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VENICE — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has announced that it will have its first-ever Venice Biennale pavilion when the international art exhibition opens next month. The announcement was made at a press conference held Wednesday morning aboard the Raqqa, a boat moored outside the Giardini, where the global art event takes place. The watercraft arrived in Venice late Monday and attracted attention from Venetians when it began to endlessly play the 1982 song “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash throughout the day.
The pavilion’s radical, participatory programming will allow visitors to bring artworks onboard and create viral videos of their destruction with ISIS members. The event was announced through an e-flux email blast with the subject heading: “Bring your paintings! Bring your sculptures! Bring your cultural treasures! Then destroy them!” Visitors will be invited to queue at the boat for a ritual of destruction using a golden auction hammer against a green screen that will be livestreamed for viewers around the world.
Curated by Talaat al-Dulaimi, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s son, the pavilion will not have a conventional catalogue, but all materials will be available on YouTube. Visitors will be encouraged to share videos and comments about their experiences using the hashtag #ISISinVenice.
“A few months ago, we realized that there’s a long tradition of what ISIS has been doing in contemporary art, and what better way to continue our mission than to go to the source,” al-Dulaimi said to an astonished crowd of reporters and cultural figures. “By encouraging the public to bring us art — be it their own or pieces taken or ‘liberated’ from others — we are tapping into the increasingly experiential and embodied nature of aesthetic experience. Everyone is talking about the potential for art to go viral, and we know how to do that better than anyone.”
The mood aboard ISIS’s barge pavilion and in the nearby Giardini was mixed following the announcement. Some 65 protesters — most of whom appeared to be tourists — stood on the mainland yelling various chants, including “Art Is Sacred!,” and brandishing placards that read “ISIS = Insensitive Sociopaths Impotently Smashing.” Venice Biennale President Paolo Baratta and the curator of this year’s edition, Okwui Enwezor, were confused by the news, which they both heard after the press conference.
“We received their application and refused to give them a space in the Giardini, but I’m not sure we can restrict their water access,” Baratta told Hyperallergic.
Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, was in attendance. Though he declined to comment on the biennale pavilion announcement, an ISIS art handler who spoke on condition of anonymity told Hyperallergic that he overheard al-Dulaimi expressing interest in a Raqqa franchise of the New York–based museum.
Elsewhere, the announcement was met with skepticism and outright anger, namely from artist Bob and Roberta Smith (aka Patrick Brill), who claimed that the ISIS pavilion exhibition is a ripoff of his ongoing Art Amnesty project, which was recently shown at MoMA PS1 and invites members of the public to throw their art in dumpsters. Though the artist is currently busy running a parliamentary election campaign against former British secretary of education Michael Gove, he intends to sue al-Dulaimi and al-Baghdadi for copyright infringement.
“Smashing antiquities is one thing,” Brill said, “but desecrating my conceptual art dumping project is not OK.”
The ISIS project raises serious questions about the art world’s tolerance for radicality. Berlin-based curators Jarmon and Mufter said they were excited by the idea. “The art world has been stuck in a rut,” Mufter told Hyperallergic at the press event. “This brings up questions of taste, media performance, and what our cultural institutions represent — and most importantly, who they are speaking for.”
“I hope they don’t get co-opted,” Jarmon said, before asking the bartender for champagne and being told it was a dry event. “Every revolutionary gesture is consumed, digested, and ruined by neoliberal capitalism.”
“So it’s OK for ‘artists’ to destroy artworks and call it art, but not OK for us? [deleted expletive-filled revolutionary language],” one ISIS artist was overheard saying in an argument with an Italian curator known for his Marxist nonprofit space in Bologna.
The 20-minute presentation began with an introduction that situated the ISIS pavilion in modern art history. It quoted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Italian Futurist movement, who wrote, “destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy” and “we will glorify war — the world’s only hygiene — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”
“We share your values,” al-Dulaimi told the crowd. “And we intend to complete the vision of Marinetti, who was a genius before his time.”
The discussion continued with slides of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 “Erased de Kooning” drawing, Jean Tinguely’s “Homage to New York” (1960) — a self-destructive sculpture exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art — and Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995), which, al-Dulaimi reminded the crowd, were all created by male artists and are celebrated today in museums the world over.
For ISIS, the Venice Biennale pavilion is just the first in a number of cultural projects it has planned in Italy. The group will have a pop-up pavilion at Expo Milano next month, where it will hand out ISIS-branded goods, including mugs and Swiss Army knives, and by year’s end hopes to take over administration of the floundering MAXXI museum in Rome, which it will rebrand as “MAXXISIS.” The latter project was announced on Twitter in February in a message that was widely misinterpreted as a threat to attack the Italian capital.
Curators of other Venice Biennale pavilions expressed unease over ISIS’s participation. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Tamara Chalabi, co-founder of the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, which commissioned the Iraqi pavilion at this year’s biennale. “Is this some kind of sick joke?”