In the interview “Questions on Geography,” published in 1976, Michel Foucault stated the following: Once knowledge can be analysed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture the process by which knowledge functions as a form of power and disseminates the effects of power. There is an administration of knowledge, a politics of knowledge, relations of power which pass via knowledge and which, if one tries to transcribe them, lead one to consider forms of domination designated by such notions as field, region and territory. And the politico-strategic term is an indication of how the military and administration actually come to inscribe themselves both on a material soil and within the forms of discourse.1 With this said, let us look at the changing political geography that has left a lasting mark on the architecture of Venice´s Giardini, and its history, fraught with paradoxes and discontinuities. The processes and chance events that have shaped it mirror the history of the past century: an age of nationalisms, totalitarianisms, and mass migration, marked by two world wars and the Cold War, but also an era of democratic progress, revolutionary changes, and projects of social empowerment that have found their expression in avant-garde art and architecture, and that came to bear a decisive influence on all areas of our life.
In July of 1932, three months after the official opening of the Polish Pavilion in Venice, Poland signed the Non-Aggression Pact with the USSR. In 1934, a declaration of non-aggression was signed in Berlin between Poland and Germany. The same year saw the establishment of what came to be known as the “place of isolation” in Bereza Kartuska. Created by the executive order of Polish President Ignacy Mościcki, this detention camp in the east of Poland was intended for political prisoners: Polish Communists, Socialists, Ultra-Nationalists, as well as Ukrainian separatists and other individuals “whose activity or conduct”—as the order stated—“gives reason to believe that they pose a threat to public security, peace, or order.” At the same time in Warsaw the construction of the National Museum was under way. Built to the design of Tadeusz Tołwiński, the museum opened in 1938, shortly before the German and Soviet invasion of Poland. National rhetoric and its slogans translated into the founding principles of social life were intended as an antidote to all imaginable dangers and challenges faced by the young state, as well as a weapon against enemies, including those within. Needless to say, the faith in this rhetoric, and dreams of power that followed from it, proved utterly illusory.
The Polish Pavilion is located in the right wing of a complex designed by the Italian architect Brenno Del Giudice, on the Island of Sant´Elena, which is separated from the Giardini by a canal. The central section of the building is home to the Venice Pavilion—which originally accommodated exhibitions of decorative arts and hosted presentations from the German Democratic Republic between 1982 and 1990. The building´s left wing initially housed the Swiss Pavilion and was handed over to Egypt once the Swiss presentations were relocated to a new structure by the entrance to the Giardini in 1952. Soon after, Del Giudice´s complex was flanked by two independent structures that appeared on the Island of Sant´Elena: the Austrian Pavilion, completed in 1934 (four years prior to the country Anschluss, or incorporation into Nazi Germany); and the Pavilion of Greece, erected the same year (six years before the Axis occupation of Greece and the establishment of the collaborationist government of the Hellenic State, which existed between 1941 and 1944). In the same year, 1934, the Biennale was paid a joint visit by Mussolini and Hitler. In 1938 Del Giudice´s complex was expanded to include two symmetrical wings. Conceived for Greece and Sweden, these spaces eventually became home to the Yugoslavian Pavilion and the Pavilion of Romania—located in the right wing, adjacent to that of Poland. In 1964 the modernist Brazilian Pavilion emerged on the axis of the Pavilion of Venice, partially obstructing the view of Del Giudice´s central building. That same year, a USA-backed coup d’etat in Brazil marked the end of the rule of social-democratic president Joao Goulart, leaving the country in the hands of military dictatorships until 1985. This, for the time being, marks the final chapter in the history of the architecture of national pavilions on the Island of Sant´Elena. The countries staging their presentations on the island have formed a remarkably heterogeneous new continent, where the distance from Egypt to Brazil and Austria is shorter than that to Israel, and Poland borders with Romania, as it did in 1939. All these countries were thrown together by chance and perhaps by the fact that none of them was a global superpower.
It should be noted that the appearance of a number of national pavilions extra muros, on the island beyond the Giardini, was related to the expansion of the Biennale itself, which sprawled across new areas that were not originally part of it. This expansion took place after 1930, when the Biennale ceased to be a municipal organization of Venice and was declared by royal decree ente autonomo (an autonomous entity), thus part of the Fascist state administration. The beachhead of the Biennale is separated from the historical urban tissue of the island´s residential areas by the complex of pavilions erected by Del Giudice. Seen from the Island of Sant´Slena, the Biennale appears as an ultimate limes, a blank wall devoid of any national characteristics. While seen from the inside of the Giardini, Brenno Del Giudice´s complex conveys individual national aspirations, not in the architectural features of the facades and the layout of its subsequent interiors, but merely in the names of the countries´ users, displayed in capital letters above the monumental doors, each leading to a separate national section of the building.
Del Giudice´s design essentially consists of a monumental and uniform facade—a backdrop relief shaped by a rhythm of alternating projections and exedras of a simplified neoclassical character, so typical of the official Italian Fascist architecture of the mid-30s. This facade could well resemble an elaborate gate, like the Porta del Popolo in Rome, if only it led somewhere. The building is completely different from the “pavilions” originally meant by the term—free-standing garden follies or exotic mock-ups quoted from various functional and cultural contexts and readily identifiable as Chinese temples, orangeries, hermit´s huts, or picturesque ruins. Such pavilions are essentially architectural butterflies; the word itself takes its roots from the Latin papilio, denoting a butterfly, or a form of tent offering cheap attractions (or “art for the folk”). According to another classical definition, the pavilion is an independent (yet compositionally connected to the mass of the building) part of a larger whole.
