Wars of Perception

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 out of this thin cover story, and with its exhortation to a self-consciously narcissistic action (taking a selfie instead of looking at the art) stabs at the heart of our contemporary political crisis. Wouldn’t so many of us rather apathetically believe the “little green men” were volunteers, or tourists, or whatever, take a selfie and get on with guzzling our umpteenth Aperol spritz of the evening?

The international political community, and that includes you and me, are cowardly and silent because we have nothing to gain by standing up and saying — hey, you shouldn’t covertly invade that place. It’s so much easier to handwave and make excuses for being uncritical, especially if there is business to be done with distasteful regimes. On Vacation takes this frivolous, cowardly, narcissistic extreme and plays with it. It asks us if we are even willing to do something so small, so nearly insignificant, as to don a vest, step into the Russian Pavilion, and take a goddamn selfie.

The project has managed to take the theme of our overall cowardice and extend it to our weakness for celebrities — which despite its ambitions, the contemporary art world is just as susceptible to as any other realm. Will Kanye West wear an On Vacation vest? Sure, he will! What will come next after that? Will Kanye’s donning of a vest finally attract some sober attention for the thorny, ugly problem the anonymous architects of On Vacation wish to draw attention to? Or will the camo vests simply become the “must have” Venice Biennale accessory without a further thought?

I’m afraid we know the answer. But On Vacation stands as a beautiful statement which cuts to the heart of our contemporary illness, our mealy-mouthed spinelessness in the face of standing up for what is right, our willingness to look away. It’s shameful, and I can only hope that at least one visitor to Venice put on the vest, took a selfie, and shuddered — knowing their pain could be the next to be ignored.

Postscript 1: This text has been translated into Ukrainian and Russian — translations available here.

Post-postscript: Is the image of Kanye photoshopped? Yes, and it doesn’t matter in meme warfare.