VENICE - Walking through the Encyclopedic Palace exhibition at the Venice Biennale, I was reminded of something Julie Mehretu said in a recent interview. She wanted to challenge the fast pace of images in the digital age and asked, “how do you slow down an audience?” Massimiliano Gioni achieved exactly that in his major show. Offering multi-part works that include "post cards," series of unbaked clay sculptures, detail-oriented exhibits and small-scale, hyper-realist body portraits which engage the viewer up close and personal, he forces us to slow down and commit.


The Pavilions from MENA held their own against this backdrop of artistic discourse. The Biennale always has, of course, something for everyone: sublime museum pieces, wildly imaginative work, even the occasional forgettable installation. Middle Eastern/Central Asian art comfortably found its niche within this range. Eight dedicated spaces (depending on how you count!) vied for attention from a sophisticated crowd that yearns for the fresh and exciting. Kuwait and Bahrain as first-timers, and Lebanon as a favourite returner, all had something special to say. Edge of Arabia’s acclaimed Rhizoma made a forceful impression, while the Iraqi Pavilion remained as strong as the last time. For me, the UAE Pavilion had a special resonance – not least because I have been following its history from the early days. Mohamed Kazem’s installation using the GPS system to highlight the loss of bearing and subsequent disorientation was hugely effective. Crowds thronged at the opening (attendants lost count after the first 3,000!) to the extent that the escalators had to be stopped to avoid an accident. The award of the permanent Pavilion space was of course in no small measure cause for this celebration and presence.

Mohammed Kazem’s Particolari dell’installazione. PHOTO: BY ITALO RONDINELLA COURTESY OF LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA.

Equally popular was art from the Turkic and Iranian cultures. The Azerbaijani Pavilion saw a good turnout, as did Dina Nasser-Khadivi’s show Love Me, Love Me Not, where works by Moshiri and Shoja Azari were particularly admired. This grouping seemed to shed fresh light on the cultural proximities of these countries and cast them in a new context. There was a palpable sentiment that art from the MENA region is now firmly established in the spectrum of important and expressive vocabularies. While political statements remain close to the surface, other more personal preoccupations are also being examined, enriching the dialogue between the individual and the universal. Now we have to wait another two years to see the rest of the journey!