The Venice Biennale is the premier event of the contemporary art world. Other events and fairs are prominent, but something special about Venice — the long history, the star curators, the romantic location, et cetera — keeps it on top.
The focal point of the Venice Biennale is a collection of national pavilions in a park, the Giardini. To an outside observer, the pavilions may seem random in their architectural styles (which widely differ) and in the selection of countries on display (Great Britain, Uruguay, and Japan are three of the total 29). There have been numerous calls for an update to the format, eliminating national boundaries and updating the notion of the national pavilion to better reflect a post-national, globalized world.
But for now, for better or for worse, the national pavilion structure stands, and it provides an opportunity for political commentary which would otherwise not be possible. Despite this opportunity, there are surprisingly few visible pranks or protests, though this year a particularly clever group has addressed that.
Calling their project On Vacation, an anonymous group has distributed camouflage vests bearing the words “On Vacation” to Biennale guests and encouraged them to take selfies in national pavilions of the “occupying power of your choice”. Participants are then encouraged to upload the selfies to online services such as Twitter and Instagram, with the hashtag #onvacation. A winner for best selfie will be chosen and rewarded with a vacation — to Crimea, the Ukrainian territory recently annexed by Russia.
The beauty of this project is in its seeming openness (the “occupying power of your choice” could apply to several pavilions in the Giardini) balanced by the quiet punchline provided by the prize. The project’s name provides a clue for those who follow the news, as Russian separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said the Russian soldiers (or “little green men”) were simply indulging in a “vacation …among brothers who are fighting for their freedom” in Crimea.
Of course, a statement such as Zakharchenko’s is patently ridiculous, and up there with similar political bluster — “I didn’t inhale”, et cetera. The On Vacation project brilliantly takes the piss…