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Death in Venice

Published on March 15, 2012 by: in: Culture

Eros and Tanatos have equally reigned over the European imaginarium for many centuries. Sex and death were among taboo themes in conversations of ordinary people, though they were always mentioned. As emotions impossible to be expressed directly, fear and drives inspired the art – at first in a subtle manner but then more and more literally. In the case of Eros, the ultimate transition from allusion to realism has taken place during the last fifty years. First, we got accustomed to nudity, or an erotic near-nudity which has become today’s most popular advertisement motif, and later we got used to pornography. About twenty years passed from the moment when the latter, placed in the relevant context (or edited by focus change, magnification, switching colours) became the work of art.

What is interesting, though not surprising, is the fact that when everything relating to sex has been shown and validated, it has become uninteresting to art. At several dozen national pavilions scattered around the Venice Biennale there is not a single work exuding the spirit of Eros. Tanatos, however, is doing well – he is present at the majority of the pavilions. Does it mean that he has won? Not really – he is just following his brother’s footsteps, only several years later. Images of death will soon become as trite as images of sex. Today they still seem to be worth being shown in different ways, however usually in political and multicultural contexts.

photo: giacomo.gras

photo: giacomo.gras

Film death

At the Danish pavilion, probably one the most connected with politics, death is present thanks to an American photographer Taryn Simon. The „Zahra/Farah” picture was made as a still for the final scene of the film “Redacted”. The art of make-up reached the top here and Simon knows how to adjust light and focus. As a result, the Iraqi actress Zahra Zubaidi looks like a real corpse.

In reality Zubaidi is alive but the film in which she starred did not bring her success. Since the family of the actress saw the film, they have been threatening to kill her. Friends and neighbors also express their disapproval – they all think that the role played by Zubaidi was pornographic. Therefore, the actress applied for asylum in the USA, though considering the film’s plot, this is not an obvious choice. The screenplay of “Redacted” is based on events that took place on 12 March 2006 near the Iraqi Al-Mahmudijja. That day four American soldiers barged into a house on the outskirts of the village next to which they had their post. The group’s leader, Steven Green, had been impressed by the beauty of a 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi who lived in the house. Planning the rape and persuading three other soldiers to complicity took him several days. The girl’s both parents and her 6-year-old sister were shot in order not to disturb the action and not to complain. Abeer was raped by all four soldiers and then killed. Her body, from the waist down, was poured over with kerosene and burned to cover the tracks.

The case came to light after three months because the perpetrators were unable to keep their silence. They got arrested and judged. Green was sentenced to unconditional life imprisonment and the remaining three soldiers got 90, 100 and 110 years in prison with the possibility of shortening the term of imprisonment. Some months later Brian De Palma started shooting “Redacted” for which he was awarded with the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The film cost $5 million but its distribution revenues amounted to almost $800 thousand, of which merely $65 thousand in the USA.  As a consolation, the French film magazine „Cahiers du Cinéma” claimed “Redacted” the best 2008 film.

Three years later we became convicted again that not only crime can inspire art but also art can inspire crime. On 2 March 2011 at the Frankfurt am Main Airport a 21-year-old post office worker opened fire on a bus transporting American pilots. Two people got killed and other two injured. When asked for the motive, the attacker – a Germany-born grandson of immigrants from Kosovo – said that the day before on YouTube he had seen American soldiers raping a Muslim girl. What he had seen was the scene from “Redacted”, the same scene that made Zubaidi flee Iraq.

Press death

While the Danes invited to their pavilion many world-famous artists, neighbors from opposite focused on their fellow countryman. As opposed to Simon, who showed in Venice only one picture but it was made by himself, the Swiss Thomas Hirschhorn, the author of “Crystal of resistance” installation, used someone else’s pictures – a lot of them and depicting the corpses as if they were real. Yet again the reality outdid stage production: no actor is obviously capable of performing headless and there are no models who would agree to have their stomach split open. The origin of Hirschhorn’s horrific idea is unknown – the only thing that comes to mind is police archives and pictures that were taken by war correspondents and were too graphic to be published in the newspapers.

Simultaneously, the public reaction to the picture of Saddam Hussein with a noose round his neck or  to an image of a Hispanic girl whose leg had been torn off by some unknown force is oddly calm, which is probably the most alarming thing noticed during the visit at the Swiss pavilion. Nobody runs out screaming and even though the pictures make people feel like vomiting they somehow manage to see the whole exhibition. Maybe the visitors are not aware of what they see. It is highly probable, since death in the pictures selected by the mountain crystals lover is not terrifying. Saddam cut off the rope looks like he did when he was pulled out of the underground bunker. Losing a half of one’s head, however, seems to dehumanize so much that we perceive the mutilated corpses as unknown objects – they are so unobvious that they encourage to be scrutinized.

