Iraq—the Sign is in the Presence

Iraqi art returns to the international art scene at Venice, after making a fleeting appearance 35 years ago.

The mere presence of Iraq at the Biennale right now is a positive sign in itself and shows a desire, and increasingly the means, to move away from war, turn over a new leaf and regain the luxury that is making art. Located at the end of Via Garibaldi, in the Castello working district, the pavilion is set up in a délabré interior that is just perfect, on the first floor of a dilapidated building, the headquarters of the Fondazione Gervasuti.

First, a few preliminary remarks on the subject of "threadbare" art space. The 1970s saw Western artists who were questioning the whole "system", and art's place there in particular, begin to move to into loft-like spaces in abandoned buildings. Looking for less neutral places and alternative spaces and exhibition opportunities, they began to create a new aesthetic opposed to the white cube, increasingly perceived as overly middle-class and often unsuited to the new installation forms and interaction with the public. In their search for alternative spaces and forms, the artists unwittingly became agents of residential gentrification in post-industrial areas. The exhibitions and their public attendance were gradually and inexorably followed by real estate agents, who got the message and started to promote operations to facilitate exhibitions in properties awaiting demolition or, more rarely, restoration. Civic governments, often short of money, also realised the potential and sponsored events, mostly in former industrial buildings they had been "lumbered with".
Adel Abidin: installation detail
Adel Abidin: installation detail
This process led to an exhibition-design aesthetic that learnt to cope with these spaces and itself became highly sophisticated, producing exhibition designs that are costly and extremely chic, when internationally famous artists and curators with a sure market are involved.

The case of the Iraqi pavilion is, however, one in which what the artists are saying and the space where they are doing it really are in tune with each other. The apartment evokes the destruction and abandon of war and the artists really do seem to be returning—not least because none of them lives in Iraq today—to an abandoned place and, despite everything, restoring some kind of form. The theme chosen by curator Mary Angela Schroth, 'Acqua ferita' (wounded water ) is not pretentious—Iraq is the country of the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers, after all, and abundant oil, from which our civilisation stems—but rather accurate and highly relevant in various interpretations: water that is lacking, polluted water, disputed water, purifying water, bloody water and 'mother' water.
Adel Abidin, Consumption of war, video projection
Adel Abidin, Consumption of war, video projection
Standing out among the works on show is a slightly too literal one by Azad Nanakeli who lives in Florence; a touching one, especially in the short accompanying text, by Ali Assaf that speaks of his return to Al Basrah, his home town, after living in Rome for 36 years; and, most of all, two rooms by the young Adel Abidin, who has absorbed the light of the north where lives, in Helsinki. The first shows the remains of an office, with an almost desperate photography; the second presents a video, Consumption of War , showing two managers fighting with Star Wars' lightsabers, conveying the battle being fought by multinationals to control oil—the extraction of which requires a barrel and a half of water per barrel of black gold. Meanwhile, millions of people have no access to the clean water they need to live. Simona Bordone
The theme chosen by curator Mary Angela Schroth, 'Acqua ferita' (wounded water) is not pretentious, but rather accurate and highly relevant in various interpretations: water that is lacking, polluted water, disputed water, purifying water, bloody water and 'mother' water.

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