There is a phantom on the loose in Europe. And not only in Europe. It is the phantom of singing. The phantom of the dirge and the protest song. When nothing else does any good, when all those in high government office remain deaf to complaints, then just whistling for something is not enough. Then, the unheard raise their voices: "La révolution en chantant". Maybe once the jingling of money did keep the masses quiet and maybe the shrieking of the cash machines in the traditional retail industry was a source of inspiration for good artistes, take for example, the way that on the Pink Floyd track "Money" an old cash register opening and shutting provides the background to the music. But that was long ago and the NCR cash register has fallen silent, replaced by the electronic till, as silent as the stockbrokers' computer screens.
At the moment, what is driving our world to the brink is neither the raging of the fish processing machinery nor the champing of heavy industry (equipping itself for a Third World War) and it is not (yet) the sound made by the boots of the goose-stepping military echoing in the alleyways; no, more than anything it is the silent, globalized, inaudible flow of cash, no longer coupled to production. In as many as three country pavilions opera and singing are the artistic media of choice for artists to comment on and criticize this global situation.
Your country doesn't exist
Back in 2007 artist duo Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, who have been working together since 1997, had the Icelandic constitution set to music by Karolina Eiríiksdóttir and then transformed this into a performance, together with the Icelandic state television. A video version can be viewed in the beautiful gardens of the Palazzo Zenobio in their semi-wild state. Another work, a spoken text on the noise made by a fish processing factory, was entitled "The Sound Of Money" and dealt with the reorientation of the Icelandic economy from fish to the financial markets. For their contribution to the Icelandic pavilion, they took their project "Your Country Doesn't Exist" one stage further. The starting point was demonstrations by millions of citizens in Spain and England, among other things, against the invasion of Iraq. In the following years, the slogan was to be seen on all kinds of surfaces in all kinds of media. The work acted as a kind of boomerang with its hand-written project title in white on a black background; in some places taking the form of a T-shirt with a hand-made stencil, declaring in Portuguese "Patria tua non es", in others, that of a large, once again hand-written street poster or that of a drinks can, both in Serbian.
In Venice, the duo showed a video of a soprano on a gondola in Venice, accompanied by a guitarist and a trumpeter. "Il Tuo Paese Non Esiste" has once again been set to music by Karolina Eiríiksdóttir. For their examinations of civil rights Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson have taken the idea of the single slogan criticizing the "undemocratic" Iraq war a step further, transforming it into a criticism of European immigration policy and doing this at a time when thousands of Libyans and Tunisians are hoping to gain entry to Europe on the island of Lampedusa, to the south of Italy. The following words rang out over the canals of Venice in various languages, repeated over and over again, "This is an announcement by Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson: your country does not exist!".
In the moment of a clash
There is also singing in the Hungarian pavilion, but this time as a collective. Hajnal Németh, who belongs to that generation of artists who reached adulthood in the last decade of the communist system, takes permanent issue with the contradictions of "being in the system and, at the same time, keeping as far away from it as possible". She has reinterpreted set pieces from the spectacle industry in a metaphorical way and, as of 2003, has increasingly turned her interest to the music industry as part of our contemporary culture. "Crash - Passive Interview" is a musical interpretation of memory in the here and now, an interview between a woman and a man in that moment of hovering between life and death, with the involuntary side-effect of memory: reinterpretation. Excerpts from the interview have been printed out and are hanging on car number-plates on the wall of the entrance, because the death of the protagonists is the result of a car accident. In the first exhibition room a half-crushed black BMW suddenly looms out of the semi-darkness. In the next room an experimental opera, "Crash - Passive Interview" in 12 acts issues from an eight-channel sound installation. The imaginary libretto composed by Hajnal Németh in the form of an interview was set to music by Reggi Moore.
The car accident as a catastrophic invasion, within the fraction of a second, of the life of an individual or a couple, one that often turns into a crisis for an entire family, is, for Hajnal Németh, also a metaphor for the crisis in post-communist Hungary. Even today, it is possible to feel the social and cultural consequences of the invasion of ultraliberal economic practices in Hungary and throughout eastern Europe. And consistently with the idea of the car industry as the beating heart pumping blood through the capitalist economy, the artist shows, on flat screens, spanking new limousines driving out of the BMW factory in Leipzig.
Hajnal Németh's contribution to Venice in three sections derives its effect from the tense situation produced by an extremely basic installation that does not, in any way, present the car in the accident as something glamorous, as was previously the case with Sylvie Fleury or Bertrand Laviers, but she does complement the installation with a sensual and uplifting kind of music that assumes the sublime dimensions of religion – even if the sound recordings were made at a BMW factory and on highway bridges.
Opera as a way of working
In the Dutch pavilion the opera is more of a model for a way of working than it is a form of presentation in itself. Whereas the artists in the Icelandic and Hungarian pavilions are trying to stand up by means of song to the kind of predatory capitalism that is currently prevalent, this collective of ten designers and writers living in Holland uses the opera to counter the idea of the competing nation, here referencing the competition in Venice, with a model for a working community within the nation. The wooden construction, that can also be seen as an extension of the Rietveld architecture (the pavilion was constructed from 1952 through 1954 by Gerrit Rietveld), is a building site in the truest sense of the words and successfully fulfils the requirements of a work in progress, serving as a platform for presenting contributions by different artists. This building site of ideas is, at the same time, a manifesto for Holland's multifaceted arts scene which is, at the moment, under full-scale attack from right-wing populist politicians. "Opera Aperta / Loose Work", to quote the title of this all-purpose artwork, does reference the Italian expression "Opera" meaning work and does represent an open reference to Umberto Eco's "open work", but, at the same time, sees itself as an opera even if the musical elements is less dominant than, for example, in the case of Richard Wagner. Yes, on the one "track" the music is taken down a tone, and on the surface sounds like background noise. It was London-based theoretician Sarat Maharaj who taught us that sounds and even noise can have a political connotation. It was this former documenta co-curator who came up with the wonderful notion that "noise is the refugee of the sound system"!
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg
> "American gym session" by Thomas Wagner
> "Resistance – liquefied or solidified?" by Barbara Basting
> "Slings, slings over all" by Barbara Basting
> "The Last Supperhero: Tintoretto" by Annette Tietenberg
> "Overpainting the feuilleton" by Joerg Bader
> "Venezia, Piazza Tahrir" by Barbara Basting
> "Head for the caravanserai " by Joerg Bader