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Vincent Meessen, One.Two.Three., Three channels video, 2015, Courtesy the artist and Normal (5) Vincent Meessen, One.Two.Three. (video still) Three channel video, 2015, Courtesy the artist and Normal, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale

Many of the artists exhibiting at the 56th Venice Biennale were mining the past. Ric Bower takes in four examples: YARAT, Belgium, Estonia and The Gujral Foundation.

Okwui Enwezor'stitle for the grand exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale,All the World's Futures, might suggest that he has glimpsed some sense of unity, or as he puts it "...A constellation of parameters that circumscribe multiple ideas", from within the different perspectives he is curating. Seeking unity within diversity though, even if it is camouflaged within collective nouns, can present problems. Practitioners and curators can find themselves inextricably bound up within the structures they are critiquing. To negotiate the resultant impasse artist's interests have, by necessity, extended beyond engagement with a subject, against which they might have once attempted to formulate a creative statement. They are reaching instead, right back into the primordial background of human experience. To do this they draw upon an entirely different creative toolset. Notions ofindividual artist and of theexhibition as the space in which the artist presents what they have been rustling up in their studio become, not so much outmodedas just plain ineffective. With all this in mind I have picked four national presentations which, in their own ways, are exploring the power of historical narrative as an alternative fulcrum on which pivot their creative forays.

Jaanus Samma, Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman's Tale, Trial #1, 2015, pigment print, Estonian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale Jaanus Samma, Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman's Tale, Trial #1, 2015, pigment print, Estonian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale

Jaanus Samma, who is representing Estonia , collects stories from within Estonian gay subcultures; homosexuality was illegal under Soviet rule. The resultant project: Not Suitable for Work. A Chairman s Tale draws from the life of Juhan Ojaste (1921 1990), a war hero and family man, who was a chairman of a kolkhoz, (a collective farm), in Soviet Estonia. In 1964, Ojaste was arrested and expelled from the Communist Party due to his involvement in homosexual activity.

 Reimo V sa-Tangsoo Jaanus Samma, Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman's Tale, Chairman's Props, Estonian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, Photo: Reimo V sa-Tangsoo

A degrading trial was followed by time spent in a labour camp. With the loss of his social status, dignity, family and job, Ojaste was forced to relocate. He was murdered by a Russian male prostitute one year before Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union and homosexuality was decriminalised. Eugenio Viola, the Italian curator of this impressively detailed presentation, reminds us that,Art is always for the co-existence of difference . This celebration of difference is unveiled in the Estonian presentation through the use of the ready-to-hand, everyday processes of communication: storytelling, graph-making, role-playing and the museum-style exhibition of pertinent objects. In many senses what Samma has collected is straightforward; at no point is what the narrative has to offer smothered by artistic cleverness. The restraint he employs, in the construction of the various performative re-enactments projected within the space, demonstrates the confidence the artist and curator have in historical narrative as a creative tool.

Almagul Menlibayeva, Fire talks to me (still), 2015. 10-channel video installation, 17 minutes. Almagul Menlibayeva. Courtesy of the artist and Yarat Contemporary Art Centre. 56th Venice Biennale Almagul Menlibayeva, Fire talks to me (still), 2015. 10-channel video installation, 17 minutes. Almagul Menlibayeva. Courtesy of the artist and Yarat Contemporary Art Centre. 56th Venice Biennale

