The Venice Biennale, perhaps the best-known contemporary art event, is in full swing in Italy, and while the 59th edition of the international festival showcases much that is new, in a number of the national pavilions artists are drawing on ancient culture and themes from the past.
Loukia Alavanou’s installation for Greece, Oedipus in Search of Colonus, makes use of the ancient tragedian Sophocles. It includes a construction based on architect Takis Zenetos’ utopian ideas and a virtual-reality film based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, in which the wandering Oedipus, blind and banished from Thebes having killed his father and married his mother, arrives in the village of Colonus, where he can stay and, by the end of the play, die. Alavanou, seeking to link the classical past to contemporary issues, casts members of the Roma community in Nea Zoi, west of Athens, in the Sophoclean film.
Literature also plays a part in the first dedicated pavilion of the Kyrgyz Republic (who have previously been part of the Central Asian Pavilion). For Gates of Turan (which takes its name from the Persian word Tuˉraˉn, referring to a vast historic region where Turanian nomads lived), Firouz FarmanFarmaian has collaborated with Kyrgyz craftswomen to present a series of textile banners representing ancient Tuˉraˉn’s nomadic groups. The banners lead to a tündük (the cupola of a yurt), which is split into four parts, each linked with a warrior who aided the titular hero in the Epic of Manas. This lenghty oral poem tells the story of Manas, who brought the clans of Kyrgyzstan together to defeat their enemies. The epic was written down in the 19th century, and though its origins and age are unclear, its 1,000th anniversary was officially celebrated in Kyrgyzstan in 1995.
Nepal is among the countries participating for first time, with support from New York’s Rubin Museum of Art. Tales of Muted Spirits – Dispersed Threads – Twisted Shangri-La features work by Tsherin Sherpa, collaborating with other artists from across the country to explore some of the contradictions in views of Nepal and the Himalayan region, which, rather than being remote and isolated, have seen many centuries of exchanges of ideas and movement of its peoples. Sherpa is trained in thangka painting, a tradition of Buddhist painting that stretches back to the medieval period. He adapts existing imagery, as seen in the bold 24 Views of Luxation, a fragmented, tiled image of a hybrid half-bird, half-man figure (Garuda, a Hindu deity who is also a protective figure in Nepalese Buddhism, or the Khyung of Tibetan mythology) who grapples a snake.
As curators Sheelasha Rajbhandari and Hit Man Gurung write in the text beside it: ‘The Khyung is an image that carries with it millennia of varied interpretations. In both Hindu and Buddhist understanding, the part-bird, part-human figure is a guardian deity who protects against illness and misfortune. Yet beyond the context of healing, it is at the same time a symbol of subjugation… possessing the ability to counteract venomous potency.’
The Biennale runs until 27 November.