Sensitivity is dulled probably by the fact that Hirschhorn’s installation consists of much more than pictures of headless corpses or bodiless heads. At the Swiss pavilion one can also find hundreds of garden chairs with cellphones, dozens of Barbie dolls, a dozen or so aquariums (including several smashed ones), numerous cans and about a million of cotton buds attached to them with sellotape. There are also two Paper Mache mountain grottos inhabited by stuffed eagle and a marmot, a few punching bags wrapped in oriental carpets, gym equipment tightly covered with aluminum foil and several dozen of worn-out tires covered with the same material. Apart from gruesome pictures, we can see the covers of last year’s magazines (e.g. German “Focus” asks if it is high time to standardize the GCSE exams in the whole country) and variations on the Brancusi’s famous “Endless Column”. The title crystals stick out of disemboweled mannequins and smashed old TV sets.

However absurd it sounds, everything composes well and the pictures of sudden death seem to be an appropriate counterpoint to the gathered items. According to the optimistic interpretation, it should remind the inhabitants of the wealthy and safe West that getting injured is a part of everyday life, as is cleaning your ears, talking on the cellphone and playing with Barbie dolls. In the realistic version, Hirschhorn familiarizes us with the death of Muslims, Black men and Hispanics by making it a part of our esthetic habitat.

Real death

In January 2010, in the gardens of the Cairo Opera House, an Egyptian artist, Ahmed Basiony, launched his installation “Thirty Days of Running in Place”. In the room with transparent walls, dressed in plastic overalls tightly covering the whole body, he run – bearing in mind how small the room was, virtually in place – every day for an hour. The overalls were equipped with digital sensors measuring the number of movements and the amount of the secreted sweat. The data was processed electronically (Basiony wrote the relevant program himself) and displayed in a visually attractive form to the public.

Officially, running in place was supposed to be art on the solely individual level – recording the amount of energy consumed by the artist. When interpreted in such a way, it would be a part of a popular trend in contemporary art of treating the artist’s body as the material to be artistically molded. In the description of installation for the Egyptian censorship, Basiony was doing something similar to the thing done a decade earlier by Joanna Rajkowska who was preparing an advertising campaign for the series of drinks “Satisfaction guaranteed” apparently containing pieces of her own body.

Obviously, it was not the only possible interpretation. According to Basiony’s friends, one of whom is currently a curator of the Egyptian pavilion in Venice, thirty days were supposed to be a symbol of thirty years that passed between the day of assuming the presidency by Husni Mubarak and the day of launching the sports-plastic-electronic installation. The runner running in place – losing his energy not for pleasure – was not the single artist but the entire Egypt.

A year later, the “place-runners” unexpectedly got close to the finish line. Historians are the ones that will be performing the detailed analysis of factors that drew the Egyptians to the Tahrir square, though financial advisers also played an enormous role – speculating with food, they raised its prices, which enraged the people. Therefore, motivated by Facebook, the crowds took to the streets. On 26 January Ahmed Basiony wrote in his profile update: “If we manage to withstand, I have great expectations. I got severely beaten by the police. But tomorrow I am going out there anyway. They want war, we want peace. All I am trying to do is to regain a part of my nation’s dignity”. Whereas on the 27 January his update read: “One has to be well-equipped to be able to participate in a revolution: a bottle of vinegar to fight the tear gas, protective masks and shawls to inhale the vinegar; gas for self-defense, sore throat lozenges, food and beverages… You mustn’t use violence against security agents or insult them. Vandalism is also prohibited, since it is our country. Bring the camera with you, don’t be afraid and don’t be a wimp”.

The following day Ahmed Basiony died from a police bullet, confirming what he was trying to convince the censors of: the body of the artist, the artist himself, can become a material of which the work of art will be created. At the Egyptian pavilion in Venice, apart from the records from “Thirty Days of Running in Place”, you can see the films that he was making during his last days on the Tarhir Square.

