The Yiddishland Pavilion debuted at the 59th Venice Biennale in April of 2022. Maria Veits and Yevgeniy Fiks, curators of the pavilion, edited this series for ArtsEverywhere. The Yiddishland Pavilion is the first independent transnational pavilion bringing together artists and scholars from more than 15 countries who activate Yiddish and diasporic Jewish discourse in contemporary artistic practice.
I want to shed light on some contradictions and paradoxes stemming from the project Yiddishland Pavilion and from the complexity of its overall contexts of sociopolitics, art, and curation. Yiddishland Pavilion is an independent co-curatorial and collaborative project that is curated by Yevgeniy Fiks and Maria Veits. It took place in parallel to the 59th International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale 2022 and was focused on contemporary art produced about or in the context of Yiddish culture.
During one of the events titled Challenging the National Division Transnational, Alternative, And “Pavilions-In-Pavilions” At The Venice Biennale, which was organised in the frame of the project’s online platform, the curators proposed to look at various previously existing projects that addressed similar issues and offered relevant critical trajectories. Regardless of how slippery Yiddish identity is—or exactly because of that—the event explored some concepts and experiences with similar projects that took place in the context of the Venice Biennale. The discussion also tackled some unexplored affordances that such projects could offer in the future.
I want to unravel the potentialities of Yiddishland Pavilion as a model for transnational collaboration in the globalised art scene, as well as the eventual dangers that inevitably stem from its focus and context. The backdrop of the project cannot be underestimated; it is part of the oldest and largest international art exhibition, the Venice Biennale. This mega-exhibition (which has not updated its organisational structure) is constrained by its traditional format, catering to a variety of interests and tastes due to its partial privatization, changes to its political alliances, and management’s links to the ruling party of the Italian Government. The Venice Biennale is split between two major sections: the pavilions and the main curated exhibition. The pavilions consist of two types: the national pavilions that showcase art and feature artists as a representation of individual states, such as the American Pavilion; and regional or state-consortium pavilions (which often do not have a physical or permanent space), such as the Nordic Pavilion. The main exhibition presents only artists invited by the Chief Curator in the international exhibition; these artists can simultaneously be selected to represent their states in the national pavilions (although it happens rarely). However, there is also a third section: the independently curated projects that are part of the programme known as collateral events, which are usually spaces intended to address urgent and, often, controversial issues, and to offer smaller, focused curatorial projects.
There have been other similar attempts in the past to deconstruct the traditional concept of nation-state-based art pavilions, which aim to circumvent the rules of collateral projects. Yet, given its unique and open structure—almost a guerrilla-like endeavour—Yiddishland Pavilion is the latest, and perhaps the most radical experiment of its kind. For example, here I want to discuss in more detail why the project—unlike any other collateral event—resembles a global biennial on its own rather than yet another pavilion in the context of the 59th Venice Biennale.
The word “pavilion” itself, at least in this context, is abundant with paradoxes. While usually this term refers to a temporary architectural unit during the century-long history of the Venice Biennale, it became synonymous with the opposite: a fixed building in the Giardini, the main space that hosts the Venice Biennale. The national pavilions are usually built, funded, and owned by one state or regionally bounded states, unlike the exhibitions that take place in various temporarily rented spaces featured in the programme as collateral events. The main exhibition is installed partly in the Giardini, in a building called Central Pavilion, and in the Arsenale. The national pavilions, based on problematically fixed concepts of the nation-state, territoriality, belonging, and property also sometimes show art projects that are at odds with the overall concept of the Biennial. The collateral events neither have to adhere to nationally driven interests nor to the Biennial’s curatorial title and concept. Imbued with the promise of independence from any particular state’s administration and political entities, these projects aim towards critical artistic and curatorial strategies that overcome systemic normativity and conservative institutional structures. However, given the contradictions stemming from the prevailing neoliberal tendencies that affect the publicity and branding of contemporary art by focusing on geopolitical and national identity, such promises often fall short.
It is worth mentioning that Yiddishland Pavilion wouldn’t have been accepted under the same name in the official competition for the small selection of collateral events that is included in each edition of the Venice Biennale. This comes as a result of the Biennale’s strict rules that do not allow independent projects or unrecognised and partly unrecognised states to use the term “pavilion” in their title in order to avoid diplomatic conflicts among states. Nevertheless I want to argue that the relevance and strength of the Yiddishland Pavilion is linked to its independence from the Biennial’s restrictive context, and because it avoided from its outset the strings that are attached to any Venice Biennale official project.
