Ohal Grietzer and Sally O’Reilly – Against Art-Washing

Opening in April this year, the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale has caused controversy by refusing to take a stand on the brutal ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza. Signatories of Art Not Genocide Alliance argue that it is time for the Biennale to cancel the Israeli pavilion and refuse to provide a platform for the art-washing of genocide.

Ohal Grietzer is an Israeli born, Brooklyn based electronic musician

Sally O’Reilly is a writer, critic, teacher and editor

Cross-posted from the Verso Blog

In April this year the Venice Biennale will open its 60th International Art Exhibition. The last edition of the Biennale, in 2022, witnessed a notable geopolitical intervention in response to the unfolding war in Ukraine when the artists and curator of the Russian Pavilion withdrew their work in protest. That year, the Biennale took an official stand, issuing a public statement as well as writing in the preface to the exhibition catalog an unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s “acts of aggression.” Recent reports indicate that this year there will also be no Russian pavilion at the Biennale.

No such stand has been taken in response to Israel’s continued assault on Gaza. The state of Israel will be fully participant in this year’s exhibition, titled Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere, and curated by Adriano Pedrosa. The Israeli pavilion in the Giardini will host an exhibition by artist Ruth Patir, curated by Mira Lapidot and Tamar Margalit.

At the time of writing, Israel has killed 30,035 people in Gaza and the West Bank, including more than 13,000 children. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) recently ruled that Israel’s ongoing attack could plausibly amount to genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Despite witnessing the scale of death and destruction through the livestreaming of this annihilation, despite the overwhelming numbers of dead and injured and the acknowledgment by the ICJ, Israel’s allies – including USA, UK, and Germany – have maintained their unwavering support. They continue to provide military funding to Israel and have only begun to criticize it in the mildest terms now that the death toll has become so vast and yet continues to climb unchecked. Instead of steering a course towards a ceasefire via sanctions and diplomatic pressure, they have both endorsed and financed the military that has undermined the rights of millions of Palestinians crushed under Israel’s occupation and apartheid. This lack of official or state-sanctioned action puts the moral responsibility to stop complicity with this unbearable injustice onto civil society.

Since the ICJ ruling, Palestinians in Gaza and the US have brought a legal suit against American President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin in the US federal court, accusing the officials of failing to prevent and being complicit in Israel’s genocide against the 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza. Though the judge found plausible evidence of Israel’s genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, the case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. In the Netherlands, a Dutch court ordered the government to halt exports of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel due to concerns about their use in the violation of international law during the Gaza conflict. The Dutch government announced its intention to appeal to the Supreme Court, contending that the authority to determine foreign policy rests with the state, not the judiciary. What recourse is available when a court acknowledges genocide yet dismisses a case to halt military support? Or when a court does decide to halt military support and the government challenges its authority?

If the discourse of international law is insufficient for dismantling the seemingly impervious structures of injustice and oppression, the challenge lies with us, including those among us who are artists and cultural workers, to find other ways.

Artists and curators inhabit and intervene in the geopolitical web; their practices can both negate and reinforce local and global systems of oppression. Many cultural workers recognize that their work is intricately woven into the fabric of society, that their actions are influenced and shaped by external forces. Such ideas are often central to the curatorial statements of the Biennale’s nominated artistic directors as they try to contend with the scale of the project. While the Venice Biennale is about art, status, and the market maneuverings that decide who gets included and who gets omitted, it has also always been riven by geopolitics.

The Biennale has seen its share of political action: the anti-Vietnam war and workers’ protests in 1968; Biennale president and Italian socialist Carlo Ripa di Meana’s dedication of the 1974 edition to Chilean opposition to the Pinochet regime, and his controversial address to Soviet dissidents three years later; and the occupation by GULF (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) and Gulf Labor of the Israeli Pavilion and, with Italian labor organizations Sale Docks and Macao, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in 2015 to protest labor conditions for migrants in the Gulf and Palestinians in the West Bank. Notably, in response to the 1968 United Nations resolution 2396 on the topic of the policies of apartheid of the Government of South Africa, which requested that ‘all states and organizations to suspend cultural, educational, sporting, and other exchanges with the racist regime,’ the Biennale officially banned the state from participating.

Accepting Israel’s involvement in any capacity in the Biennale’s 60th edition, whether through official delegations, institutions, or individuals affiliated with the Israeli government, validates a regime currently engaged in grievous acts of aggression against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

This year’s Israeli artist representative for the Biennale will present her “Fertility Pavilion”, an immersive speculative fiction about motherhood, while Israel continues to withhold medical aid for pregnant women, leaving many to give birth in the street without anaesthetic, and to kill and starve Palestinian children and their mothers with impunity. While Biennale-goers enjoy mawkish reimaginings of ancient fertility goddesses, Israel perpetrates an all-too-real slaughter. It is time for the Biennale to cancel this pavilion and refuse to allow Israel a platform for art-washing genocide.

Many artists claim to construct their practice on principles of social responsibility, but when faced with a horrendous reality of the murder of tens of thousands and the maiming of many tens of thousands more, this actual responsibility is overridden. It renders the art world’s decolonization and liberation discourse empty – as if art belongs to a different order of meaningless reality. It would be a moral failure of the international art world at large, and the Biennale in particular, to give Israel’s Genocide Pavilion an international cultural stage

Like FIFA and Eurovision, the Biennale must be pressured to bar Israel from participation for its ongoing crimes against the Palestinian people, otherwise, the theme “Foreigners Everywhere,” with its remit to champion indigenous artists and its rejection of xenophobia, is vacuous nonsense. When Biennale goers are immersed in abstractions of fertility, Gazans will be facing the very real barren abyss of Israel’s moral bankruptcy. Equality, accountability, and social justice aren’t just for press releases. No decolonial gloss or any amount of institutional critique will conceal the harsh truth. If freedom and liberation hold genuine significance beyond mere buzzwords of the art world, and the Biennale is to uphold the moral integrity of its mission, it must exclude Israel from its 2024 edition.

Due to the Israeli war crimes in Gaza we have increased our coverage from five to six days a week. We do not have the funds to do this, but felt that it was the only right thing to do. So if you have not already donated for this year, please do so now. To donate please go HERE.

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