The Brooklyn-based artist Felipe Baeza was not sure he would be able to attend the opening of the 59th Venice Biennale, in which he is one of relatively few male-identifying artists. His ink, cut paper and egg tempera collage Phanthomgórico figures prominently in the Biennale’s promotional materials—a piercing pair of eyes from the work adorns the exhibition’s website as well as the bridges and vaporetti connecting the Venetian lagoons. But the Mexican-born artist’s US resident status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) programme almost kept him from celebrating this career landmark. Even when he did make it, he was not sure he would be allowed to return to the US, as re-entry under Daca is never guaranteed.
In the face of bureaucracy, global emergency or war, showing at the world’s biggest art affair can require overcoming enormous obstacles. From an ongoing pandemic to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ever-shifting border policies, the struggles many faced to participate in the 2022 Biennale may have been overshadowed by the spectacle, but their stories demonstrate art’s resilience against the unpredictable.
In Baeza’s case, such complications had already kept him from attending the opening of his solo exhibition, Unruly Suspension, at London’s Maureen Paley gallery in June 2021. “After my work received early press as the exhibition’s identity, I figured my chances to get a travel permit were higher this time,” he says.
Explaining art’s value
Those living in the US under Daca, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, are required to renew their status every two years and international travel is limited to specific cases, such as humanitarian work or education. In the case of an art exhibition, however, it can be challenging to prove the necessity of leaving the country.
“The process comes down to an effort to show my ‘value’ as an artist,” Baeza says. “As a Yale graduate I may pass, but those from different backgrounds and paths face larger challenges,” he adds. Besides obtaining a referral letter from the Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani, Baeza also met with two immigration officers to expedite his application process from the typical two months to just two weeks. For re-entry upon return, Baeza had to request permission from the federal government. It was like “putting a puzzle together”, the artist says of the process, which also included having to explain the prominence of the Biennale in order to be considered for the expedited “emergency” parole. On his third trial for emergency status, two weeks before the opening, Baeza received his travel approval.
The 34-year-old artist’s work echoes his struggle. His mixed-media depictions of bodies in various stages of confinement and transformation speak to experiences of drift, queerness and ethereality.
The body’s journey through places and memory also anchors the Istanbul-based artist Füsun Onur’s installation Once Upon a Time… at the Turkish Pavilion. Tying a transhistorical and surreal bond between Istanbul and Venice, the artist’s hand-formed wire figurines of cats, mice and humans narrate a tale in which the felines and rodents commiserate about human destruction and team up to travel from the Bosphorus to La Serenissima. The project’s curator, Bige Örer, oversaw the planning and logistics of the 21-pedestal installation with remote guidance from the 84-year-old artist, who could not travel.
Örer says she had to become comfortable “being Onur’s eyes and ears and imagin[ing] the space through her vision”. As the director of the Istanbul Biennial and the contemporary art projects of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), which oversees the Turkish Pavilion, Örer felt acutely responsible towards the work and the artist because of the unique complications of this Biennale.
After cancelling two scouting trips to Venice due to Covid variants in 2021, it became clear Onur would be installing the work remotely from her studio. The first step was for the pavilion team to shoot a smartphone video capturing the experience of arriving at the Arsenale and Turkey’s pavilion by boat. The works’ first journey to Venice was in 2021, when Örer brought a few pieces to test their scale within the space. Onur does not use a computer, smartphone or the internet, so a team member helped her Zoom to the venue. Örer visited the site again with the exhibition designer Yelta Köm to experiment with natural and artificial light, as well as the texture and thickness of the exhibition’s floating pedestals.
The next stage required creating early versions of the installation at different venues in Istanbul, starting with Beykoz Kundura, which is exactly half the size of the pavilion, with similar high ceilings and brick walls. In addition to testing heights and suspension structures for the pedestals there, the team photographed various arrangements of the wire sculptures to show Onur. IKSV’s own venue was the next site where the team played with various lighting options and mounted a larger configuration to help the artist complete her fable. A final staging at IKSV allowed for a photoshoot for the exhibition catalogue and helped the team choose the thin Plexiglas pedestals now holding Onur’s tale of a world freed from human governance.
Ripples from Russia’s war
Besides the war-related challenges faced and overcome by Ukraine’s pavilion, Kazakhstan’s inaugural participation has been complicated by the chaos in the region resulting from the Russian invasion. After trucks hauling their materials became stuck in Georgia, the Kazakh pavilion’s artist collective, ORTA, created the last-minute installation Spectacular Experiments.
Putting together the show with cardboard and foil bought from stores near the Spazio Arco in Dorsoduro manifested the anarchic soul of art in defiance of war. It also celebrated the Russian Surrealist painter Sergey Kalmykov (1891-1967), who had inspired the collective’s original installation, Lai-Phi-Chu-Plee-Lapa Centre for the New Genius. “In addition to the positive reactions we received, including those who suggested we keep the installation this way, we had a great starting point to talk about war with the visitors,” says ORTA member Rustem Begenov.
At the time of our conversation, the trucks had finally arrived and the collective was back at work installing the project it had originally envisioned. According to Begenov, the installation enacts “a childish imagination to talk about realities of technology and politics”. Visitors to the pavilion now step into a womb-like grotto that houses traditional Kazakh embroidery woven by collective member Alexandr Bakanov during lockdown. Two of Bakanov’s 30 embroideries based on Kalmykov’s manuscripts had made it into the initial installation after travelling to Venice in the artists’ suitcases.
The complete series is now on view along with what the collective calls “a cardboard light generator of genius”, in which the outer skeleton of an old minivan sits on robotic legs driven by a hydraulic motor. The 11ft-tall sculpture in the pavilion courtyard “is learning to walk”, Begenov adds. The project’s Surrealist and avant-garde approach suits the theme of the 2022 Biennale’s main show well, but the collective actually started the project four years ago to create alternative ways to develop robotics in tribute to Kalmykov, who attempted to invent numerous machines, including one for time travel.
ORTA has been driven by a sense of responsibility and determination after Kazakhstan’s initial attempt to participate in 2019’s Biennale failed due to budget cuts and allegations of government misconduct. “We felt like we could not fail again,” Begenov says. Since the opening of the pavilion, the collective has been gathering what it calls a “different type of data”, which will help shape the music for a final performance. “Everyone visiting the pavilion has been participating with their discussions and energies to what we are trying to collect,” Begenov says, “and we will give the installation a fourth dimension when we return from Kazakhstan.”