Political death

Unluckily, the Polish pavilion is right next to the Egyptian one thus it is difficult to avoid comparisons. In the light of the accidental but true death of Ahmed Basiony, the three movies by Yael Bertana seem to be tomfoolery. Just to remind, the movies are “Mary Koszmary”[Nightmares] (2007), “Mur i wieża”[Wall and Tower] (2009) and “Zamach” [Assassination] (2011), which make up a trilogy “I zadziwi się Europa” [And so will Europe marvel]. The main protagonist is Sławomir Sierakowski played by himself. Unfortunately, he is much more convincing as the leader of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland than young guru of the Left and even his assassination (in the third part Sierakowski is shown in a coffin) does not help him appear more serious and reliable.

The subject raised in  trilogy “And so will Europe marvel” is undoubtedly important and so sensitive that it is difficult to imagine such a way of dealing with it that it would not be considered a provocation. However, Bertana’s provocation turns out to be exceptionally simple, shallow and predictable. It is a wonder that there are people in Israel – but not in Poland, which also proves the extent of failure – who were actually outraged at this idea. Everything starts with the speech made by Sierakowski to weeded tribunes of the 10th Anniversary Stadium. I doubt that he wrote the speech himself and I am very surprised that he agreed to deliver it. Posing as a former member of the Association of Polish Youth (ZMP), the leader of the new Left, he appeals to 3,300,000 Jews (this is approximately how many died in the Holocaust) to come to Poland. However, surprisingly enough, he does that using a tone of voice of a priest delivering his first sermon and his arguments are, on second thoughts, nationalistic. The Jews are supposed to return neither because they can freely choose the place to live nor because by living for centuries between the Warta and the Dniester rivers the Jews have acquired moral right to this land. What Sierakowski aims at is merely conducting a psychotherapy on Polish soul, thanks to which the Poles “will become Europeans”, Europe “will marvel” and everybody “will learn from us”. Nonetheless, bearing in mind the fact that it is the Poles who have more to apologize to Jews for, rather than the other way round, it seems a bit ambiguous. The reason to reconcile is clearly the willingness to improve our own well-being and not to make amends. This is more or less like if we said: “I’m sorry I beat you up because no one likes me anymore”.

In “Wall and Tower” the Jews accept Sierakowski’s invitation. They come to Poland, though instead of integrating into the Polish society, which he encouraged them to do (because in what other way could the “Polish monotonous faces change”?), they occupy the Warsaw Muranów, the area of the war ghetto, building a miniature kibbutz between the buildings from the 50s. Inside the kibbutz, they seem to learn Polish eagerly but the settlement appears ominous. The title tower reminds of the Auschwitz watchtower and at the top of the wooden fence there is a barbed wire. It seems that Sierakowski managed to convince the Jews to come back but he did not manage to convince the Poles (many of whom “are still sleeping under the Ryfka’s duvet”) to receive them with open arms. The message to the Venetian public is clear: although there are some noble individuals, the majority of Poles are still anti-Semites.

This premonition proves to be right in the third part of the trilogy. Sierakowski is assassinated in Zachęta, under the picture of Schulz (anyway,  I am wondering what would “Krytyka Polityczna” do if the death of Narutowicz was parodied by “Fronda” and Pospieszalski). The funeral is attended by crowds, though it seems difficult for Bertana to show those throngs of people: both Plac Saski and the Congress Hall are too big to be filled by about a hundred of extras. Moreover, during the memorial meeting it turns out that the great vision of Sierakowski – the leader of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland – was a great naivety. One of the speakers, addressing the public while standing under a grey golem which is supposed to be a naturalistic effigy of the protagonist, states that “the Yiddish culture is dead and missed by few” and “Jews see the comeback not as a promise but as a nightmare”.

From the leaflets distributed at the Polish pavilion we discover that the film trilogy is only a part of Bertana’s artistic project – it is equally important to create a political movement named the same as in the film. If so, it seems that even less successful artistic project may have its political victims. Having starred in “Nightmares” and “Assassination”, Sławomir Sierakowski will not be able to become a real politician, especially if real politics and the project of the repatriation of Jews, for which the leader of “Krytyka Polityczna” is to be the martyr, will be implemented at the same time. Turning everything upside down and using paradoxical symmetries are just some of the art’s main motifs. In Venice, the proximity of Polish and Egyptian exhibitions resulted in a perfect example of such phenomenon. By dying unwillingly but for real, Basiony, the artist, has become a political symbol, whereas Sierakowski, the politician, by dying a false and directed death has (forever?) become an artist at the most.

Translation: Marta Gajda

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About Krzysztof Iszkowski

Sociologist of politics. Graduate of the University of Warsaw (sociology) and Warsaw School of Economics (international relations), PhD (2008) in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Science. A member of the Research Center on Democracy, author of Liberte!.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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