited by perpetuating ignorance through simplistic and inaccurate representation.

 

Christoph Büchel exemplifies this with his much-maligned Barca Nostra (Our Boat), a re-presented fishing boat that sunk in 2015 while carrying between 700 and 1,100 refugees from a port in Libya. It was considered one of the largest human tragedies to result from the migrant crisis at that time; of the ship’s passengers, only 28 survived. “Every time we saw a shoe or a bag, any sign of life, we thought we might have found a survivor,” a rescue operator told the Guardian. “But every time we were disappointed. We didn’t find a single survivor—not one.”

 

Stories like this show up on the first page of Google results, but it’s up to viewers to fish them out. Installed at a midpoint outside the Arsenale show, a giant hole in the ship’s port faces a coffee and snack bar, outdoor seating, and a cluster of toilets. As Büchel tells it via press release, Barca Nostra is part of a “larger continuing odyssey … a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration.” Barca Nostra refers to not just the boat, but all the context surrounding the work, including the heavy administrative lifting it took to move the piece from its location in Augusta. The act of securing the boat for the project helped resolve a long dispute over the ship’s ownership. (It now belongs to the Commune of Augusta, which will house the vessel in a “Garden of Memory.”)

 

The language Büchel uses to describe the piece isn’t that different from his 2018 art stunt of organizing tours of the U.S. border wall prototypes. Büchel hoped to have the prototypes declared art. “The eight border wall prototypes have significant cultural value and are historical Land Art,” the release boldly proclaimed. Büchel himself never led the tours, though, and organized from a distance—the tour bus left from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, without the museum’s permission or prior knowledge. Unlike the sustained work of activists fighting to preserve cultural legacies, the tours were discontinued soon after the press cycle ended.

 

When I reached out with a series of questions about Barca Nostra’s cost to Andrea Schwan, a press representative for Büchel’s gallery, Hauser & Wirth, she warned me. “Please be very careful about using other press coverage as a source for facts,” she explained. “There have been scores of articles to date, and many included factual errors, incomplete information, and even deliberate misinformation. Of course, all media coverage is an anticipated element of the project and an essential and revealing component of the artwork itself.”

 

Perhaps because all these errors were part of the installation, the articles containing incorrect information were never shared. The most egregious appeared in a viral review that cited the cost of Barca Nostra as €33 million. That number referred to the cost of retrieving the ship, housing it, and identifying the dead, not Büchel’s art. (Although the administration costs for the work are unknown, Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of the art-shipping logistics company Atelier 4, ballparked $75,000 for shipment of the piece.) Perhaps, though, those kinds of inaccuracies are to be expected when Büchel was claiming all context surrounding the boat for himself. When I finally connected to Büchel’s studio, I was told everything in our email correspondence needed to be off the record.

 

Büchel’s intentions for Barca Nostra are probably less self-serving than those of his other works—a permanent home for the ship has come out of it. But these shades are hardly worth distinguishing in a piece that treats media spectacle with as much reverence as it does memorializing the dead. Artists who avoid correcting the public record for art undo any good their work is supposed to serve, but that’s not even the biggest issue here. The fact is, monuments are not made by delivering an object at the foot of a pier, calling it art, and crossing your fingers. That’s just white privilege—a reality belied by the fact that while the boat and all 700 migrants remain nameless, Büchel’s name is always in plain sight.

 

That vanity obscures the history it intends to reveal. In the case of Barca Nostra, Italy’s new “closed ports” policy, instituted in 2018; a civil war in Libya funded by varying interests; and growing instability elsewhere in the region don’t get so much as a mention.

 

In the case of the Egyptian Pavilion, self-interest leads to a vision of art so compromised that the struggles of citizens have no voice whatsoever.

 

When reporting a piece on the pavilion for the Observer earlier this year, every source I spoke with told me the government oversaw the artist selection process and messaging—even government officials told me this. This year’s exhibition transforming the pavilion into a pharaonic tomb made that obvious, through what critic Hrag Vartanian refers to as “typical autocrat’s aesthetic.” By this, he means a poorly manufactured sleek aesthetic revealing the inefficiency of bureaucracies that prevail in the Persian Gulf. Multiple sources described the pavilion as the kind of mechanized foam maquette seen at a trade show, not an art exhibition. Images circulating in the press often still show the CGI renderings of the pavilion rather than the actual objects, largely because the fabrication is so flawed.

