Double Binds: The Biennial as National and Transnational Context

By Noah Simblist

Aissa Deebi: Exile is Hard Work (Haifa: Fatoush Gallery, 2018) and (Birzeit: Birzeit University Museum, 2017), 2017-2018

This exhibition includes two works by Aissa Deebi, The Trial (2013) and Motherland (2016). These two projects were conceived for biennials: The Trial for the 2013 Venice Biennale and Motherland for the 2016 Çanakkale Biennale. By bringing together these two works, this exhibition creates a dialogue between their themes but it also raises a number of issues related to their original contexts.

The Trial is a two channel video installation that depicts a group of actors in a black box theater reading from the transcript of a 1973 statement made by Daud Turki, a Palestinian poet who was on trial in an Israeli court for espionage and collaborating with the enemy. Turki was a communist and his statements echo the revolutionary rhetoric of the time. Deebi filmed this work in Haifa, which is not only where Turki was from but is also where Deebi grew up. At the time of its making, Deebi was living in Cairo, in the wake of the 2011 revolution in Egypt. While this work stems from the particular nature of Palestinian revolution and its links to international currents of revolutionary struggle in the 1970s, it has resonances with Egypt’s political situation in 2013 and larger questions about revolutionary struggles in general.

Motherland is an elegy to Deebi’s mother and a photographic meditation on exile. Deebi shot images of landscapes in the United States and Switzerland, two countries that he has lived in for the past few years. This project asks, how do we define home and mother? What is the affective nature of being in between spaces? And finally, how do larger political currents relate to one’s personal life? Motherland is shown as a series of photographic prints that evoke the poetics of space.

The context for The Trial at the Palestinian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, raises the question of nationalism in major international exhibitions. How is identity performed in this context and how are some nations privileged more than others? How do real politics intersect with the politics of display? This is especially relevant to the subject matter of The Trial, which was a communist view of class struggle that transcended nationalism, race, or other identity positions. On the other hand, Motherland was originally conceived of for the 2016 Çanakkale Biennale, an exhibition that was cancelled because of political pressures in Turkey, following a failed military coup. In this case, the biennial was subject to the particular conditions of a national context. So, given these histories, The Trial and Motherland are not only artworks that are about political and personal histories of Palestinian dispossession and exile. They also evoke the larger exhibition histories that have embedded within them related political currents.

The biennial as a particular typology of exhibition making began in 1895 with the Venice Bienniale. In 1951, when São Paulo launched its biennial, the notion of a recurring exhibition, separate from the institutional context of a museum, emerged as a global phenomenon. When the Havana biennial began in 1984, followed by the Istanbul biennial in 1987, peripheral communities were given greater prominence. But in all of these cases, national pageantry, comparable to the Olympics emerged as a major force. This is exemplified by the national pavilions in the Giardini in Venice.

The 2013 exhibition in Venice, Otherwise Occupied, which set the stage for Deebi’s work, The Trial, is an example of an exhibition participating in the dominant nationalist discourse of the biennial. In this case, an exhibition approximating an unofficial national pavilion, Palestine reiterated itself as an aspirational state, given that Palestinians have yet to attain full sovereignty.[1] But Deebi’s work, which tells the history of Daud Turki, an antinationalist communist, questions the nationalist foundation of the very pavilion in which it was shown. In this sense, Deebi carries out another characteristic of biennials, the use of an exhibition as a platform to grapple with political issues. By telling a story that references Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Egypt, nationalism is present, thereby echoing its use in the biennial. But the revolutionary rhetoric of The Trial also invokes a challenge to the assumption of national sovereignty as a fixed thing. To take it a step further, Deebi’s use of absurdity to undo the romanticism of revolutionary rhetoric refuses the strategy of revolution as an easy antidote to hegemonic nationalist forces. Thus, both the state and the forces that oppose it are questioned.

