At the turn of the nineteenth century, World’s Fairs were central to the construction of national identity. For the empirical powers of the West — Britain, France, and America — fairs were a way to legitimize colonial projects through the display of objects and measurement of values in a dramatic setting. Britain’s priority was an emphasis on history and its conquest of colonial nations, France tended to focus on the fostering and civilizing nature of their power, and America on efforts of education and assimilation (Benedict 7). All three countries displayed objects and peoples from their colonial properties in ‘authentic’ indigenous habitats as a way of parading their wealth and power to competing nations. World’s Fairs were essentially a singular event at which agendas of domination were concealed within the ideology of openness and where information was controlled, classified and fuelled by imperial rivalry, trade and above all nationalism (Alvaro Fernández Bravo 116-117). Latin America occupied a unique position in the context of World’s Fairs at the fin-de-siècle. As a region made up of countries considered secondary by the European tradition — they were at once neither proper nations nor colonies of an empire — these countries were invited to participate in World’s Fairs but were never given equal status to the dominant sponsors. Latin American countries used international exhibitions to create symbols and narratives that would represent the value of their nations as a whole and construct new national identities.
It is important to situate how Latin America is represented internationally alongside a broader understanding of the concept of ‘representation.’ Stuart Hall interprets culture as a circuit in which meaning is shared through five mediums: representation, identity, production, consumption, and regulation. He suggests that cultural practices give meaning to people and that meaning is produced through representation. Hall theorizes that meanings are fluid and movement between cultures can result in changes of the collective understanding of meanings. Therefore when Latin American countries participate in international exhibitions their culture is dislocated and meaning can become altered through movement across borders. In this way, when culture moves, when it travels to participate in international exhibitions, the meaning of that culture, which is shared through representation, is always mutated. For Latin America this transformative fluidity of meaning provided, in some cases the possibility for reinvention.
Argentina used the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition as a way to reshape the European perception that it was a periphery nation through the commodification of objects that came to signify the cultural totalities of the country. They attempted to align themselves with European ideologies to “attract foreign investment and immigration” (Bravo 118) by demanding their own pavilion, separate from the Latin American complex, and rejecting displays of cultural objects or indigenous habitation in exchange for marketable commodities such as wood and meat. This was one way a Latin American country attempted to legitimize its nationhood — allying itself to Europe through the appropriation of economic motifs. An alternative project can be seen in the example of the Mexican pavilion. The Mexican officials were pressured by the French to make their pavilion ‘exotic’ and stereotypically romanticized in order to please the curious European public. These restrictions resulted in a display of national symbols that included not only raw materials, such as in Argentina’s pavilion, but also a replica Aztec palace as well as indigenous crafts and local culture (Tenorio-Trillo 76-80). This discrepancy shows that Latin American countries were not — as they are still not — content to be massed together as a homogeneous region. Different countries employed different strategies for representing their national identity.
Burton Benedict suggests that colonies that had recently gained political independence were anxious to present “cohesion in communities which often lacked it and to establish the authority of their governments” (5); in essence, to symbolize their nation as a unified whole. This was a constant struggle, as it did not suit the agendas of the sponsoring nations (who very often still had colonial dependencies) to exhibit postcolonial nations as successful or equal to themselves. Bravo is not the first to note “the catalogs and official reports published to commemorate nineteenth-century universal exhibitions reveal few traces of Latin American participation” (115). Latin American countries, no matter what means they used to represent their culture and symbolize their nation, always had to negotiate their identity within the limits of the European structure.
One of the ways empirical nations maintained control over the propaganda of World’s Fairs was through art, and the distinction between fine art and commodity fetish — ‘primitive’ forms such as crafts, carvings, and practical objects. As Jane Chin Davidson argues, “the role played by art exhibitions in these showcases of national production was indeed important to the overall function of the fairs in promoting colonial empires” (719). The display of fine art was a way to solidify European control and centrality; the art functioned to prove what was ‘civilized’ juxtaposed with what was produced in periphery nations such as Latin America, and therefore ‘uncivilized’ (Davidson 725).
In this sense the natural successor of the World’s Fair has been the international art exhibition, and its most immediate heir, it has been argued, is the Venice Biennale, which is modeled directly on the structure of its imperial forebear. The current reputation of art and art production as existing within a specialized sphere is the legacy of this early categorization of art as separate from commodity culture. Just as the World’s Fairs were organized by nation, so too is the Biennale — where Euro-American economies still reign supreme. Complexes and pavilions are organized either by nation or geographic region — the spaces function as fictionally nationalistic territories in which there is still a clear hierarchy of nations; “the prime territory of the Giardini di Castello acknowledges the ruling victors, demarcated by the official plots reserved for Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, the United States and Hungary” (Davidson 720). The first Latin American nation to receive a national pavilion was Venezuela in 1954, nearly sixty years after the Biennale began, followed by Uruguay in 1960 and Brazil in 1964 (labiennale.org). The official website lists 89 different countries exhibiting in their own pavilions at this year’s event. It is interesting however that only Latin America (IILA) and Central Asia receive conglomerate regional ‘national pavilions.’ Although Latin American countries are represented individually, they are also grouped together here through IILA to form a unified whole — this is the antithesis to the aims of Latin American countries to be represented as individual nations. It appears that national segregation and the employment of ‘pavilion’ style representation are still utilized by dominant nations to control the ideology of the exhibitions, in the same way, they were at World’s Fairs.
Many Latin American artists who currently exhibit at the Biennale attempt to make commentary on the ambiguous position of their countries within the international art world. Many artists explore the unequal relationship between the periphery nation they come from and the centralized power of the nation where they exhibit their work. An excellent example of this is Gilda Mantilla’s installation piece Peru-Lima from the 2003 Venice Biennale (universes-in-universe.org) in which the gallery space is organized like a tourist gift shop, where postcards depicting everyday scenes and unknown areas of the city of Lima can be taken from racks and walls and kept by audiences. In this way, Mantilla’s hybrid work functions to expose audiences to an unknown environment through the postcards while commenting on the spectacle of the Biennale as a commodified tourist attraction.
At the global art fair, specifically the Venice Biennale, old imperialism’s are maintained through the territorial segregation of sights by nation, against the backdrop of ancient European architecture (Davidson 734) — the fair is a reconciliation of commercial and creative forces as well as bourgeois mentality and artistic conditions. This is collocated with the globalized art market and with artists from Latin America and other secondary regions who produce works that are informed by an inherent knowledge of inferiority, within the framework that long ago restricted their identity. Latin America’s international reputation still hinges upon a negotiation with Western stereotypes and idealizations and this functions to inspire artistic dialogs of representation.
Benedict, Burton. “International Exhibitions and National Identity.” Anthropology Today. 7.3 (1991): 5-9. Web.
Davidson, Jane Chin. “The Global Art Fair and the Dialectical Image.” Third Text. 24:6 (2010): 719-734. Web.
Fernandez-Bravo, Alvaro. “Ambivalent Argentina: Nationalism, Exoticism, and Latin Americanism at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition.” Nepantla: Views from South. 2:1 (2001): 115-139. Web.
Hall, Stuart. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Open University Press, 1997.
Haupt, Gerhard Dr. and Pat Binder. “Latin America at the Venice Biennale,” universes-in-universe.org. Universes in Universe. 1997. Web.
Tenorio-Trillo, Mauricio. Mexico at the World’s Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Print.
“National Participations.” labiennale.org. La Biennale di Venezia. 2011. Web.