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Highlights from the Pavilions at the Venice Biennale

Note that they are not in a particular order, yet I believe the Egyptian Pavilion had very strong representation. For those who have not visited the Venice Biennale yet, it features over a hundred country pavilions. Some pavilions were built decades ago, others are more hybrid and move from location to location. I have visited many of them, unfortunately not all, and I wanted to share with you my top 10.

1. Egypt

2. Poland

3. Germany

4. Japan

5. Switzerland

6. Korea

7. France

8. United States

9. Saudi Arabia

10. Italy

Egyptian Pavilion

In the Egyptian pavilion, artist Wael Shawky took central stage with a very daring work. On the screen, you see a film, staged as a theatrical opera that reinterpreted the Drama of 1882. What happened in 1882 in Egypt? It was the Urabi Revolution against imperial rule, that ended in a full-scale bombardment of Alexandria by the British and the historic Battle of Tel El Kebir. With this, Wael Shawky does rewrite history. “Whether Urabi is a hero or traitor depends on who wrote this history,” Shawky says. “I like this vague point in history, which you can use as more than facts. So I was interested to work with performers and to think of history as theatre. You have the written history, but you also work with it as a human creation.”

Wael Shawky, Drama, 1882 (2024). ©Wael Shawky. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma, and Barakat Contemporary.
Wael Shawky, Drama, 1882 (2024). ©Wael Shawky. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Lia Rumma, and Barakat Contemporary.

Polish Pavilion

The exhibition 'Repeat after Me II' by OPEN GROUP was a karaoke set of War Sounds. We do not speak about songs, but about sounds, shots, missiles, howling, and explosions, and the lyrics are descriptions of deadly firearms. This is the soundtrack of war. Yes, it is strange, and morbid. But we often talk about traumatic encounters, and the sensory encounters are the ones we sometimes do not get over. It can be a healing experience for one, a confronting experience for another. Yet it is a reality for many. All the protagonists are civilian refugees speaking of the war through the sounds of weapons they remember.

still from presentation  karoaoke  polish pavilion
Open Group, Polish Pavilion at Venice Biennale from DTF Magazine

German Pavilion

The German pavilion is very hard to describe in a few lines. But from a curatorial perspective: it did light the fire and it gave a message for me as a curator to remember why we are doing what we are doing, it is a highlight. The official description says: “Thresholds is about space, moving through a house, a building but also encountering the world through it. It is about passages, tunnels, and about how space gives rise to meanings, particularly from culture to culture, ethnic group to ethnic group, and how communities in motion make a home within spaces that are often inhospitable, and often incarcerate or expel them. After all, to speak of space is to speak also of borders”. In the video, you see a vehicle that will take us away from planet earth for the planet to heal again.

Still from German Pavilion 2024
Yael Bartana, Farewell, 2024. Photo Andrea Rossetti

Japanese Pavilion

The Japanese pavilion was all about sound. The installation Moré Moré (Leaky) by Yuko Mohri is inspired by stopping leaks in the subway of Tokyo. The subway staff uses often everyday items to stop the subway from leaking such as plastic, bottles, buckets, and hoses to cope with small “crises”. For a few months, Mohri was working in the Pavilion, and gathered material to construct this installation. In addition, the artist uses “sometimes rotten” fruit to create sounds and flickering light and is converting the fruit into electrical signals.

Installation view of “Yuko Mohri: Compose” for the Japan Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale. Photo: kugeyasuhide, courtesy of the artist, Project Fulfill Art Space, mother’s tankstation, Yutaka Kikutake Gallery, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
Installation view of “Yuko Mohri: Compose”

Swiss Pavilion

After all those heavy themes, the Swiss pavilion actually triggered laughter. The topic is serious, it questions the relationship between urban space and collective imagination, between architecture and ideology, and between political propaganda and national identity. It is an exhibition by Guerreiro do Divino Amor, a total, immersive work of art, littered with classical architectural elements — artificial symbols of an assumed Western racial superiority. Columns, fountains, and capitals, along with large surfaces of fake marble textures, suggest an imagery of power and supremacy and serve as the backdrop for the pavilion.

