The grand Piazzetta de San Marco, located in the center of the city, has become a hub for investigations of state power for the run of this year’s Biennale. On one end, the Museo Correr is playing host to Jenny Holzer’s paintings of declassified documents from the United States’ War on Terror. On the other end, directly across from the Doge’s formidable palace, the artist Simon Denny, representing New Zealand, has installed in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana an incisive, and surprisingly humorous, look at Five Eyes, an international surveillance alliance comprised of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and yes, New Zealand. The project is called “Secret Power.”
It all began with LinkedIn, where Denny happened to find a profile belonging to one David Darchicourt, who served as a former designer at the NSA from 2001-2002 under the title “Creative Director of Defense Intelligence.” Digging into Darchicourt’s career, Denny unearthed designs for various projects that he completed for the NSA (including a memorial to agents killed in the line of duty: “Those Who Served in Silence”) and more seemingly benign projects for education firms, which he presents as models in trademark Denny vitrines that have the feel of a tech trade show—slick and kind of gross. Computer servers hum beneath each of them.
Powerpoint slides leaked by Edward Snowden are also featured, allowing for a deeper examination of the iconography of these secretive agencies. Some of the logos are jaw-dropping, like a logo for the NSA’s Special Source Operations division—a rather ferocious-looking eagle carrying the entire world in its talons.
All is presented in a room filed with old globes and 15th century Old Master ceiling paintings of philosophers (Tintoretto) and personifications of virtues like faith and honor (Veronese), state majesty flowing seamlessly across five centuries. It is easily one of the strongest national pavilions in Venice this year. (It is also the first show I can recall containing the interesting disclaimer that “it may contain inaccuracies.”) Curated by Robert Leonard, it is also on view at the Marco Polo International Airport—a citadel of state security, where Denny is displaying large-scale prints of the library as a kind of faux tourism project.