Biennials have been hotly debated since their explosive rise in the 1990s. They have been criticized as festivalist spectacles of global capital that serve tourist industries and the art market, not unlike art fairs. They have also been analyzed in terms of their sometime problematic attendance to local issues. Grant Kester cites Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, commissioned for the 2002 Lima Biennial, as one example of an artist commenting on a community in which the biennial was sited. His work highlighted the need for the empowerment of a community living in a shantytown made up of immigrants, displaced farmers and refugees. But Kester questions the depth of the political intervention by Alÿs, and proposes that this lack of depth may be built into the biennial system.[2] Similarly, Tirdad Zolghar has described “ethnic marketing” as another problematic phenomenon of biennial culture. Zolghar defines ethnic marketing as a Euro-American xenophilia that can be found in international exhibitions predicated on artists and curatorial platforms that engage in postcolonial platitudes.[3] I believe that Deebi’s The Trial avoids these problematics because it questions the very nature of platitudes both for or against the state, problematizing political discourse itself.

The notion of a biennial being sited in a particular political context doesn’t always lend itself to the ways that artists attend to a site. Sometimes the state can push back. This was the case of the 2016 Çanakkale Biennale, which was being planned during a time of increasing instability and a risk averse government. Many biennials assume a neoliberal global order, which can withstand, even to the point of coopting, political criticality. But the Çanakkale Biennale was cancelled because of a collapse of the assumed mutuality between art and politics. Perhaps this is a good time to contemplate the relationship between the two and how this relationship necessarily changes from one context to another.

The themes embedded in Aissa Deebi’s work planned for the Çanakkale Biennale included exile and migration, two themes also addressed by Okwui Enwezor’s 2006 International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville entitled The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society. In his essay for the exhibition catalog, he says,

At a minimum, any art aiming to engage itself in social praxis today must begin with a critique of the romantic illusion of pure distance and total autonomy from world events. If indeed distance and autonomy need to be maintained in order to attain a clear separation between art and social praxis, then it would be a qualified distance, one which recognizes the imbrication of artistic structures in social temporality. The evident decay in the political and social structures of the global present permits a reassessment of the role of art and artists in social discourse, not an enunciation of their distance from it.[4]

This statement, made ten years before the political crisis in Turkey that led to the cancellation of the Çanakkale Biennale, articulates the nature of the distance that occurred between art and social praxis. The theme of the Çanakkale Biennale was to be migration, a reality that is a result of the war in Syria that had a great effect on Turkey’s social structure. But, as many have noted, this is a recent refugee crisis in the region that has many antecedents, most notably the Palestinian example. One particular dimension of this historical tragedy is the double exile that many Palestinians based in Syria have experienced.

When we consider the biennial as a context for the two works by Aissa Deebi included in this exhibition, there are two dimensions of transnationalism at play. One is a movement between borders as defined by migration and exile (both Syrian and Palestinian). The other is the neoliberal form of transnationalism that biennials propose. It is not an accident that globalization and biennials rose to prominence around the same time in the 1990s and early 2000s. The links between these two social phenomena have been discussed. But the question now to address is how migration affects the intersecting forces of globalization and biennials. Deebi’s work provides us with a unique opportunity to examine transnationalism’s double bind because he chooses an unrelenting criticality to address the challenges that we face.


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[1] It’s important to note that Bruce Ferguson, the co-curator, claims in a catalog essay for the exhibition that Otherwise Occupied was neither official nor unofficial, but rather affiliated with the larger Venice Biennial Project. This was the second Palestinian exhibition to occur within the construct of the Venice Biennale. The first was the 2009, Palestine c/o Venice, curated by Salwa Mikdadi.
[2] Grant Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011) p134
[3] Tirdad Zolghar co-curated the exhibition “Ethnic Marketing: Art, Globalization and the Intercultural Supply and Demand” with M. Anderfuhren for the Kunsthalle Geneva in 2004.
[4] Okqui Enwezor, “The Unhomely” in The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society (Barcelona: Fundación BIACS, 2006)