Visitors look at the ceiling of the Swiss pavilion at the Biennale at the Giardini during the 60th Biennale Art 2024 on April 18, 2024 in Venice, Italy. Photo by Stefano Mazzola/Getty Images.
Installation view of “Super Superior Civilizations” by Guerreiro do Divino Amor at the Pavilion of Switzerland at the Biennale Arte 2024

Korean Pavilion

The Korean pavilion was all about smells. Koo Jeong A created an Odorama City, where evocative smells are combined. What started with an open call for scent memories of Korea, resulting in the submission of 600 stories available to read on the Pavilion’s website, and the creation of 16 experimental scents and one commercial fragrance on the exhibition ground. The artist says “we introduced a very realistic fishy smell that could have associations with other spaces, like another fish market in the center of Seoul where fresh fish comes in from all over the world, or the fish market in Venice, which is under the roof of a stone structure.”

An installation view of "Koo Jeong A -- Odorama Cities" at La Biennale di Venezia
An installation view of "Koo Jeong A -- Odorama Cities"

French Pavilion

The French pavilion is a treat for the eye and ear. With a soundtrack pumping through the speaker, you can read the lyrics on the wall. The work by Julien Creuzet is about appearances and disappearances, what is given, protected, and also unseen. Walking through a dense forest of sculptures made out of thread you find tree-dwelling tarantulas which is a gift in certain beliefs. This tarantula, endemic to Martinique, could well be the symbol of a way of being with art that history has yet to write. In his work, water, seas, and oceans serve as vehicles for his vision of history, movements of people, ideas, and form.

Julien Creuzet's colourful suspended sculptures
Julien Creuzet's colourful suspended sculptures

American Pavilion

For the first time, a Native American is representing the US at the Venice Biennale. The space almost feels like a sacred temple that explores indigenous histories. Jeffrey Gibson points with this exhibition toward moments in history that were meant to spark change, his use of text encourages us to examine our past when considering the present. A punching bag saying WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT, is a centerpiece. The question is whether you will give it a strike. It is beautiful and confronting at the same time. Then a “marble-like” busts appear yet they are made out of beads, saying “Treat Me Right” as their title. The busts wear a button saying ‘If we settle for what they’re giving us, we deserve what we get!’. What appears visually appealing layer at first hand has such a deep layer of honestly a reflection.

The Enforcer” (2024). Right: “WE WANT TO BE FREE”(2024). Mural: “WE ARE MADE BY HISTORY” (2024). All photos by Timothy Schenck
The Enforcer” (2024). Right: “WE WANT TO BE FREE”(2024). Mural: “WE ARE MADE BY HISTORY” (2024). Photo by Timothy Schenck, taken from article Colossal

Saudi Arabian Pavilion

The desert rose is blown up in its size for this pavilion, markers with many different writings and almost like burned leaves. In the far, I heard the artist Manal AlDowayan speaking, she stood there explaining her work. She started talking about the female repression in Saudi, how these women are seen, and how these women are always portrayed. “I hope this artwork will encourage women to look within themselves and to lean on their community of women to find their voice and their space within this new chapter in history, much of which is still unwritten.” Here, it is the voices of Saudi women proclaiming themselves, through song, speech, and drawings. Like its crystalline formation, for AlDowayan, a desert rose layers multiple dimensions – it is fragility, ephemerality, femininity, and resilience.

Manal AlDowayan, Shifting Sands: A Battle Song, 2024. Multimedia installation, Tussar silk, ink, acrylic paint. Dimensions variable. Sound, multichannel, 30’48”. Photography by venicedocumentationproject. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Commission, the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia.
Manal AlDowayan, Shifting Sands: A Battle Song, 2024. Multimedia installation, Tussar silk, ink, acrylic paint.

Italian Pavilion

Italy has the biggest pavilion in the Arsenale. This year Massimo Bartolini filled up space with sound—well, sound and lots of scaffolding. At its center, the water in the pool is agitated by a wave, the heartbeat of an organic blob. Handmade rectangular organ pipes, laid on their sides like coffins, play a new piece of music, which can bring to mind both the peace and the terror of religious music. In the garden outside, a piece by the British composer Gavin Bryars bursts from hidden speakers. I lay down in the grass under that and fell asleep. When I woke a thundercloud was approaching; it was time to move on.


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