Let’s Judge Entire Countries Solely Based on Their Venice Biennale Pavilions

VENICE, ITALY - MAY 08: The Japan pavillion at the Giardini during the 56 Venice Biennale Art on May 8, 2015 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)
Chiharu Shiota’s installation A Key in Hand. Photo: Awakening/Getty Images

The Venice Biennale dates to 1894, part of the late-19th-century version of globalism, which inspired lots of international expositions when it was possible but not all that easy to travel the world (think Paris’s in 1889, when the Eiffel Tower went up, or Chicago’s in 1893, which inspired that Erik Larson book). Soon the national pavilions started going up: Belgium (1907), Hungary (1909), Germany (1909), Great Britain (1909), France (1912), and Russia (1914), and then resumed again after the first World War, and again after the second.

So going to the Venice Biennale is like getting a tour of dozens of different countries, each with its own showcase, all in the course of a day. It’s a bit like going to Epcot, but instead of some animatronic puppets celebrating progress and capitalism, you have contemporary art from around the world showing off whatever that country’s arts elites think is appropriate to show the world.

Let’s be honest: Zipping around the Biennale can be even better than actual travel (at least once you finally get to Venice itself). At the end of each day on the canals, all global citizens come together and drink Prosecco on porches, gazing out at the fruits of their collective creative labor. Communing with the diversity of humankind, no passports or TSA agents necessary.

But what if you took the Venice Biennale as your Let’s Go guide? In the interests of reviewing the full sweep of the exhibition as well as planning my insanely awesome dream vacation, I took a tour through the national pavilions to see what they had to say about the potential of their home countries for tourism. In the Monocle era, no country can go un-branded.