Only a few clicks on the project’s website are enough to reveal the project’s ambitions and contradictions that stem from such ambitions, for better or worse. Next to the participants’ names the website lists the artists’ countries of origin and various locations where the projects took part; that it is difficult to count the number of involved states and individuals is an advantage, at least in my view due to the non-hierarchical structures that emerged in a collaborative co-production of the art projects and discursive events.
Additionally, not all artists and other participants like myself would qualify under the usual definition of Yiddishness: some of them, at least some of the speakers and partners, are not Jewish or Yiddish-speaking; many do not belong to the German-speaking or Eastern European-speaking population in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. So the lived experience was not necessarily the only motivation and inspiration for this project, and the curators were not driven by any kind of superficial appropriation of the urgent issues surrounding Jewish communities and subjectivities squeezed in between a troubled past and a not-so-bright present.
On the one hand, the Yiddishland Pavilion does function as a counterpart to the long existing influence of geopolitical and neoliberal economic tendencies on the concept of the Venice Biennial. The term ‘pavilion’ is obviously applied in an ironic and metaphoric way. Yet, I argue that rather than as a pavilion this initiative establishes itself as a new, creative, globalised diasporic model of a biennial. This seems counterintuitive because the project has nothing to do with the Venice Biennale other than by cleverly using it for publicity. Yet, it is still perceived as one of the collateral projects that is exhibited and viewed in parallel to the whole Biennale, even though it’s not officially included in the press materials and catalogues of the Biennale.
The trap of essentialisation is shaken and weakened at the outset, during the conceptualisation and selection process. For example, the term “Yiddish art” is not necessarily linked to the biological and ethnic belonging of the artists and thus doesn’t refer to some “intrinsic” characteristics of art created by Yiddish art. On the contrary, the emphasis is put on the cultural aspect of the term. In one of the early reviews of the Yiddishland Pavilion, Solomon Brager quoted Yevgeniy Fiks’ statement that, in Brager’s view, encompasses the meaning of Yiddishland: “a place shared by Jewish and non-Jewish people; an alternative map of Eastern and central Europe. (A ‘non-Jewish resident of Poland,’ he explains, ‘is also residing in Yiddishland.’)”
Most importantly, the art projects included still predominantly address the contentious geopolitical and identitarian meanings of Yiddishness. They encompass various aspects of Yiddish culture from various positionalities that inevitably invite some intrinsic paradoxes and complexity, which accompanies the intersection of such topics as performative diasporic identity, community, and subjectivity; the issues of trauma, loss, shame, and lack; the memorialisation of a contentious past, such as the pogroms and Holocaust; and the fading of art and cultural traditions.
The carefully selected and invited artists, art projects, and initiatives clearly thread the needle, and with the sensitive curatorial and activist political approach, unravel the complex background and urgency of such a project. Brager also quoted a sharp observation by the artist virgil b/g taylor, who was not involved in the project: “There remains a disinterest in projects that are actually revitalizing Jewish discourse and culture in Europe in favor of a mandate to protect the imaginary interests of an abstract Jewry that is almost entirely conflated with Israel and the memory of Germany’s murdered Jews.”
Identity and “Strategic Essentialism”
Here I find it relevant to critically address the perpetuated contradictions and conundrums stemming from aspirations to belong and integrate into the prevailing cultural and curatorial configurations that are often among the main motivations behind projects focused on ethnic and national identity. That is not the same as to say that such initiatives and projects are inevitably doomed to failure, and cannot offer and achieve complex imaginariness, relevant art practices, or long-term political aims and projections. Such projects often ponder various urgencies related to belonging to different minorities and their inclusion and representation in international exhibitions. Such was the example of the 2011 initiative of the project Call the Witness that was advertised as the 2nd Roma Pavilion (before it became impossible to use the word “pavilion” for non-nation-state-based exhibitions).
