PAK SHEUNG CHUENTo Share a Watermelon With an Unknown Person, 2005, photo documentation of performance. Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou.

In and out of this world

Although seven months into the global economic crisis, artists, curators and their followers from over 77 nations are about to leave some of their troubles behind and fly to Venice to surround themselves with the world’s latest art. Now in its 53rd incarnation, the Venice Biennale is dedicated to experimentation, but it also represents the positive spirit of internationalism. Every year, the Biennale welcomes more nations into its program. This year’s exhibition, “Making Worlds,” captained by Swedish curator Daniel Birnbaum, who runs Portikus in Frankfurt, Germany, is shaping up to be most inclusive Biennale ever. Along with many returning countries from Asia and the Pacific, debut pavilions include the United Arab Emirates, Palestine and a group initiative by Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. ArtAsiaPacific 63 previews this year’s ambitious Venice Biennale and focuses on several of the artists participating in the show.

In an article that paints a broad picture of the multi-national institution, AAP’s features editor Ashley Rawlings talks with Daniel Birnbaum and the curators of many of the national pavilions as they lay the groundwork for the exhibition. In Features, we also spotlight several participating artists. From Brisbane, Michael Young looks at the work of Indigenous multimedia artist Vernon Ah Kee, who provoked controversy at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney with his candid explorations of Australia’s treatment of its Aboriginal population and its ongoing legacy of racism. In Venice, Ah Kee’s works will serve as a reminder that the effects of 18th-century colonialism are still playing out in the early 21st century.

Politics are addressed in a more oblique way by Hong Kong’s sole representative to Venice this year, conceptual and performance artist Pak Sheung Chuen, who transforms daily experiences such as collecting lottery tickets and eating watermelon into art. Pak’s ambitions are large but mercurial as writer Olivier Krischer discovers. For his project Page 22: Half-Folded Library, like an origami graffiti artist, Pak dog-eared page 22 of every second book in one branch of the New York Public Library. Photo editor Alis Atwell tracked down the books and selected several of Pak’s interventions for inclusion in the article. Krischer reveals that Pak conceived of this covert bibliographic subversion as a way to overcome feelings of isolation in New York City and engage with its inhabitants. Managing editor HG Masters contemplates the like-minded sensibility of Berlin-based artist Haegue Yang, who fills the South Korea Pavilion with her mysterious installations of venetian blinds, colored lights, fans and air fresheners to convey a disconcerting sense of some place, or no place.

Examinations of national identity and prevailing stereotypes—both consciously imposed and subconsciously perpetuated—are coincidentally the focus at the pavilions of Singapore and Thailand, the only two Southeast Asian countries showing in Venice. From Bangkok, Philip Cornwel-Smith walks us through the group exhibition of Thai artists from the “Land of Smiles.” Cornwel-Smith examines how Singapore, too, grapples with its identity. This comes into sharp focus in Ming Wong’s cinematic re-enactments, which play on the paradoxes inherent in the city-state’s ethnic categories, dubbed by the government as “CIMO”—Chinese, Indian, Malay and, last and least, “Other.” Another artist who will make an international debut in Birnbaum’s Arsenale show is London-based Tibetan, Gonkar Gyatso. Contributing editor Donald Dinwiddie explains that although Gyatso was trained in socialist realism, thangka and traditional Chinese painting in Lhasa, Beijing and Dharamsala, he only found creative liberation after he moved to London, where he began to use British tabloids and children’s stickers in his work and to interpret the world through popular culture, mass media and the printed word.

The Venice Biennale is a theme throughout the magazine. For Archive, assistant editor Hanae Ko looks back at Japan’s first appearance in Venice in 1897 and introduces the forward-thinking patron Shojiro Ishibashi, who bravely funded the construction of the Japan Pavilion in the Giardini in 1956, when the defeated country was preoccupied with postwar reconstruction. In Projects, AAP talks with Mumbai-based painter Anju Dodiya—who will debut at Venice in the Arsenale exhibition—about her use of eclectic materials and the literary references that inspire her work. And London-based Iranian artist Reza Aramesh drafts a Proposal X on his vision for a yet-to-be-built Iran Pavilion at Venice.

In Profiles, AAP looks at the burden of history and how social, political and economic connections are in flux all over the world. Murtaza Vali interviews Mumbai-based painter Nalini Malani, who remains interested in ancient mythology while her practice has expanded from oil-on-canvas to sprawling video installations. Also on the Subcontinent, Allison White visits the port city of Karachi to report on the dynamic art scene developing there. In the United States, we preview an upcoming survey in Los Angeles and Houston of 12 contemporary Korean artists who emerged in the wake of South Korea’s democratic movement in the 1980s. For Current Affairs, artist Naeem Mohaiemen, known for his ruminations on history and politics, mulls over Bangladesh’s recent peaceful elections and its particular form of democracy. And from Vietnam, Christine Vu offers a snapshot of the hard realities of arts funding, and how the lack of a mature political and social system inhibits the country’s fledgling contemporary art scene.

At the heart of all discussions on arts funding, whether in Hanoi or Hollywood—witnessed in the recent bailout of the bankrupt Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—is the oceanic fact that the expanding art world must navigate the same choppy financial waters as the rest of the world. May artists, curators and art lovers—whether they are those heading for Venice in June or those who remain ensconced in their studios in Karachi or Korea—remain undeterred by such challenges, as art is one way in and one way out of this world.