Upon leaving the Arsenale show on the outskirts of Venice, smaller pavilions present themselves. Sweden, Albania, Slovenia, and Chile are all right next to each other. They are all incredibly depressing. Sweden’s, a darkened room with panels of light and drawings set throughout, has something to do with light and shadow and memory, but … mostly just looks like a dark room. Albania’s has a giant whale skeleton, which is cool, but also makes you feel sad and war-torn. Chile’s deals with its recent dictatorship — super depressing, but vital. Slovenia’s pavilion is the most depressing by far. Jagged walls rise up out of the floor, around which circle sad blonde girls dragging pencilled lines across the enclosure. The structure’s interior is painted in shades of dark red and black. There’s a confusingly gutted piano. Phrases like “Why are you talking?” are chalked on the ceiling. It’s all a serious bummer. Verdict: Would not visit any of these places. Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
I walk up to the pavilion and it’s … a convenience store? Wait, not actually a convenience store, more like an alternate-reality one, and everything you know has been totally destabilized via motion-blurred labels that make you feel drunk. It’s pretty cool. Less understandable is the hoarder’s paradise that follows — a collage of found objects drizzled in paint that culminates in a scaffolding treehouse with a view of the Giardini courtyard, reminding you that you’re not actually in the backwoods of one of the upper provinces. Oh, Canada! Verdict: Would visit, probably. Or just move there.
Not much going on here. Some branches, a few boxes with Styrofoam half-busts inside. It could be an ambiguous Williamsburg pop-up shop of uncertain scale before the overpriced merchandise gets shipped in. Someone left their phone charging at an exposed outlet. Too bored to steal it. Verdict: Try harder, Denmark. Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has assembled an installation of slowly moving trees, and turned both sides of the pavilion into a low, foam amphitheater where viewers can recline under two camera obscuras and absorb the sounds of an ambient audio piece. There’s supposed to be something happening with the inversion of the landscape through the camera lens, but what the experience really boils down to is watching other people reclining supine, making out on squishy recliners. Very French. Into it. Verdict: Would visit. Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/2015 Bertrand Rindoff Petroff
The Israel Pavilion is covered with tires, a promising start for no one except fans of elementary-school gym class. Inside, there’s a confusing array of work — a mishmash of found objects smushed together and large, violent paintings full of jagged brushstrokes and sad-looking people. It feels very conflicted about itself. Verdict: No thanks. Would not visit.
Ireland’s pavilion has food in the form of piles of possibly fake fruit scattered about, but I can’t eat any of it, a restriction that is disappointing because it’s been a long time since the last prosciutto panino. There are stone sculptures that allude to some kind of storytelling tradition, but the space is so sparse that they seem arbitrarily placed. The piece is called Adventure: Capital, which seems perfect for a tourism slogan but a little too elusive to make much sense. Something is happening with myth, symbolism, cultural heritage — all that good stuff — but the pavilion seems unfinished. Verdict: Inedible food, confusing rocks. Would not visit. Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
Chiharu Shiota’s installation A Key in Hand is tremendously atmospheric and gorgeously unphotographable. It’s also very approachable if you’re scared of contemporary art and like feeling surrounded by things. The red haze formed by its intricate web of string is spellbinding, but also totally messes up the white balance on your phone when you try to take a selfie. The old fishing boats, filled with rusted keys, lend the pavilion a sense of enduring time, which is refreshing in light of some of the hypercontemporary, craft-free exhibitions. Feels very Buddhist in here: We are all connected, efforts of many, etc. Verdict: Sounds like a nice vacation. Even if it’s a vacation without selfies. Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
The theme of the Biennale is “All the World’s Futures,” which suggests a certain intellectual grandeur, but also has hints of cool sci-fi dystopia. Such is the approach the Korean pavilion has adopted. The video piece by duo Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho meanders through what’s a very likely future indeed: We’re all going to be covered in a thin coat of white paint and run on sleek circular treadmills that project the now-vanished natural landscape in front of us. Art might not exist in a physical form anymore, but that’s fine! Verdict: Conformist monochrome dystopia? Sign me up.
So many questions about the Kosovo pavilion. Why is there blue sand on the ground? What is it made of? Will I die if I eat it? Like, I wouldn’t scoop it up with my hand and eat it right there but what if I got it on my shoe and then I took my shoe off and got it on my hand and then ate a banana without washing my hands, would I die? Verdict: I don’t think I want to go to Kosovo. Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
The Nordic Countries, already socially superior to us in every way, have constructed a pavilion that is everything one might expect. The huge, angular frames crisscrossing the pavilion over the glass shards on the floor seem more calm than destructive; cold and minimal, they convey an icy landscape. There’s little chaos here. A soundtrack of ambient voices brings to mind fairies. It’s all very soothing and hypnotic. Verdict: Would visit, although I got the impression that all you’re allowed to eat are twigs and fresh air. Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
Russia’s pavilion has been painted green, returning to its original color, but the symbolism will be lost on most casual viewers. The pavilion purports to explore the semiotic potentials of color, but the projections and videos that play across the interior seem more distracting than anything — a mix of found and archival footage, they evoke a cultural milieu too universal to be poetic and too general to feel specific. Also, feels a bit like a history lesson. Verdict: Would not visit (probably boring).
Spain has chosen to open with several Dalí videos playing on a huge screen right in front as you walk in. Everyone loves Dalí, so that’s comforting. Turn to the right, though, and you get a jarring glimpse of Pepo Salazar’s installation — a screaming, technicolor, bald Britney Spears, because of course bald Britney Spears makes an appearance at the world’s most prestigious art biennale — behind a screen rolling through a YouTube playlist of Debussy’s greatest hits. There are smelly piles of Cheetos everywhere. There are fake newsstands, inducing a vague aura of sketchiness. Verdict: I don’t like this. Would not visit. Leave Britney alone!
The Tuvalu pavilion is really cool until you realize that it’s about climate change, then it is also depressing. The whole space is full of fog and luminescent blue-green water, like a giant lagoon. Visitors walk through on semi-submerged footbridges while light from the vast Arsenale windows shimmers across the surface of the pavilion. The experience is beautiful in an eerie, tropical way, but it’s also about sinking islands, which adds a certain melancholy: The Polynesian island, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, will likely disappear as humans continue to destroy the environment. Bummer. See ya later, guys! Verdict: Would visit, until it sinks. Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
Sex! Sarah Lucas is a genius. Her weighty, shiny, saggy tit cats, which prowl through the custard-yellow pavilion, are equal parts arousing and disturbing. Ditto to the plaster casts of female bodies—just from the waist down—with cigarettes stuck butt-end in their, well, butts. Draped over tables, chairs, and straddling construction debris, the casts are alternately submissive, aggressive, and repulsive. Titled “I Scream Daddio,” the show is a paradise of weird, uncomfortable debauchery. Verdict: Would go home with. Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS
Oh my. Footage of ski-masked protestors is intercut with footage of similarly masked mothers breastfeeding their children. Wall pieces by Félix Molina are tame and subdued, pairing oddly with the political footage. Viva la revolucion? Seems dangerous. Verdict: Nope! Photo: Awakening/2015 Getty Images
The Venice Biennale As Let’s Go Guide