The basis of the arguments in this text are two installations and one artwork of the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. I try to elaborate a possibility of understanding the political significance of diaspora in a globalized world. This significance lies – in this reading – in the constitution of affects that cannot be subjected to Western logics of domination and thereby undermine them in different ways. For the Western subject, the “Otherness” that is present in diasporic conditions structurally mirrors the general “Otherness” of art. That said, art is an extraordinary way to render this otherness (or otherness as such) tangible.
The discussed works of the Diaspora Pavilion are a beautiful opportunity to think about art, curating, experience, and subjectivity. In the following, I will try to build the ideas out of the experience of the works and installations. Still, it is my reading (in that way subjective), and furthermore it is a sketch of an argumentation. The reading cannot do justice to the works in its brevity and does not have the ambition to do so – but nevertheless it puts forth a general claim that can be referred back to the works and installations.
The Diaspora Pavilion of the 2017 Venice Biennale situated in Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina showed artists that identified themselves within a diasporic situation. Their artworks explore the question of what diaspora as a mindset as well as a political reality could mean in and for a globalized world. Furthermore, the display itself takes part in confronting and elaborating these questions.
In the accompanying catalogue to the pavilion, the curators David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor position the pavilion “in opposition to the very concept of a permanent national pavilion,” presenting “counter-narratives that interrogate the critical capacity of diaspora as notion” and having “a topical interest in the impact of increased global mobility, displacement, and migration on culture,” and as an “approach [to] art […] as a space of refuge – an in-between space of transition and of diasporic passage for art practitioners.”
In this text, I will outline a reading of works in the Diaspora Pavilion that constitutes one (out of many) ways in which the political potential or the political demand of diaspora is articulated in the pavilion. To this end, I will discuss two installations and one artwork from the exhibition. My reading is selective and subjective and does in no way give an adequate account of the pavilion or even the installations themselves. Nonetheless, I hope to give an account of the political content and the aesthetic strategies at work in the pavilion and the discussed works.
Installations as such are artistic means to problematize, de-centralize, or bypass the Western subject. This idea is a crucial concept in Claire Bishop’s book Installation Art:
Perhaps most importantly, the key idea that emerges in writing on this work is that traditional single-point perspective is overturned by installation art’s provision of plural and fragmented vistas: as a result, our hierarchical and centred relation to the work of art (and to ourselves) is undermined and destabilized.
Certainly, this desire to “de-centre,” “undermine,” and “destabilize” the Western subject can be understood as one underlying principle of the Diaspora Pavilion as well. The pavilion, the installations, and the artworks give answers to what this could mean. In the following, I will try to elaborate one possible way to read this.
The Grand Salon
The Grand Salon (fig. 1) on the upper floor is one of the focal points of the pavilion. It comprises works by six different artists. The salon has a wooden floor, heavy wooden doors, stucco, and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Its aristocratic origins are openly displayed. However, it does not seem accurate to say that the works (that refer to a diasporic situation) would not fit in the space. Looked at as installation, as a space that is designed, a specific dialogue is installed.
An abundance of colors and shapes populate the room. The floor is taken over by six sculptures from Michael Forbes’ series called The Masquerade (figs. 1-2). They dominate the room and set the tone that is taken up by the other artworks. Each of the sculptures is made of different media, like small electrical devices, paintings, and diverse African and European figures and sculptures—everything somehow distorted and put in strange relationships, thereby undermining the possibility of pinpointing meaning. This makes it hard to structure the experience of the installation according to a principle.
That characteristic (that we see in some of the other artworks in the space) stands in a sharp contrast to everything the original design of the room so obviously presents: the insignia of a tradition in search of the one rule, the one truth, of ways to control the contingencies of life. Through the contrast with the anarchic qualities of the artworks, this logic of order, structure, and power of the tradition becomes palpable.
Yet interestingly enough, the montage does not create a contradiction. It seems as if those anarchic qualities of the artworks would not care at all about the tradition with which they have been put into relation. It seems as if they would not care about the object of tradition of power and violence that houses the works, and that is maybe one of the main reasons for the existence of something like the diaspora today. They just inhabit the space and fill it with forces that cannot be subjected to the traditional logics of domination. In this installation, the tradition that colonized and oppressed the other is colonized itself by this other—but not by oppression and violence, but by a completely different logic.
This dialogue between different logics is supported by the other works that are exhibited in the Grand Salon. The series of portraits called Bate Bola by Nicola Green (fig. 2), for example, operates in a similar way. The catalogue accompanying the pavilion states that the series “is addressing the meaning of mixed heritage identity through the lens of the Carnival in Rio.” This “meaning” that is “addressed” seems to have something to do with the fact that it is hard to subject the artworks to specific meanings and thereby control or dominate the work or the experience itself. In the case of Bate Bola, too, a multitude of colors and forms invade the space in an anarchic and specifically non-violent and playful but still forceful fashion.
A logic of domination through principles meets a logic that has the absence of any principle as principle. This absence indicates itself as exactly the freely moving dynamic affects that should have been kept at bay by the principle of domination. From this point of view, affectivity that is not structured is of great concern for this exhibition.
In the following, I will discuss another room of the pavilion that will help to make this line of reasoning more concrete.
