The Venice Biennale is an irresistible, indigestible moveable feast. Like a Chinese Lazy Susan, the table turns each time, pushed forward by geopolitical shifts. New guests are Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia and Pakistan, but Algeria and Kazakhstan cancelled and with the dire political chaos in the country, the Venezuelans have not turned up, their pavilion padlocked shut, an austere monument to its architect, the great Venetian modernist, Carlo Scarpa. This again begs the question, is the national pavilion redundant? At a Biennale panel in 2001 the format was described as a ‘charming anachronism’, prompting the riposte from the British Czech artist Pavel Büchler saying there should be ‘pavilions for countries that no longer exist, so that we don’t forget what the world is like’. In recent Biennales the national pavilion has come under fire for its separatism, an anomaly in the twenty-first century when borders are fluid and contested, artists are nomads and convergent liberal globalisation may have collapsed into dangerous nationalism and ethnic and religious divisions. This simplistic overview does not take account of the paradoxical and growing polycentricism of international relations. While the power of nation states is threatened by environmental change and by their entanglement in supranational private and corporate networks driven by technology, this does not negate the nation state but repositions it. The sheer scale of the Biennale and the paradoxes of the work of participating artists in the eighty-seven national pavilions, two main exhibitions in the Giardini, the vast Arsenale and in thirty-five offsite churches and palazzi and collateral events, is a paradigm of this seismic shift. For Venice, sinking, in demographic and democratic decline and fed by and consumed by tourism, the Biennale becomes ever emblematic and powerful.
For developing countries, especially in the global south, the survival and building of the nation state is not incompatible with promoting a greater awareness of their national cultural identities, critical needs and democratic aspirations. For them the Biennale offers a singular opportunity. There are now two distinct Biennales, one where the old imperial powers hold on to their elevated places in the Giardini, their shows underpinned by the international art market and another, as yet inchoate and impoverished, where the rest of the world’s nations and their artists jostle for spaces and recognition. These so called ‘rogue‘ pavilions which come and go each Biennale cannot be overlooked. If they struggle to challenge the better resourced and established nations which get all the media and art world attention, they can offer a more nuanced view of the potency of contemporary art now.