VENICE, Italy — Curated by Maria Veits and Yevgeniy Fiks, the Yiddishland Pavilion at the Venice Biennale does not set out to imitate or represent a discrete physical territory. Rather, the project encapsulates an idea, or as the curators have stated, “a linguistic and cultural space” shared among Yiddish-speaking communities that have been dispersed and reconstituted around the world.
Those looking to discover Yiddishland as a physical exhibition site in Venice will therefore be disappointed. Instead, Yiddishland at the Venice Biennale is a porous and generative project that threads itself through various pavilions, while subtly undermining the national logic of the biennale. Yiddishland can be found in alternative platforms consisting of both virtual projects and temporary performances and events, which operate as unauthorized artistic interventions among the biennale’s traditional brick-and-mortar national pavilions. For those unable to travel to Venice, the Yiddishland Pavilion’s website provides complete virtual experiences and documentation, a surprising and welcome rarity within the post-Covid biennale landscape.
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In an article for Hyperallergic in 2020, Fiks described a recent revival of secular Yiddish culture by the generations that grew up in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust; it is these postwar generations, according to Fiks who “(re)learned the Yiddish language and employed it for cultural production” as a means of embracing cultural roots that had been severed.
Many of Yiddishland’s interventions seek to recover marginalized or destroyed Jewish pasts. Hagar Cygler’s collected photographs bring together personal narrative and national history as they intersect through her family’s old apartment building in Lodz, Poland, while Zsuzsi Flohr’s video On the Ground, the Possibilities explores the intersections of Jewish and Roma culture and history connected the Shoah and the Pharrajimos.
Fiks’ own project for the Yiddishland Pavilion, Yonia Fain’s Map of Refugee Modernism, reveals the fascinating and little-known biography of the visual artist Yona Fein. The audio tour spreads across the pavilions of the numerous nation-states in which Fein lived (explored in part two of the Yiddishland Pavilion review).
Other artists strive to uncover the stories of underrepresented groups within Yiddish-speaking communities. Shterna Goldbloom’s series Feygele takes the Torah scroll as a substrate to tell the stories of LGBTQI+ Jews. While they have previously used handmade Torah scrolls to produce physical objects, for the Yiddishland Pavilion, Goldbloom’s project virtually unscrolls to reveal photographs and interviews.
Deriving from the Yiddish slur for gay as well as a word meaning little bird, Feygele tells the stories of 35 individuals who are forging new paths between their traditional upbringing and their sexual and gender identities.
Structure and form of the written word are equally central to Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson’s contribution. At the German Pavilion, visitors can scan a QR code to view an augmented reality work by the Moscow-born, Jerusalem-raised, and Berlin-based artist, developed in collaboration with Anna Elena Torres.
What at first glance looks like a rotating mass of molten iron soon becomes distinguishable as groupings of letters derived from three writing systems — Yiddish, English, and an ancient proto-Canaanite alphabet.
Inspired by the literary critic and anarchist Boruch Rivkin who coined the phrase Yiddishland, Bergelson’s work, titled Pseudo-territory, taps into language’s mutability and creative capacity to disrupt boundaries and borders. This Yiddishland intervention pairs particularly well with the official commission for the German Pavilion, where Maria Eichhorn physically subverted and displaced the German national presence, both by stripping back the building to its foundations and simultaneously organizing a series of off-site events commemorating the history of anti-fascist activities in Venice during World War II.
Other projects grapple with urgent political realities, including Schandwache, a group that formed to protest and protect dialogue around the defacement and potential removal of an Austrian monument to Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910 whose antisemitic views and policies portended the rise of Adolf Hitler. Documentation of their intervention — physically marking the monument as SCHANDE (disgrace) and keeping vigil against the graffiti’s removal by right-wing factions — can be viewed online.
The Yiddishland Pavilion curators have also organized a broad range of one-off programs and performances taking place both virtually and on the biennale fairgrounds. One such performance, Jenny Romaine’s Vu Bistu Geven? (Where have you been?) took place online on May 26. Working with Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) collaborators, Romaine and her team delved into Jewish and Kanien’kehá:ka storytelling techniques as a means to think about land and land use and explore the relationship between Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities in Montreal and the legacies of settler colonialism. An abridged version of the two-year project, Romaine’s lecture-performance, including clips from the project’s previous iterations, is now available online.
Like many of the projects included in the Yiddishland Pavilion, Vu Bistu Geven? does not explore Yiddish history and culture in isolation, but instead opens a dialogue to understanding how Yiddish culture has and continues to relate to the many places in which it resides.
Yiddishland Pavilion events and projects continue over the course of the 59th Venice Biennale, including a video performance by Uladzimir Hramovich examining the stories of revolutionary Hirsch Leckert and sculptor Abram Brazier, and Ofri Lapid’s the “Shund” online reading session, focusing on early 20th-century Yiddish theater plays in Berlin. The pavilion was curated by Maria Veits and Yevgeniy Fiks.