It is understandable why an ex-Soviet country, like Azerbaijan, experiences a strong desire to explore its history. Up until just over 20 years ago, when it declared independence from the Soviet Union, all renditions of the past were strictly controlled for the explicit purpose of maintaining a status quo in the politics and power structures then present. Even to suggest researching alternative historical narratives was potentially a politically transgressive act. The enthusiasm which the Kazakhstani artist Almagul Menlibayeva and Azeri artist Rashad Alakbarov, who are representing YARAT an Azeri not-for-profit art foundation, with a collateral presentation in Palazzo Barbaro entitled The Union of Fire and Water is palpable. The artists uncovered forgotten narratives, the first of which began in the late 15th century when the Venetian diplomat Giosafat Barbaro visited Azerbaijan to travel and write. Their locus of enquiry expanded, culminating in the story of Murtuza Mukhtarov, an early 20th century Azeri oil magnate, who built a Venetian Gothic-styled building in Baku for his wife. Interestingly Mukhtarov made a stand against the bullying and corruption of Josef Stalin as he rose to power in Soviet Russia; in the words of Menlibayeva:... Murtuza said no to theprison papa with his prison rules .

Almagul Menlibayeva at Palazzo Barbaro, Venice 2015. Ric Bower Almagul Menlibayeva at Palazzo Barbaro, Venice 2015. Ric Bower

One gets the sense that the process of research for the artists and for the curator, Suad Garayeva, was in itself, cathartic; their research however was, to a certain extent, restricted by ideas of national representation; it also remained separate from the making of the work.

Vincent Meessen, Location Photograph for Un-Deux-Trois, Kinshasa, 2-14, courtesy the artist and Normal, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale Vincent Meessen, Location Photograph for Un-Deux-Trois, Kinshasa, 2-14, courtesy the artist and Normal, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale

It is not necessarily just those nations that have spent the majority of the 20th century incarcerated within totalitarian systems that feel the need to question perceptions of their pasts. In the West, our docile bodies have been coerced into adopting their own socially acceptable narratives. The Belgium pavilion, curated by Katerina Gregos, seeks to provide a forum within which some of those narratives might be interrogated; in particular, Belgium's colonial relationship to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two Biennale paradigms are immediately brought into question just by the way the pavilion is organised. Firstly there is the myth of the artist as 'lonely genius': Vincent Meessen, upon being invited to represent Belgium in Venice, threw open the door for ten other artists to join him. Secondly, the idea of 'national representation' at the Venice Biennale itself: the artists in the resulting presentation, Personne et les Autres, hail from four different continents. What emerges from this project is a series of enmeshed conversations complex and subtle perspectives collected by a process of distillation. The measures, by which such projects might be appraised require some recalibration too. This is not an exhibition that sits passively on the wall awaiting the approval of the cognoscenti.

 Olive Martin Olive & Patrick [Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin], L'Echiquet (Checkered Chess), 2012, pieces and chessboard, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, photo: Olive Martin 

Patrick Bernier, who collaborates creatively with Olive Martin, described to me the reaction an experienced chess player had to playing Bernier and Martin's variant on traditional chess, L'Echiquet (chequered chess):

" Before playing he asked me what my chess rating was. I told him and then I explained to him the adjusted rules. We began to play rigorous chess. When the first capture occurred I explained that the captured piece was now a common, shared piece. He was so upset by this that he stood up and walked out."

 

Olive & Patrick [Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin], L'Echiquet (Checkered Chess), 2012, pieces and chessboard, (performance/installation detail, Patrick Bernier playing) Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale 

Bernier and Martin's work L'Echiquet functions to formalise that which is transgressive, in the broader sense. But the way it achieves this is by building its own set of shared narratives, by establishing new micro histories through the process of engaging with the game.

 

 wooden blocks, robotics, glass, canvas, stickers, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale James Beckett, Negative Space: A Scenario Generator for Clandestine Building in Africa, 2015, (installation view) Installation: wooden blocks, robotics, glass, canvas, stickers, Belgian Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale

 

The most appropriate response to such a complex presentation as the Belgian Pavilion is perhaps a conversation, and to this end, we will be publishing an extended conversation with Katerina Gregos, Artist s Club Coffre Fort, Maryam Jafri, James Beckett, Patrick Bernier and Olive Martinin the next print issue of CCQ.This is aconversation that started at Art Brussels, continued in Venice and will be concluded online before, finally, being committed to print.

