Is the US using an art show to display its anger at Old Europe?

With national prestige at stake, politics overshadows the Venice Biennale with a row over the American choice of artist

War, the Prussian military theorist Von Clausewitz said, is diplomacy by other means; and art, too, is diplomacy by other means. And in the sublime setting of Venice's Biennale, the art war this year is hard to distinguish from the real thing.

It is one of the most important art shows in the calendar. This year 64 nations are represented and more are clamouring to join. It lasts for five months and is one of the few events in the art world in which, thanks to the national pavilions that fill the Giardini, the park at the heart of the show opening on Sunday, national identity and artistic identity are fused.

But there's the rub - and the source of the political controversies that bedevil every Biennale. And this year, after 11 September and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the political strife is worse than ever.

Fred Wilson, the black artist representing the United States this year, is at the centre of a nasty rumour doing the rounds: that the US State Department had an inordinate degree of influence in his selection. "Bullshit! That's bullshit!" says Wilson, a little-known artist who won out in a field of 22 artists, despite his obscurity.

But one bigwig in the art world is crying foul: Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim in New York, is angry that his own choice of artist for Venice was repeatedly rejected - despite the American pavilion being owned and funded by the Guggenheim.

"I began to point out that we run this Biennale," he told The Art Newspaper. "It's not so much that we're being taken advantage of, but every once in a while we'd like some consideration in the participation in the Biennale because it is a programming space that we own, that we have invested in."

The State Department monitors the selection of artists but denies playing an active role. Wilson believes that is true. "I don't think I'm anyone that anyone in Washington DC would want to see representing the United States," he said yesterday. "It would be a very different Biennale if governments chose the artists.

"The arts are a pawn in a larger game. Historically, the arts have been used by powerful forces, if they saw some reason for using them. But we're not in that moment now."

Wilson's theme is the image of black people in European and, specifically, Venetian art. Two gigantic, slave-like figures, sacks bowing their heads, flank the entrance, apparently holding up the neo-classical structure. Inside, the black pages, Moorish merchants and African travellers who were part of historical Venice have been extracted from their settings and put on display.

"There is a plethora of images of blacks in European art," he said,"and a lot of them are not servants." But a strong undercurrent of servility and dislocation runs through his show. A wooden page in waistcoat and golden slippers stands, blood oozing from his wrists; a chess board on the floor, the black pieces scattered. Black boys in loincloths crouch, balancing huge, ivory-white busts of Greek female gods on their heads. Italian products using black faces as design motifs - a door knocker, a brooch and earrings - are gathered in a display case. A video of Laurence Olivier, blacked up to play Shakespeare's Othello, rants away on one wall.

It's a polemical show and it is the pride and prejudice of Old Europe - its cultural pretensions, its sanctimoniousness towards American power - that gets a good kicking. The deeds, words and images of the US, so preoccupying the rest of the world, are by contrast conspicuously absent.

Hundreds of thousands of art lovers will visit the Biennale's three main venues in Venice between now and November. With national prestige and millions of dollars at stake, the Biennale is intensely political, never more so than today. It's partly a result of the show's structure, with the permanent pavilions of many countries - many dating from the first Biennale 50 years ago - inevitably a nation's showcase.

The political wrangles start at the top. Francesco Bonami, the new curator, was appointed only after Vittorio Sgarbi, Silvio Berlusconi's flamboyant under-secretary at the Culture Ministry, failed to secure Time magazine's Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes for the job. Hughes was too expensive; Sgarbi failed to get another conservative curator on whom Berlusconi might smile. He has said he would happily throw Bonami in the lagoon.

Bonami himself sparked a row by trying to have a Palestine pavilion for the first time. He was tersely told that only nations with which Italy had diplomatic ties were eligible. (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Mr Berlusconi that Italy was Israel's best friend in Europe). So Palestine is represented by an installation questioning the very validity of national pavilions: open passports, two metres high, scattered through the grounds, represent the different identity documents that the stateless Palestinians must use.

Why should artists be co-opted for national window-dressing? Several participants this year have responded to the idea with a loud raspberry. Spain's Santiago Sierra has systematically vandalised his pavilion: covering the SPAGNA [sic] sign over the entrance with black binliner, and building a breeze-block wall just inside the entrance that blocks access to all spaces except a storeroom and a rubbish-strewn toilet.

But artists must tread a fine line. Venezuela chose Javier Tellez; his plan was to use its pavilion to denounce the "terrible polarisation" racking his nation. The government cancelled his participation.

Iraq is glaringly absent. There is no national representative - a woman was seen in a T-shirt that said "I'm the Iraq pavilion" - and the war itself is missing, too raw to be confronted. But the region and its woes are here in abundance. Bonami has overseen the debut of Iran, while another show features selected Arab artists.

Israel's presence in the Italian pavilion, curated by Bonami, expresses an astonishing degree of anguish and dissent. The Israeli photographer Efrat Shvily portrays 16 Palestinian ministers "contrary to the stereotype of the wild and unruly Arab 'demon' ". Amit Goren shows six videos simultaneously; each a vivid, impassioned distillation of the cruel realities of the Middle East, including footage of Palestinians fleeing into Jordan in 1948. The exhibit is sponsored by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

All of which makes Fred Wilson's black page boys look like an attempt to change the subject that was bound to fail.

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