May 11 – November 24, 2019
The definition of “nostalgia”—that favorite siren song of populists everywhere—has a complex lineage. Before it came to stand for a sentimental longing for a lost past, the term was coined by a 17th-century medical student to refer to the mental condition often suffered by soldiers fighting campaigns on foreign soil. Those of us who view the current explosion of right-wing nostalgia for a past rooted in a supposedly wholesome homogeneity as a xenophobic social pathology rather than an innocuous, rose-tinted idea of bygone days would do well to seek out Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys’s installation in Belgium’s Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Mondo Cane. The installation acts as the perfect reflection of our darkest suspicions by presenting a grim vision that critiques both the past and those who glorify it.
An animatronic cast composed of craftspeople in traditional European peasant garb populate the pavilion’s central space, each imprisoned in their own shoddy, sinister loops of repeated activity. There’s an itinerant Swiss zither player with wild eyes twitchily stroking his instrument strings; a despondent-looking character known as “The Fool” with mismatched clothes, an oversized umbrella, and an awkward gait; an especially pallid potter, apparently from mid-20th-century Sudetenland, eternally stuck casting her wares on a cronky wheel; a murderous knife grinder from rural Ireland; and a 19th-century character with a bowl cut with an uncanny resemblance to Hitler constantly ringing a bell (“the last town crier from the village of Duffel,” near Antwerp, according to the exhibition guide).
The three barred “cells” that incarcerate these central figures contain de Gruyter and Thys’s especially criminal or unhinged creations: a Nazi collaborator, religious fanatics, an obsessive former Stasi agent, and a pair of particularly deranged “travelling comedians.” Their skin comes in various tones of artificial whiteness, from Trumpish orange and candy pink, to sickly pale grey and deathly white. A soundtrack of pathetic sobs accompanies them: unintelligible, prayer-like babble, and earnestly hummed renditions of badly out-of-tune folk songs that add to the atmosphere of nostalgia gone haywire. Landscape paintings hung around the main space feature schmaltzy woodland scenes rendered in the cheapest of palettes, an aesthetic plucked straight from the rattiest provincial hotel décor. These kitsch images contribute to the artists’ mockery of all things mawkish, albeit far less acutely than the figures themselves.
Each figure’s individual actions are jerkily automated and intentionally clumsy, and possess at least one visual glitch—stained trousers, an ill-fitting blonde wig, or badly painted eyebrows—that lend the bearer an expression of constant surprise. It’s as if we’ve wandered into an especially twisted parody of a touristic historic village, or a low-budget European museum attempting its own version of Disney-style animatronics in a quest to make lovable heroes and heroines of questionable local characters.
The artists have modelled this motley bunch on their own collection of fictional characters, some recycled from previous works and often, alarmingly, based upon real people. The pavilion’s accompanying publication provides a crucial backbone to this scene of pan-European grotesquerie. It’s as much an essential contribution to the installation’s potency as the figures themselves, with each page providing us with the characters’ outlandish and often remarkably intricate backstories, spinning idiosyncratic folk tales that delve ever deeper into these strange and menacing characters. “The Fool,” we learn, has a mental age of eight and can only sing songs from his childhood after being hypnotized by a barn owl at a zoo, while “The Knife Grinder of Wexford,” who always whistled the same tune, was a sharpener for the aristocracy by day and a serial killer by night who eventually fled to America. Its cutting and hilarious demystification of white historical achievement rings horribly true amid the continuing rise of the European right, and the seemingly unshakable level of support for the “MAGA” movement in the US.
As such, Mondo Cane offers the Biennale’s overwhelmingly white audience a stark, uncomfortable mirror: white viewers, myself included, are reminded of their inextricable connection to those contemporary white chauvinists, in Europe, the US, Australia, and elsewhere who like to invoke their supposedly “superior” history to justify their racist and nativist activities. It’s an especially gutsy and pointed effort from an artist duo who have been commissioned to “represent” Belgium—a notoriously divided country with a violent history of white colonialism. Thys and de Gruyter are clearly mocking the very idea of national pride in the context of an international art event which originally sought to foster just that.