In a corner of the upper floor, a bathroom hosts an installation (figs. 3-4). Another golden Shimmer Curtain (fig. 3) and an audio loop by susan pui san lok, two Lightboxes by Michael Forbes (fig. 4), and a work from a series by Barby Asante are gathered there. The golden Shimmer Curtain covers a good part of the space. Entering the space, it takes a moment to orient oneself, to understand that one is standing in a bathroom. There is a large mirror on one side, a shower, a bathtub, and a toilet on the opposing side of the room. The Lightboxes of Michael Forbes are positioned in the shower and on the bathtub. The golden ribbons of the curtain nicely join the warm colors of the bathroom. Taken by itself, the colorful decoration of the bathroom would be too much – too fancy for a bathroom it seems.
But this time, the installation melds the given aesthetic qualities of the room with those of the artworks. The quality of the excessive decor is intensified by the Shimmer Curtain and thereby transformed into something else. The bathroom becomes a magical place: the design of the installation as a whole establishes a tender, playful, even erotic atmosphere that should be at odds with what a bathroom stands for. A bathroom is a place of cleanliness, as far as dirt is dealt with here. That is why the original set-up seems too much. It is not really suitable for dirt and shit. It is as if the original design represses the truth of the function of a bathroom that must not be seen. By taking up exactly this aspect of the space (repression through beauty, one could say) and intensifying it, the repressed becomes readable. The displayed Lightboxes of Michael Forbes make this sketch more concrete.
One of the Lightboxes is put prominently on the bathtub in the corner of the room. It shows a male colonial figure whose face is partly covered by a black circle on the left side and the proposition Leave Behind White Innocence on the right side of the box (fig. 4). Next to the colonial figure with the blackened face, the idea of white innocence immediately becomes a charade. Yet at the same time, “innocence” is clearly asserted to be a central aspect of the state of mind of the Western subject. And the fact of Western violence is related to this self-attribution of innocence. To request to leave white innocence behind and pointing to the blackness adhering to the “civilized” colonial white male suggests that innocence could have something to do with violence. If a certain guilt is the truth, the consideration of innocence becomes more than a nice mask. It becomes at least a defense mechanism against one's own truth. But the causality seems to run the other way: violence always seems justified for the perpetrator of violence. Because he is right and the other is wrong in a way that makes violence the only solution to right that wrong. The function of innocence is not to cover up guilt – innocence is installing violence in the first place.
Innocence needs a rationale. It needs a principle that states what is right and wrong, what the subject should strive to identify with and what to exclude from him/herself. Such a principle that works by exclusion is necessarily a fiction. A fiction that constitutes the subject, the order of the world s/he lives in, the order by which s/he understands and experiences him/herself, the order that decides what can be part of the subject and what cannot. But the manifestations of life are too manifold to all be peacefully gathered under one principle. As a necessary consequence, the subject will be confronted with material that threatens his/her world. The consequence is violence, in order to uphold the clean, pure, and innocent space.
To implicate that the subject cuts him/herself off not only from aspects of the outside world but also from parts of him/herself seems reasonable at this point. Hence, the subject is confronted by these dark parts from the outside as well as the inside.
To “leave behind white innocence” therefore suggests that confronting what shows itself is the only way to deal with violence. The artwork also suggests, on the level of imagery as well as of narrative, that violence is first of all a self-relation. A relation of the subject to the dark parts of him/herself that have been excluded, that must not be known, that are outsourced and fought in the other. The interesting question that is posed by the artwork is what will happen with the dark parts when they are not fought anymore. Both the bathroom and the Grand Salon provide an answer to this question. Beyond critical reflections on diaspora and the Western subject, the installations render perceptible what it could mean to “leave behind white innocence.” In the case of the bathroom, it could be said to operate by giving shit a new meaning so it can be experienced more freely. A moment of the tradition was taken up, intensified, and thus made perceptible. In the Grand Salon, the relationship to the logic of tradition functioned in a different way. They presented a logic of non-structured affectivity that made it possible to undermine the Western logic of dominion in a non-violent way. In this way, flows of friendly affects that cannot be ordered became accessible. And this made tangible that the unknown or unknowable can have a friendly face. This seems to be a valuable experience.
Marco Meuli is currently working on a dissertation on questions about aesthetics, art, contemporary culture and politics in their mutual dependence. In particular, he is interested in how subjectivities are produced that are not built according to patriarchal structures. He considers art and human relationships sites where new forms of being can be engendered. At the same time, he works on exhibition projects that centre on these topics.
 David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor, “TACTICAL INTERVENTIONS: Curating A Diaspora Pavilion” in: Diaspora Pavilion, Exhibition booklet (International Curators Forum, 2017), 8, accessed April 20, 2019. https://www.internationalcuratorsforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Diaspora-Pavilion-Catalogue-Web-version.pdf.
 Michael Forbes, The Masquerade (2016-2018), Kimathi Donkor, Bacchus and Ariadne (2004), Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourete (2004), Nicola Green, Bate Bola (2006), Paul Maheke, The River Asked for a Kiss (to Pateh Sabally) (2017), Libita Clayton, WHERE NOW WHERE/Typical Political – a domestic riot (2017), Barby Asante, As Always a Painful Declaration of Independence: For Ama. For Aba. For Charlotte and Adjoa (2017).