Such notions of the pavilion, however, stemming from a history of the evolution of specific forms and functions of architecture, are of little use in attempting to describe the specific character of the building that is now home to the “Polish Pavilion,” among others—its function announced by little more than the inscription POLONIA above the entrance. Naturally, each and every word means more than we would want. From today´s perspective the Latin word Polonia connotes a Poland clad in a Romanticist, heroic, and tragic costume—an allegory of martyrdom. Polonia is the female personification of national suffering and struggle, embodying the history of an oppressed country, and appearing as the mother of a dispersed community awaiting reconstitution. It is a vision of Polishness that was perfectly in line with the official state policy, including cultural policy, pursued by Poland in the 1930s.
This vision is not a contemporary one, open to others and the present state of Europe: awake to the disappearance of borders, and the co-existence of different cultures and ethnic groups—rather than the supremacy of nations. For this reason the only reasonable use for a national pavilion in the Giardini today is filling it with polemic content (artistic, architectural, or otherwise), capable of revising and rectifying its outworn architectural forms, once in the service of national ideology and political rituals—and thus challenging the approach that subjects a community of individuals to the rigid categories of state and ethnicity. The only subject worth discussing in the context of national pavilions in the Giardini is thus, perforce, that of the anachronism of their isolation, their strategic siting, and the diverse typology and symbolism of their architecture, which follows the battle lines drawn by political differences and emphasizes competition between the states.
In 2002, the Polish artist Paweł Althamer proposed transforming the Polish Pavilion into Casa Polonia, a dormitory or hostel open to everyone for the duration of the Venice Biennale of Art in 2003. The project, addressing the need for affordable and conveniently located accommodation for a considerable number of visitors of moderate means, included furnishing the pavilion with basic beds and sanitation and transforming a daytime space for the contemplation of art into a space used at night—for rest, sleep, and perhaps, collective dreaming. Furthermore, the redesigned pavilion was to be accessible to visitors from both sides: the Giardini as well as the Island of Sant´Elena. The pavilion was conceived as a gate to the outside world, a hatch enabling unrestrained circulation between the garden and the detached city.
The project went unrealized, and the official reasons for its dismissal by a professional jury included technical and fire safety issues: The use of the emergency exit in the rear wall of the pavilion as a new entrance would allegedly have interfered with the existing regulations. In addition, the “opening up” of the pavilion onto the area outside of the Giardini would have run the risk of “unwanted individuals” penetrating the Biennale—and thus of the organizers losing control over its “audience.” Last but not least, the vision of “Polishness” conveyed by such a Pavilion, a multinational lodging operating under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Culture, was certainly too daring, even for a jury of professionals in contemporary art. Althamer´s project revisited ideas of reclaiming public space, materialized by a wave of demonstrations and sit-in protests that swept throughout public institutions (including universities and the biennale itself) in 1968. On the other hand, Althamer’s project anticipated the meteoricrise of the Occupy Movement, whose tents have recently sprung up in the vicinity of documenta (13) in Kassel, and in the main exhibition space of the Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art, curated by Artur Żmijewski—the artist who represented Poland at the 51st Venice Biennale of Art in 2005.
Looking at the unfathomable, mute facade of the Polish Pavilion, one should bear in mind another project, prepared for the 52nd Venice Biennale of Art in 2007 by the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska. For her 1:1, Sosnowska created an enormous steel structure—a skeletonframe of a building, which, one could say, did not “fit into” the exhibition space, making the impression of a mutilated construction, forced to fit within the confines of the pavilion´s “proper” architecture—the sky-lit exhibition space, designed in the 1930s. The piece was produced by Warsaw´s Fabryka Domow (House Factory), a company that has manufactured steel frameworks for residential and industrial buildings since the 1960s. Sosnowska´s work referenced a local footnote to the history of international Modernism by juxtaposing a sort of monument to the modern idea of affordable housing for everyone with the pressure exerted by the hull of the pavilion´s historical architecture—here representative of state power and the idea of society based on criteria of national identity. The rules of national representation, however, seem to be gradually changing over recent years, with an increasing number of artists and architects invited to display their work in pavilions of non-native countries. In this way Israeli artist Yael Bartana presented her video trilogy exploring the idea of the return of Jews to Poland in the Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale of Art in 2011.
Monika Sosnowska´s 1:1 draws on another, purely contemporary understanding of the notion of the pavilion: the so-called commercial pavilion. A small, makeshift, and often illegal space for hire (a widespread feature of Polish cityscapes, typical in the early stages of capitalism after the political and economic transition process that began in 1989), housing shady commercial enterprises: from kebab joints, through porn shops, to pirated video rentals. The function of such a space changes according to the current need for specific products or services, and it is never definite. The national pavilions in the Giardini, on the contrary, in most cases, unfortunately remain faithful to the roles they were assigned to at the beginning of their existence—to represent the respective nations to which they belong. Nonetheless, it would be tempting to imagine an alternative scenario where the division of the territory of the Giardini, based on the economic and military strength of the countries and exclusion of differences, would give way to a community of thinking and responsible action—one that finds its origins on a common ground of reflection.
1 “Dès lors qu’on peut analyser le savoir en termes de région, de domaine, d’implantation, de déplacement, de transfert, on peut saisir le processus par lequel le savoir fonctionne comme un pouvoir et en reconduit les effets. Vous avez une administration du savoir, une politique du savoir, des rapports de pouvoir qui passent à travers le savoir et qui, tout naturellement, si vous voulez les décrire, vous renvoient à ces formes de domination auxquelles se réfèrent des notions comme champ, position, région, territoire. Et le terme politico-stratégique indique comment le militaire et l’administratif viennent effectivement s’inscrire soit sur un sol, soit dans des formes de discours.” “Questions à Michel Foucault sur la géographie,” Hérodote 1 (1976). English translation: Colin Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, trans. C. Gordon, K. Marshall, J. Mepham, K. Soper, Pantheon Books (New York, 1980).