Due to the diasporic history of each community they inhabit, Yiddish artists, similarly as the artists of Romani origin, in many ways function as minoritarian in the context of the dominant culture of the countries they inhabit, on one hand, and as hybrid, on the other. The current minority cultures, for example, rarely receive adequate support from their official national governments and agencies. The reasons for that vary and resist any just comparison, but the prevailing reason is the nationalist conception of culture in most European states. In addition, the neoliberal European model of multicultural society (e.g. the German model) revealed the inner contradictions and hypocrisy of a society that still hasn’t come to terms with its colonial and racist past. When asked for her opinion of the ways in which a new Roma museum could compensate for such lack of institutional support and inclusion in the art system from the past, Monika Weychert, the Polish theorist and curator, warned that:
A central institution could have a tendency to maintain a national (pan-Roma) narrative, overlooking local and collective historical contexts, as well as the whole spectrum of interactions with majority nations – including those outside the oppressor-victim relation; the whole spectrum of relations between various Roma groups in history; the whole spectrum of intragroup relations; the whole spectrum of individual choices, etc.
One of the most quoted texts on the representation of minoritarian cultures and the art of such communities is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay, Can the Subaltern Speak?: “Strategic essentialism is like role-playing, briefly inhabiting the criminal mind in order to understand what makes it tick.” The concept of strategic essentialism for Spivak—because of her long-term investment in a critique of essentialisation—refers to a strategy that nationalities, ethnic groups, and minority groups can use to present themselves in opposition to their essentialisation: “Essentialism is like dynamite, or a powerful drug: judiciously applied, it can be effective in dismantling unwanted structures or alleviating suffering; uncritically employed, however, it is destructive and addictive.” Elisabeth Eide elaborated on Spivak’s concept and her proposal to apply essentialisation deliberately, while also being aware of the danger:
While strong differences may exist between members of these groups, and amongst themselves they engage in continuous debates, it is sometimes advantageous for them to temporarily ‘essentialise’ themselves and bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve certain goals.
Initially, Spivak differentiated strategic essentialism by identifying two characteristics, as summarized by Eide:
First, the ‘essential attributes’ are defined by the group itself, not by outsiders trying to oppress the group. Second, in strategic essentialism, the ‘essential attributes’ are acknowledged to be a construct. That is, the group rather paradoxically acknowledges that such attributes are not natural (or intrinsically essential), but are merely invoked when it is politically useful to do so. Moreover, members of the group maintain the power to decide when the attributes are ‘essential’ and when they are not. In this way, strategic essentialism can be a powerful political tool.
However, Spivak became aware that her concept of “strategic essentialism” turned out to be inefficient. Calling for essentialism as a pragmatic means of social subversion and strategy in socio-political conservative cultural contexts became vulnerable to appropriation by systemic structures that appropriated the populist calls for essentialist-based policies in the long term, despite the initial strategy’s aim: that such a strategy was originally meant to be dismantled after it served its purpose. The limited and often counterproductive effects of this still uncritically prised theoretical strategy in practice led to Spivak’s distancing from her own proposition: “I have dissociated myself from it. Why? Because it has been taken as an excuse for just essentialism that is an excuse for just identitarianism”.
Terms closely associated with “strategic essentialism”—”making visible”, “giving voice”, and “giving a platform”—are still used by Spivak. All these terms have also been applied as attempts to justify various curatorial concepts or strategies in the context of the debate surrounding national identity projects and ethno-centric exhibitions and pavilions. However, the danger of the use of such strategies is exactly the enabling, perpetuating, and reinforcing of stereotypes that were initially targeted by the very same projects.
Solidarity with the “Other”, Not only with the “Similar“
I argue that at the core of Yiddishland Pavilion is solidarity—but solidarity with the “Other” not with the same. Paul Gilroy already had pointed out the danger from identification and solidarity based on “sameness” in which the already dominant national or ethnic identity is strengthened even further because of solidarity among peers of a similar background. In conversation with Tommie Shelby in “Cosmopolitanism, Blackness, and Utopia”, Gilroy interpreted the notion of identity:
I’ve always tried to unpack the notion of identity significantly. So when you say racial identity, I immediately triangulate it: there’s the question of sameness; there’s the question of solidarity (which we’ve already dealt with); and there’s the issue of subjectivity. So, identity can be unpacked into at least three quite discrete problems, which are usually lumped together when we speak of identity.
