Venice Biennale – First Emirati Pavilion

For the May issue of Modern Painters I interviewed Tirdad Zolghadr, curator of the first UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which features the work of Lamya Gargash (above). A couple excerpts:


LK: Hasn’t the idea of a national pavilion been something that artists and curators at Venice have chosen to critique or obscure rather than celebrate?

TZ: Yes, like Hans Haacke’s German Pavilion in 1993.

LK: Right, where he jackhammered the marble floor into shards that visitors had to carefully walk over, with the word “Germania” chiseled onto a far wall. And this year, Germany is presenting a British artist, as if to say the whole nationality thing is over.

TZ: Then there was Santiago Sierra’s Spanish Pavilion in 2003, in which the entrance was bricked up and only visitors who held Spanish passports could enter.

LK: So, with this history of critiquing the national pavilions, does your decision to “unapologetically” embrace the tropes of World’s Fair display tactics poke fun at the outdated idea of a national pavilion?

TZ: No, not at all. I could have decided to install a bunch of fake palm trees, but ultimately I hope to present the pavilion in a manner that will hopefully be neither glamorizing nor satirical.

LK: A hard balance to strike.

TZ: Yes.


LK: The Emirates accrue a lot of criticism for their labor practices, among other examples of exploitation. You could have easily curated a pavilion that bit the hand feeding you, and the artworld would have loved it.

TZ: Sure, I could have, but if I had an issue with the Emirates I would take it to the Emirates itself, not display it to entertain a European audience.

LK: …who would congratulate themselves for getting it and feel smug.

TZ: Exactly. It’s something that a lot of people working in places seen as crisis zones feel — it’s not about shame or anything. But sometimes when I mention to people in the West that I travel and work in the UAE or Tehran, they say “You are so brave!” Even when I insist that it’s about as brave as going to an opening at the Guggenheim in New York, they still whisper “No, you’re so brave!” It’s so easy to make certain people happy by confirming their fears. 

The full interview can be found here.

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