Venice Biennale: Crafting Cultural Identity Through Art 

Ornela Ramasauskaite 

The Venice Biennale stands as a global platform, not merely for artistic expression, but as a demonstration of national pride, identity, and soft power in cultural diplomacy. Initiated in 1895, the Venice Biennale has become one of the most prestigious cultural events globally. Often likened to the Olympic Games of the art world, the Biennale is an international stage where nations present their most innovative artists, reflecting their unique cultural narratives and contemporary societal themes. In this hallowed forum, countries are not just presenting artworks; they are engaging in a sophisticated dialogue with the world, conveying messages of national identity, innovation, and vision. Like athletes in the Olympic Games who strive for excellence on behalf of their nations, artists and curators at the Biennale endeavour to present the zenith of cultural prowess and intellectual vitality of their homelands. 

The Biennale’s significance extends into the realm of soft power – a concept coined by Joseph Nye that emphasizes a country’s ability to co-opt rather than coerce. In this arena, soft power is wielded with finesse and subtlety as each nation presents narratives that foster understanding, appreciation, and global influence. This soft power is a currency of immense value that can alter international perceptions, build bridges between disparate peoples, and nurture diplomatic relations in ways that traditional political discourse cannot. 

As the Biennale unfolds, the city transforms into a canvas, attracting a demographic of high net-worth individuals, collectors, critics, and influential figures from various spheres –  notably diplomacy, politics, and business – approximately 800,000 visitors. The interactions and transactions in this context are not confined to the sale of artworks; they extend into collaborations, sponsorships, and investments that spur economic vitality in both the cultural sector and the broader economy. The ripple effect of the Venice Biennale is felt worldwide as it sets trends, directs the art market, and influences cultural policy. Its role in cultural diplomacy is further amplified as it becomes a stage for addressing global issues through art – providing commentary on climate change, social justice, and human rights. This multifaceted impact underscores the Biennale’s paramount importance in international relations and validates its role as a cultural titan on the world stage. 

Venice Biennale 2024: The Main Theme and Issues 

The Venice Biennale of 2024, curated by the Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa and themed “Foreigners Everywhere”, boldly confronts the pervasive issues of migration, diaspora, indigenous populations, and the concept of the artistic self as Other. This Biennale weaves a complex narrative that transcends mere artistic showcase to become a platform of geopolitical resonance and critical inquiry. The Theme challenges participating artists and national representatives to engage with pressing issues that define our times: the shifts in global power dynamics, the questioning of democratic institutions, the existential threat of climate change, the crises spurred by migration, and the unrelenting struggle for human rights and equality. These universal concerns, reflected in the very theme of the Biennale, provide a vast canvas for nations to paint their unique perspectives and offer a spectrum of responses to the shared challenges of our era. 

The Venice Biennale 2024 unfolds amid a complex tapestry of artistic representation and geopolitical tension. Each national pavilion becomes a narrative in this storied event, transcending the art world and delving into the heart of global politics and cultural dynamics. At the forefront are Lithuanian curator Raimundas Malašauskas and Russian artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov. Their withdrawal from the 2022 Biennale in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exemplifies the event’s intertwining with international conflicts. The Biennale’s stance to reject official Russian involvement highlights a commitment to peace and ethics in the face of aggression. 

This decision echoes historical precedents, such as the exclusion of South Africa during the apartheid era – a demonstration of the Biennale’s potential as a platform for political statement and cultural sanction. The Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a symbol of cultural prestige nestled in the Giardini, is set to witness an unprecedented exchange in the 2024 edition of the event. For the first time since its voluntary absence following the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russia will not feature its artists. Instead, the pavilion’s keys have been handed to Bolivia, marking a significant shift in the Biennale’s landscape. This handover aligns with a deepening of Russo-Bolivian ties, spotlighted by recent cultural cooperation and significant agreements on lithium extraction and atomic research. 

Bolivia’s showcase, “Looking to the future, we are treading forward,” promises a blend of cultural introspection and forward-thinking vision. Under the organizational eye of the Ministry of Cultures, Decolonisation and Depatriarchalisation, with Juan Carlos Cordero Nina as commissioner, the exhibition will feature a collective of South American artists. Among them are Bolivian textile artist Elvira Espejo Ayca, muralist Lorgo Vaca, Peruvian artist Yanaki Herrera, and Brazilian Indigenous artist and filmmaker Zahy Tentehar. Each artist will create a narrative woven from the rich tapestry of South American history, culture, and contemporary challenges. 