Gilroy defined one of the most important issues with any critique of racism: that in racist discourse the society conceptualizes the subject (or group of subjects) that is perceived as the other, the different—both as a problem and as a victim. As a problem because it disturbs the established order of sameness, as a victim because the compassion that accompanies the victimisation is a kind of redemption. According to Gilroy such perpetuating cycle of problem and victim is difficult to avoid and it is much easier to state than to realise the calls for living together that Gilroy dubbed “conviviality”.
The question “who cares about Jewish art?” that Brager asked at the beginning of their review, although relevant and empathic, opens up several urgent issues about community, lived experience, and solidarity with the other. For example, it speaks volumes about the difficulty to understand the dangers of essentialisation that lurk even in such a simple question. I’ve written elsewhere about my discomfort with the ease with which terms such as “Roma art”, “Jewish art”, or “Yiddish art” are used in various art contexts for the essentialist assumptions that unintentionally can misconstrue the aims of such projects. The dangers behind the homogenisation of such terms come from the inevitable contentious effects of the “ideal of community”, in Iris Marion Young’s terms:
The ideal of community, finally, totalizes and detemporalizes its conception of social life by setting up an opposition between authentic and inauthentic social relations. It also detemporalizes its understanding of social change by positing the desired society as the complete negation of existing society. It thus provides no understanding of the move from here to there that would be rooted in an understanding of the contradictions and possibilities of existing society.
Yiddishland Pavilion by default avoids such conundrums by expanding its curatorial methodology and strategy beyond territorialisation of the nation-state. Moreover, during conversations regarding this text, the curator Yevgeniy Fiks suggested “Yiddishland art” to stress the project’s focus on imaginary versus essentialist curatorial concepts.
Finally, it might also be worth recalling Marnia Lazreg’s and Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s calls against the “essentialism of difference” in the context of feminist critical theory. Mohanty and Lazreg’s nuanced analysis focused on the traps of generalised attacks of universalist, essentialist, or constructivist feminist theories that could be helpful in understanding the danger of essentialisation of ethnic and gender differences. “The point is neither to subsume the other women under one’s own experience nor to uphold a separate truth for them.” Mohanty reminded us that the local and global co-exist in a reciprocal relationship, which is not defined in material ways, in terms of physical geography or territories. Instead, she argues, they are linked conceptually, temporally, and contextually, and that resonates with what Nira Yuval-Davis dubbed, “transversal politics”. This kind of framework assumes intersections of race, class, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, gender and sexuality, and analysis of the intertwining of different historic experiences of oppression and exploitation.
This applies to the ongoing socio-political issues of Jewish, Yiddish, or Romani lives that all made their way into the Yiddish imaginary territory. Mohanty’s view involved interrogating the potential for solidarity and mutuality in the struggle, both on specific and universal levels. In addition, Seyla Benhabib pointed out the “radical self-determination of individuals as a way of discrediting difference: in this way the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can be made fluid and negotiable.”
The artists of the Yiddishland Pavilion, whether of Yiddish, Jewish, BIPOC, Roma, LGBTQ+, or other ethnic origin and sexual orientation undergo struggles that intersect at many points and already confirm an awareness of the pitfalls of ethnic focus. However the project may still face other contradictions and paradoxes of the globalised art scene and markets in the future, given the general context and framework on which background it operates: the Venice Biennale. Not only does the Venice Biennale tend towards restrictive and controlling policies—at least towards its own “territory”—but it also recuperates itself through complex moves of appropriations and monetarisation of “strategic essentialist” projects. This, in addition to other contextual political and economic contradictions, may bring new challenges to the curators of this otherwise well-timed and complex project. Let’s hope that the focus on ethnic identity will remain in the realm of the metaphoric and that the focus will continue to be on a diasporic, fluid understanding of Yiddish identity, and on solidarity with Yiddish artists by artists and other participants of different national and ethnic background, rather than on any imaginary and fixed identity that is much easier to advertise, promote, and monetise.
 https://yiddishlandpavilion.art/; Also see: Chelsea Haines, At the Venice Biennale, a Border-Defying Yiddishland Pavilion, July 10, 2022, https://hyperallergic.com/746238/venice-biennale-yiddishland-pavilion/
 Challenging the National Division: Transnational, Alternative, And “Pavilions-In-Pavilions”: a conversation with Galit Eilat, Suzana Milevska, Sislej Xhafa, 12 October 2022, at the James Gallery New York; https://yiddishlandpavilion.art/challenging-the-national-division/ [accessed Nov 27 2022]
 Roma Pavilion (2007-2022); Diaspora Pavilion, 1-2 (2017, 2022); Anonymous Stateless Immigrants Pavilion, 2011, 2015; Yiddishland Pavilion, 2022.
