A warning rather than an announcement, a reminder for all those in a coma of nationalism, Your Country Doesn’t Exist (2003-present) is Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson’s manifesto-cum-campaign, persistently articulated through geographies and a variety of media, formats and languages over a time span of nearly a decade since its first outcry in Istanbul at the climax of the political and social tensions generated by the American invasion in Iraq. The video work Your Country Doesn’t Exist (2011) is the outcome of the artists’ participation in the 54th Venice Biennale as representatives of the national Icelandic Pavilion. An intensely blue, clinical-emergency-room kind of handwritten neon sign — “Il Tuo Paese Non Esiste” — blinded visitors to Castro & Ólafsson’s multimedia environment “under deconstruction” in the former laundry house of Palazzo Zenobio, converted into a temporary site of a rebellion, territorial questioning and national denial. Appropriating existing texts and turning them into librettos has become Libia & Ólafur’s signature style.
In Your Country Doesn’t Exist the artists continue their ongoing collaboration with well-known Icelandic composer Karólína Eiríksdóttir, who wrote music to accompany a script adapted by the artists from a critical text conceived by art historian and curator Antonia Majaca. This was published in Castro & Ólafsson’s Venice Biennale catalogue under the title “You Are the Country You Want to See.” The result is a contemporary serenade performed by mezzo-soprano Ásgerður Júníusdóttir with guitar and trumpet accompaniment, dramatically staged on a gondola. This musical performance navigates through the canals of Venice’s tourist temple, a city of decadence and carnival, where architectural spectacle, historical frenzy and urban uncanny produce a sense of national withdrawal and detachment. Libia & Ólafur’s pastiche of a medieval form of a musical greeting (usually performed in a mild and friendly manner for a lover, a friend or anyone else to be honored) brings Brechtian estrangement, thus activating a critical stance towards the one to be addressed. The artists’ “announcement” is a contemporary lamentation upon the current condition of a world facing political injustice, economic instability and the damaging effects of state sovereignty. The video is carefully structured: six chapters (each introduced by the artists’ own names, carrying a statement that diagnoses neoliberal processes and asks questions) are punctuated by the thematic recitative of Your Country Doesn’t Exist, articulated in many languages and dramatized by urban tableaux. It is a portrait of a city caught between the grotesquerie of a massive tourist industry, illegal immigration and some desperate takes at normality, which counter the work’s ideological premise and temporarily bring an illusion of belonging and continuity. Castro & Ólafsson and their alter egos, spreading their provocative message on a boat in a disappearing city, are utopian heralds, lost in a dense network of narrow canals and perceived by the city’s audience as yet another exhibit in Venice’s theater of a world in decline. The art of ultimate decadence? Or rather an elaborate overture to a post-nation state neo-mythology?
Adam Budak is International Curator for Contemporary Art at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson’s Your Country Doesn’t Exist was presented at the Icelandic Pavilion of the 2011 Venice Biennale, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, at CAAC Seville in Spain and at The National Gallery of Iceland in Reykjavik.