The Biennale can change your life. Venice’s every-other-yearly contemporary art festival is the world’s biggest and most prestigious. Unlike its fellow big gun, the Frieze Art Fair, the Biennale’s focus is on pavilions sponsored by nations. Each nation nominates a representative contemporary artist to create a work or installation for their designated space in the city of Venice. The 2017 Biennale launched this week, with presentations and new works by such grandees as Ulay, Olafur Eliasson, John Waters, Frances Stark, Marina Abramovic, Gabriel Orozco and IRWIN.
You cannot sell art at the Biennale, but in practice it’s the most visible way to show your talents, and many deals are made there but actually consummated afterwards. Parallel to the national pavilions, there will be scores of independently financed pop-up spaces run by artists and producers who want to use this event as a showcase for their talent. So while visitors to Venice, from May to November, can enjoy the main-stage events, the official national pavilions, they can also find all manner of independent enterprises scattered throughout the city. Real estate gets expensive to rent during the Biennale, and with good reason: The world’s art influencers, collectors, dealers, gallerists, managers, producers and critics all descend on Venice (judging by Instagram and Facebook posts appearing in my feeds, a good quarter of my “friends” are currently in town). While the biggest names occupy spaces in grand palazzi, if you’ve got a closet to rent in town, you can rake in thousands per week. The Biennale makes careers. Just ask Roman Uranjek.
Although Uranjek’s work appears in major art history books, and he has been considered one of the leading contemporary artists in Europe, you’d be forgiven for being unfamiliar with his name. That’s because he is best known for his collaborative work, first with Laibach (which began as a Slovenian performance art group, before it morphed into its current lineup as a performance art group-cum-rock band) and then with IRWIN. IRWIN comprises five Slovenian artists (Dušan Mandič, Andrej Savski, Borut Vogelnik, Miran Mohar and Roman Uranjek), and was established in Yugoslavia in 1983.
At this year’s Biennale, you can find Uranjek appearing in two different ways. He is a guest artist at the Bosnia and Herzegovina Pavilion, working with Bosnian Radenko Milak on a show called “University of Disaster.” This show is particularly high-profile, as the organizing team included Swiss uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and the opening speech on May 11 was delivered by Slovenian uber-philosopher Slavoj Žižek. But Uranjek’s hand is also behind an independent “NSK State Pavilion” in Venice now.
The NSK State is an elaborate, ongoing, multi-decade-long conceptual art construct developed in 1984 by IRWIN and other collaborators as an “alternative” European nation. Laibach was established as NSK’s “music wing,” with IRWIN as its “visual arts wing,” and the idea explores the complicated relationship that Slovenia has had with its German occupiers during the Habsburg period (Laibach was the German name for Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, and NSK stands for Neue Slowenische Kunst, “new Slovenian art”). NSK plays with totalitarianist symbolism as a means of political commentary, which is occasionally lost on those unprepared or unequipped to probe beneath the surface: A Daily Mail article from 2015 described Laibach as a “fascist” band, not realizing that their pseudo-fascist demeanor is an ironic commentary . . . they also claimed that the band was from “Slovakia” (they since corrected this, changing “Fascist” to “Fascist-style” and “Slovakia” to “Slovenia.”)
In 1991, the year of Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia, an “NSK State” was declared. This symbolic act is multifaceted. There are “consulates” in cities around the world. NSK Citizens Conferences have been held in Berlin, Lyon and London. NSK has even issued physical passports to some 14,000 people, almost all of them members of the art world.
As Uranjek explains, in addition to being part of an invited, official pavilion, “Our NSK State Pavilion is not invited, but it is our action in the time of the Venice Biennale.” This decision to self-fund an alternative pavilion is an expensive strategy, but one that Uranjek knows pays off. While not a problem for the hugely successful IRWIN group now, it was a high-risk, high-reward endeavor when they first appeared in the early '80s.
“We did this in 1986,” Uranjek told me from his Ljubljana home, which is covered floor-to-ceiling in art and objets a reaction poetiques. “We did a show, mostly posters and paintings, in the studio of an architect. We made a big action, putting up very big posters around the city, four times bigger than the official Biennale posters. People from the Venice Biennale threatened to sue us, because we’d used their logo, but then they decided, Well, this was just an art action.”
That rather punk-rock strategy launched his career. “After this, we were invited to England, to Riverside Studio to do an exhibition, and to the Sydney Biennale. Our international presence started there. This made us much more visible -- with an illegal, well not technically illegal, but let’s say a guerrilla action.”
This will be Uranjek’s fourth Biennale, but it’s unusual that he is showing both officially, with Bosnia, and unofficially. “You always have collateral events,” he says. “Some you can see in the program. Last time there were more pavilions outside the main state events than inside.” But you’ve got to be careful about what you call yourself. “Since NSK is not actually a legally recognized state, we were not allowed to call it NSK State Pavilion if it were official. If we’d called it Not NSK State Pavilion, it would be okay. But we take ourselves seriously, so we didn’t want to change anything.” So they set up on their own, off-grid but highly visible.
As the members of IRWIN can attest, finding a way to show in Venice during the Biennale can make your career, though it doesn’t come cheap. For this year’s NSK State Pavilion, the financial investment required is quite staggering. “One collector bought five of our graphics from 1985, and he paid 150,000 EUR,” Uranjek explains. “We asked our gallerist in Berlin if it’s alright if we use this money for the project. Half of it is his money, of course. We also collaborated with a Vienna art fair, so our pavilion will go to Vienna after Venice. For this action, we needed to invest a little more than 250,000 EUR. The space for two or three months is like 68,000 EUR. Then we need to hire people to work there. We are also making photos and a film artwork that will be shown at exhibitions.” So while coming up with the money wasn’t a problem for a well-established art collective, it’s a daunting prospect for up-and-comers, who may have to wait for the free ride, if selected to officially represent their nations.
For all the more abstract works on display, like the giant wall of gumball-colored fluffy cushions by Sheila Hicks, or a tailor sewing at a table in Lee Mingwei’s "The Mending Project," there is a clear and powerful resonance to the NSK State installation, in which, as Uranjek explains, “Refugees will be making passports for European citizens.” He pauses to smile. “Or temporary visas.”