The pavilion’s reassignment is a physical manifestation of Russia’s broader strategy to extend its cultural and geopolitical reach beyond its traditional sphere, especially as its ties with Western nations become increasingly strained. This is further exemplified by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s public expressions of mutual understanding and ongoing cultural interaction with Bolivia. Russia’s engagement in cultural diplomacy, an effort to fortify alliances and rekindle historic relations, is evidenced by its cultural ministry’s recent outreach to North Korea. 

The ongoing debate surrounding the inclusion of Israel’s pavilion, in light of recent military actions and the petition led by The Art Not Genocide Alliance (ANGA), adds another layer of contention. The petition, backed by many artists and cultural figures, calls into question cultural institutions’ ethical responsibilities to respond to humanitarian crises and human rights issues. Ruth Patir’s “The Fertility Pavilion” is Israel’s reflective entry into this milieu. It juxtaposes the creation of life with the shadow of recent violence. It highlights the persistent complexity of representing a nation with such a contested political narrative within an international art framework. 

The Austrian Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale, represented by Anna Jermolaewa’s “Swan Lake,” also reflects on the themes of censorship and nonviolent resistance. Drawing on memories of Soviet-era media blackouts, the project symbolizes the veiling of unrest with the serenity of ballet. However, amid the stark reality of contemporary conflicts like the war in Ukraine, Jermolaewa’s message of nonviolent protest is met with critical scrutiny. Her work inadvertently risks diminishing the urgent realities of those facing aggressive imperialism, particularly when juxtaposing the historical plight of a Russian dissident with the current trauma faced by Ukrainians. Furthermore, the use of Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet in the project has sparked debate over the appropriation of cultural symbols, with concerns that it could unwittingly act as a soft-power shield for the Russian state. Despite these issues, Jermolaewa’s exploration of political migration and cultural displacement remains poignant, urging viewers to contemplate the varied facets of resistance and identity in the modern geopolitical context. The Austrian Pavilion challenges attendees to consider the efficacy of art as a vessel for complex political discourse within the global arena of the Biennale. 

The Moroccan Pavilion, poised to debut significantly at the 2024 Venice Biennale, became the subject of intrigue and unexpected turns. Initially heralded as a moment of cultural pride, the pavilion was set to introduce the world to the distinct artistic voices of Morocco, with Mahi Binebine curating and artists Majida Khattari, Safaa Erruas, and Fatiha Zemmouri poised to showcase their works. However, the narrative took a sharp twist as the artists were abruptly informed that their participation was cancelled. This abrupt pivot left the artists and the broader art community bewildered, with the Venice Biennale confirming the absence of an official Moroccan Pavilion. The anticipation of cultural celebration quickly became a tale of bureaucratic opacity and the unpredictable nature of international art exhibitions. This turn of events deprived the artists of a global platform. It denied the audience an opportunity to engage with Morocco’s rich artistic heritage and contemporary creative expressions, adding a layer of complexity to the Biennale’s history of national representation and participation. 

Other pavilions to watch: the Ukrainian pavilion’s “Net Making” eschews literal camouflage nets in favour of a symbolic representation of the nation’s self-organized support networks. The omission of actual nets is both poignant and problematic. It symbolizes the unseen efforts behind the Ukrainian resistance but also obscures the raw materiality of war’s daily realities. This conceptual approach draws a thin line between the powerful metaphor and the risk of aestheticizing struggle. 

The Ukrainian Open Group’s selection for the Polish pavilion, “Repeat after Me II,” is a powerful audiovisual testament to the scars of war. It is a commendable effort to vocalize the inexpressible horrors of conflict. Yet, one cannot help but question whether the reenactment of trauma truly serves the healing process or inadvertently commodifies suffering.  

Vlatka Horvat’s “By the Means at Hand” in the Croatian pavilion spotlights ad hoc postal networks. The project illustrates the pragmatism of diasporic connections, though its relevance may be lost on those unfamiliar with the difficulties of displaced life. 

Bulgaria’s “The Neighbours,” a multimedia endeavour, digs into the buried histories of state violence. This pavilion’s recreation of survivors’ homes introduces a visceral, intimate element to the discourse on memory and trauma. 

Overall, while the 2024 Venice Biennale provides a rich tableau of politically charged and culturally resonant work, it also raises questions about the effectiveness of art as a medium for geopolitical dialogue. Each pavilion invites a nuanced critique of how art navigates the intersection of culture and politics, offering insights as complex as the geopolitical realities it aims to encapsulate.