 Some collateral projects—addressing the relevant issues of marginalised and vulnerable communities and the rise of relevant socio-political criticism regarding the nation-state, ethnic minorities, borders, exile, and refugee crisis—grow in spectacle on their own, and go far beyond the meaning of the terms “pavilion” and “collateral”. Examples include The NSK State Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale 2017 and the Roma exhibitions since 2011.
 For example, in 2013 the exchange between the French and German Pavilion was an attempt of that kind. Anri Sala, the artist of Albanian origin who represented France in the German Pavilion, and Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist representing Germany in the French Pavilion, were neither French nor German.
 Arsenale is a hybrid concept that hosts both the main exhibition and temporary spaces that are also called ‘pavilions’; these are run by the biennale and only temporarily are turned into national pavilions, available for rent to nations without established pavilions.
 I was amused by the fact that the Yiddishland Pavilion didn’t ‘buy’ the label and logo from the Venice Biennale office so its curators could both ‘flirt’ with the term ‘pavilion’ and use the coincidental time and space of their project without playing by the neoliberal.
 This policy was the result of the backlash around various proposals for establishing a Palestinian Pavilion that started with Francesco Bonami, the director of the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. The Kosovo Pavilion is a rare exception of a state that is not completely recognised, but was allowed to use the term ‘pavilion’ in official contexts.
 The term ‘Yiddish’ refers to a language and culture that is defined by its geopolitical borders: the Jewish language of the German-speaking Jews from Central and Eastern Europe that do not include the Jews of Sephardic background.
 While the word “pavilion” in the history of the Venice Biennale usually refers to a temporary or permanent architectural unit, with Yiddishland Pavilion it becomes synonymous with the opposite: the ephemeral and dispersed.
 Solomon Brager, States of mind toward an alternative future for Jewish art, Art Forum, August 15, 2022.
 Monika Weychert, RomaMoMA: a Roma Transnational Museum – Challenges and Issues, June 2021. https://eriac.org/romamoma-a-roma-transnational-museum-challenges-and-issues/ [accessed Nov 27, 2022].
 Gayatri Spivak. “Subaltern Studies: Decon-structing Historiography?” In The Spivak Reader, edited by Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean, London: Routledge. 1996., p. 203–237.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard University Press, 1999.
 Elisabeth Eide, “Strategic Essentialism” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, First Edition. Edited by Nancy A. Naples. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2016.
 S. Danius and S. Jonsson, “An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak”, Boundary, 1993, 20(2): 24–50; Suzana Milevska in conversation with Gayatri Chkravorty Spivak, “Resistance that Cannot Be Recognised as such”, Conversations with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, London: Seagull Books, 2007, 57-85.
 S. Danius and S. Jonsson. “An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak”, p. 59.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Making Visible”, On Productive Shame, Reconciliation, and Agency, edited by Suzana Milevska. Berlin: SternbergPress, 2016, pp. 92-102.
 P. Gilroy and T. Shelby, “Cosmopolitanism, blackness, and Utopia” in Transition – An International Review, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, July 18, 2009.
 Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Houston A. Baker (Foreword). Chicago University, 1991, pp. 11-12.
 Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London: Routledge, 2004, p. xv.
 Solomon Brager, States of Mind Toward an alternative future for Jewish art, https://www.artforum.com/slant/toward-an-alternative-future-for-jewish-art-88879.
 Suzana Milevska, RomaMoMA: An Opportunity for Differencing the Museum Canons, July 2021. https://eriac.org/romamoma-an-opportunity-for-differencing-the-museum-canons/
 Iris Marion Young, The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference Social Theory and Practice, Florida State University Department of Philosophy Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1986), p. 1-26.
 Nira Yuval-Davis, What is transversal politics, in Soundings – A Journal of Politics and Culture, 1999/Vol. 12, Summer: 94–98, p. 94.
 Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, Psychology Press, 1992, pp.160-161.