 

Assembled by Islam Abdullah, Ahmed Chiha, and Ahmed Abdel Karim and curated by Chiha, the tomb, Khnum Across Times Witness, divides into two chambers. In one, a series of sphinxes with motorized monitors for heads show two sides of a coin: people doing good in the world, and people doing bad. In the second, a sphinx demands viewers choose before they exit: death and destruction, or rainbows and puppy dogs.

 

The simplicity of the artist’s message has little to do with the more complex Egyptian reality. To cite an example connecting to the Biennale, Egypt supports one of two warring governments in Libya, thus contributing to the human tragedy that inspired Büchel’s work. That’s to say nothing of Egypt’s authoritarian government, which regularly beats and tortures those who exercise free speech.

 

But the artistic vision meets the goals of the government, which regularly conflates propaganda with art. Thus, in the eyes of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, an international art competition is a perfect venue to promote the country’s tourism industry, which is hemorrhaging millions due to civil unrest. Tourism marketing and art aren’t even remotely related, but since the Arab Spring uprising in 2010, corruption and the desire to prophesize the message of peace has only increased.

 

Shady El Noshokaty, who curated the widely acclaimed 2011 pavilion of the late new media artist Ahmed Basiony, experienced this firsthand. Complaining that the ministry exploited the artist’s death as a means of promotion for the revolution, El Noshokaty recounted a history of bureaucrat misdeeds. Ashraf Reda, the chairman of the Fine Arts Sector for the Ministry of Culture, removed Basiony’s name from the pavilion hours before it opened and delivered a new catalogue. He replaced the artist’s name and catalogue essay by El Noshokaty. At the end of the rewritten text, Reda added a picture of himself.

 

That kind of vanity serves no useful purpose, but the Basiony exhibition remains more complex than the usual good-evil narratives that have plagued Egypt since the early aughts. Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr described the 2003 Egyptian pavilion as split in two, with white doves on one side and black on the other. In 2015, Ahmed Abdel Fattah, Maher Dawoud, and Gamal El Kheshen presented an obstacle course made for rabbits that spelled out the word peace using the Latin alphabet and Arabic script. iPads allowed viewers to populate this installation with either flowers and bunnies or poisonous spiders and flames.

 

While Nasr saw the government’s desire to increase tourism as the main reason Egypt repeatedly returned to the theme of peace, it wasn’t the only factor. "They don’t see the value of showing contemporary art," he lamented. Nasr went on to complain about the government’s ignorance and reliance on an image of past-world dominance. According to the artist, President Anwar Sadat’s message of peace while serving as president from 1970 to 1981 may resonate with the people of Egypt to such an extent that the government still treasures it. (Opinion on his legacy is mixed. Before and after his assassination in 1981, many Egyptians believed the president sold out his country to American interests.)

 

Perhaps because the Egyptian government sees no value in contemporary art, it barely provides enough support to launch the shows. Artists learn of their selection only three to four months before the exhibition opens, and they receive somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000 for their work. (No one I spoke with could provide a more accurate estimate). After the show closes, they must gift the art back to the government as repayment for the loan. As a point of reference, the United States offers $250,000 and makes no such requirement.

 

What little support for artists there is only serves the interests of the Egyptian government.

 

There’s no attempt to disguise this, just as Büchel doesn’t bother to hide his craven interests. The mercenary me-first approach shamelessly exploits any expression of humanity for gain, while pretending to do the opposite. For all the transparency either party claims—be it a desire for peace, or an interest in giving the press all the material they might need—very little of it actually exists. What is the price of presenting a fake representation of Egypt’s peaceful activities or manufacturing spectacle out of the lost lives of enslaved migrants? We’ll never know, not just because the basic financial figures won’t be released, but because no one’s bothered to calculate the larger human cost.

 

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the forthcoming book Impractical Spaces and the founding editor of the contemporary art blog Art F City. With William Powhida, she hosts the podcast, Explain Me, which focuses on the intersection of art, money, and politics. She is a contributor to VICE, Observer and CNN. She teaches new media art and writing in New York, where she lives with her partner.

William Powhida is a G-E-N-I-U-S who makes fun of the art world to highlight the paradoxes and absurdities of economic and social value systems that keep the sphere of visual art afloat on a surging tide of inequality. His work relies on research and participation to diagram, list, perform and critique the forces that shape perceptions of value.

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