Yishai Jusidman

Meanwhile at the Biennale…

graphics at the Biennale / montage by the author
graphics at the Biennale / montage by the author

This summer, visitors to the 60th International Art Exhibition in Venice (aka the Biennale) sooner or later arrive at the Israel pavilion—only to find it closed to the public. A poster in its see-through door states: “The artist and curators of the Israeli pavilion will open the exhibition when a ceasefire and hostage release agreement is reached.” For the unsuspecting tourists unaware of what’s that all about, too bad—no further explanation is provided. Some will be irked by the Israeli artist and curators not honoring the expensive ticket paid to visit the Biennale’s grounds. For their part, art sophisticates might take the poster to be a post-conceptual art intervention of sorts. Those daring to consult the military guards keeping an eye nearby will be told to just move on to the next pavilion.

The closure of the Israeli pavilion in Venice is more than a small annoyance to visitors. And it’s also more than a display of virtue-signaling by the artist and curators. Allow me to dissect the significance of their misconceived decision:

The Venice Biennale has been the most prestigious visual-arts meet for quite a long while—a sort of Olympics of the artworld, where participating countries are represented by artists showcased at their “national pavilions”. The Biennale’s present edition features 88 national exhibitions, as well as the customary very-large-scale show put together by a reputable curator.

A faithful mirror of the contemporary artworld, the Biennale has expanded tremendously in recent decades. Its designated grounds have remained for years without vacancies. Countries that failed to establish a national pavilion early on must rent a venue elsewhere in order to participate in the event. Thus recent Biennales spread out into palazzi all over the islands of Venice. Nevertheless, the Giardini park, the Biennale’s original site, remains the most visited and emblematic. The 30 national pavilions built there over the XX century include the longstanding potentates of the modern and contemporary artworld.

Remarkably, a pavilion smack in the middle of the Giardini belongs to Israel, hardly a contemporary art powerhouse. It’s been there since1952—barely 4 years after the state’s founding, when Zionism was culturally welcomed and honored among the nations, at least of Europe. The pavilion’s discrete modernist architecture still stands in stark contrast to Germany’s fascist pre-War pavilion, and is located just to the left of the American, Israel’s would be ally. Beyond its real-estate desirability, the Israel pavilion’s symbolic position within the Venice Biennale remains unmatched by the country’s presence at other cultural events anywhere.

However minute the Biennale’s influence on worldly affairs is, this year Israel didn’t have the luxury of not making a case for the justice of its war effort at such a forum—if only because the Israeli PR response on the battle-field of pubic opinion has been overrun by an unholy alliance of progressives and muslims worldwide that has inflicted palpable harm.

Deploying a pavilion’s potential goes way beyond putting on display its nation’s artistic pride and joy for all the world to see in Venice. Because, following the descent of the avant-garde into the swamps of radical political activism, the Biennale has become a vehicle for “decolonizing” posturing, in particular at the pavilions of liberal democratic nations. Here’s a sampler of early instances: the Belgian pavilion served to frame Luc Tuymans’ pictorial reprobation of his country’s exploitation of Congo (2001); Santiago Sierra blocked off the Spanish pavilion with a brick wall to comment on his nation’s immigration policies (2003); and, to call attention to serial murders of women at its northern border, Teresa Margolles bathed in diluted blood the floor of Mexico’s pavilion (2009). Hence, the strategic staging of the pavilions has become an art in its own right.

Naturally, the overseers of Israel’s pavilion at the time wished to join in the games of national self-flagellating exhibitionism so cherished by the avant-garde. In 2015, Tsibi Geva was duly selected to stage a “profound critique” of Israeli identity through a playful post-Zionist installation. Dressed up in rather cryptic subtleties, its message escaped the pro-Palestinian activists who, nonetheless, occupied the pavilion in protest. Evidently, the Israelis in Venice had not figured they cannot play the same game being played by the Belgians, Spanish and Mexicans.

The lesson apparently did not sink in. Sadly, because a more astute and urgent strategy would be required in 2024 from the organizers of the Israel pavilion. The overlap of the Biennale with the ongoing war devolved into a complicated challenge. More over, yet another anti-Israel campaign at the Biennale got going months before the opening, gathering 25 thousand signatures to date. The campaign’s slanderous flyers now litter the pavilion’s surroundings, though it failed at getting the Zionist Entity banned from the event.

Multiple options now come to mind that could have allowed the Israeli pavilion to speak clearly and pertinently at this year’s Biennale: Empathetic—like curating a posthumous show of artworks left behind by victims of Hamas’s debauchery. Confrontational—like designing the pavilion as a hub for pro-Israel organizations such as MEMRI and UN/NGO WATCH. (Turning such a hub into an art intervention would have been a mere technicality). Disarming—like bringing an exhibition of Israeli-Arab artists. Even having brought to Venice a post-Zionist artist less decorous than in 2015 may have demonstrated the fact that Israel remains an open and democratic nation.

Meantime, the artist selected way back in September to represent Israel in Venice, Ruth Patir, produced a show described as an exploration of the pressure on women to become mothers—arguably a valuable topic, but, really, for another time. It had been evident for months that Israel’s representation in Venice had no choice but to engage expressly the military and rhetorical campaign being waged. Provided the specter of war would overshadow the pavilion, Patir should have been given a rain-check to come back in 2026. It was not the case.

Instead, the artist and curators conditioned the pavilion’s opening on the satisfaction of what looks like a noble anti-war call for a cease fire and hostage release. In fact, the Israeli team effectively hijacked the pavilion for their own domestic political interests. How come? As the perplexing convolutions of the Israeli milieu would have it, local anti-government forces merged with, and soon took over, the rightful cause of the hostages’ families at street protests.

By the time the poster in Venice was mounted in the pavilion’s door, the clamor for a ceasefire+hostage-release had become code in Tel-Aviv for the ouster of Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, the artist and curators declared elsewhere that they “choose to take a stance in solidarity with the families of the hostages and the large community in Israel who is calling for change,” where the change in question is of Prime Minister. No surprise, the artist and curators’ micro-extortion has been entirely ineffective. But they did manage to cancel out an alternative, potentially relevant voice at the Biennale, one that would have reached more than a few sympathetic ears to advance Israel’s interests. In the end, the closure of the pavilion lays bare the malaise that’s tearing apart the country from the inside. Israel’s foes may just as well sit back and enjoy the show.

Not only did those responsible for the pavilion demonstrate a lack of vision, imagination and courage (qualities one assumes are also qualities of good art), but they also failed to take a stand for their country in a time of war. Shame.

About the Author
Yishai is a contemporary painter and occasional art critic, born in Mexico City, based in Los Angeles and soon migrating to moshav Tal Shachar. His artwork has been shown worldwide in prestigious international exhibitions. A recent series, "Prussian Blue", deals with the aesthetic challenges of Holocaust remembrance through art, and has been shown, among other institutions, at the Mishkan Museum of Art in Ein Harod in 2021. His writing has been published in Artforum, Art Issues, Los Angeles Times, Cleveland Review of Books, and more.