 

Rashid Rana, My sight stands in the way of your memory,  2012-2015, (An installation comprising of two works), Anatomy Lessons I, 2012, 9 channel video on 9 monitors, (installation view), My East is your West, 56th Venice Biennale Rashid Rana, My sight stands in the way of your memory, 2012-2015, (An installation comprising of two works), Anatomy Lessons I, 2012, 9 channel video on 9 monitors, (installation view), My East is your West, 56th Venice Biennale

Certain histories are perhaps so overwhelming in their scale that they become unapproachable. India and Pakistan were divided in 1947 when Britain was forced to give up its south Asian empire. Up to a million people died in the mob violence that followed and 14 million people were displaced as Muslims fled to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs moved to India. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since then and hopes of lasting peace between them were severely damaged in 2008, after India s commercial capital, Mumbai, was attacked by militants from Pakistan. This is a formidable backdrop against which to stage a collateral event which, through creative practice, is at once unofficially representing the Indian sub-continent and attempting to find common ground between two simmering nuclear superpowers. And this is exactly what the Gujral Foundation has sought to do within the halls of the Palazzo Benzon with My East is your West.Shilpa Gupta originates from India and Rashid Rana is from Lahore, Pakistan. With the guidance of curators Martina Mazzotta and Natasha Ginwala, the two artists have meticulously crafted a tonally somber presentation exploring their shared national histories. In his work, Rana seems undeterred by power plays of governments, countering them, as he does, with his own peculiar power over the image.

Rashid Rana, Asl-e-Shuhuud-o-shaahid-mashhhuud  (The viewing, the viewer and the viewed) 2015, Single channel projection, (installation/performance detail) Rashid Rana, Asl-e-Shuhuud-o-shaahid-mashhhuud (The viewing, the viewer and the viewed) 2015, Single channel projection, (installation/performance detail)

He fractures the image in Anatomy Lessons I, his rendering of Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-1599). The painting, and therefore the worldview, of the master, is splintered into a mosaic of video fragments. In a separate work he diffuses the image as pixelated sections of a room's walls onto constructed surface in the middle of the room, and finally, he displaces the image through a livelink and wall-sized projection of exhibition visitors in Lahore (Asl-e-Shuhuud-o-shaahid-mashhhuud).

Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, (performance detail) 2014-15, My East is your West, 56th Venice Biennale Shilpa Gupta, Untitled, (performance detail) 2014-15, My East is your West, 56th Venice Biennale

Gupta's approach is entirely different: she subverts the very idea of power, (the macro), through the unveiling of ephemeral narratives, (the micro), evidenced by incidentals taken from the periphery of individual experience. Her approach is well represented by a statement she offers in support of the work,Now you are on the line where I last night made the border. But since it is raining today, it s a bit difficult to see it .

When exploring and interpreting historical narrative, Gupta's delicate approach and the playful curatorial direction of the Belgium Pavilion allow a glimpse as to the agency creative practice could potentially wield as the 21st century unfurls.

All installation and performance photographs: Ric Bower, unless otherwise stated.

Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale Not Suitable For Work. A Chairman s TaleJaanus Samma9 May 22 November 2015Palazzo Malipiero, San Samuele Square, San Marco 3199, 2nd floorHours: Tuesday Sunday 10am 6pm(Vaporetto stop San Samuele) www.chairmanstale.com www.jaanussamma.eu

YARAT Collateral EventThe Union of Fire and Water - Almagul Menlibayeva, Rashad Alakbarov9 May 22 November 2015Palazzo Barbaro, San Marco, 2840 VeniceHours: Tuesday Sunday 10 18 www.bakuvenice2015.com

Belgian Pavilion Giardini9 May - 22 November 2015 Personne et Les AutresVincent Meesen & Guests www.belgianpavilion.be/en

My East is Your West Gujral Foundation6 May 1 October 2015Palazzo Benzon, Calle Benzon San Marco, Venice 3927Open Tuesday - Sunday from 10am 6pm www.gujralfoundation.org