LA BIENAL DE VENECIA 2011
By Karlyn De Jongh, Sarah Gold and Valeria Romagnini
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Visiting the Venice Biennale is always a moment of great expectations, one is full of hope to discover new exciting artists or to gain a better insight in the work of more established artists. This year’s Biennale is the biggest in history, with its 89 national participations spread in the Giardini and the city. There is so much to see, all these works, all these new artists… It would actually require carefully doing your homework upfront, but that is basically impossible to do. How can we know about all these artists who are exhibiting here, or about all these artworks? What is left, is just the sheer visual presence of the artwork and we can only guess if there is a thought behind it, let alone a thought that makes sense, that has real content. Having seen the Giardini, Arsenale and most of the exhibitions in the city, for us, this time could be one of the worst Biennales – at least not one of the best.
The overall title of this year's Biennale is "Illuminations", chosen by curator Bice Curiger. Whether giving a title to an event like this is such a great help, we are not sure. Most of the participating countries and other initiatives seem to follow their own thoughts, their own guidelines and have their own social and political systems to follow. Curiger’s influence on the national pavilions is reduced to almost nothing and that means that the presentations in each of the pavilions will never be able to really fit together or within the given title. It stays a mixture of different single statements. But also in the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale, the two exhibitions that are underwritten by Bice Curiger, we think she should not be held responsible. There are different factors that have an influence on the result of such an exhibition that lie beyond her possibilities: the time span, for example, in which this exhibition has to be put together, and also the sheer financial effort that has to be made for such a display. Curiger for sure has done her best within her means.
The Giardini’s Central Pavilion
In the central pavilion, Maurizio Cattelan is omnipresent. His stuffed pigeons are sitting on the beams in almost every room and even on the front of the building. We have seen many pigeons that had been abused to say many different things, but here in this case we have no clue what the content is – or if there is any content at all. Cattelan seems this fashionable artist and because of his overall presence in this exhibition, he leaves a mark on the rest of the artworks: we cannot help noticing all the artworks that seem to be more a gimmick, more a joke than a serious statement. There is an installation with clay attached to the wall, talking heads, video screens and large works on paper. It is almost as if all this art is made for a quick visual attraction. As with Cattelan, it is the question whether these works have any content at all. Probably the artists had their best intention to create the work, and making it look the way it does. But how deep do we have to dig to find out the reason for this kind of gimmicks? Perhaps the ongoing financial crisis might bring all these gimmick artists to an end. It might stop or at least slow down the search for cheap success and it might be an opportunity for several artists to search to what they are capable of, bringing to renew a serious try in contemporary art and reflect the capability of mankind and not be just a quick and easy win. For now, it is sad to see that unfortunately the world's hunger for art objects has brought us to display so many items with seemingly no reason behind it, other than just to display items.
Most remarkable in this central pavilion is probably the main space, which shows paintings by Tintoretto, combined with more of Cattelan's pigeons. What is the reason for presenting this Venetian Reinaissance painter in this central pavilion dedicated to Contemporary Art? Continuing our walk, we reach the space that is most ‘appealing’: a spatial structure from Monika Sosnowska, with photos by David Goldblatt and an installation by Haroon Mirza presented in it. Goldblatt‘s photos show a nice documentation of life and existence in South Africa. Looking at the photos, you keep hearing the somewhat disturbing sound of Mirza’s work “Sick”, a young artist who for no obvious reason won the Silver Lion of the Biennale. Like with many others, it would need a long study of this artist to find out what he is about. But with the overwhelming sound, the work does leave an impression.
NATIONAL PAVILIONS AT THE GIARDINI
Walking through the Giardini, it is beautiful to see all the different types of buildings, each representing a country. There have been many discussions about the concept of the single buildings. Seeing the different national presentations, one cannot ignore that contemporary art has been or become a global matter. Perhaps the beauty of the Biennale lies in that, this unification of artists. But with so much to see, it is however important that the artwork catches our attention, otherwise we do loose the goodwill to try to look for its contents. Catching one’s attention does not have to be done with visual gimmicks or large impressions. It could be done by simple means as well. But here in the Giardini, this all quite fails.
Germany did make a mark and will be remembered for giving us a strong presentation. The word “Germania” on the outside of the pavilion has been replaced by “ego-mania”, which changes the perception of the whole building. Entering a pavilion like this, one cannot do without knowing that your opinion is already formed before entering. There are many photos and videos about life, illness, death, presumption, subjectivity, presented in a church-like atmosphere. France is represented by Christian Boltanski with his work “Chance”. We always had doubts about Boltanski, having interviewed him once in Paris. But here he manages again to be true to his subject. The metal building structure with the printing presses, ‘printing’ images of human faces. It shows us the endlessness of human existence, seemingly simple but very effective. No individuality, but humanity and life as a continuous flux in the French pavilion.
Also the Greek pavilion is quite strong: “Beyond Reform” by Diohandi is a temple-like space. Over a path with water on both sides, you are forced to walk in the direction of the light in front of you. Space, light, water, sound – all essential elements. Excellent intentions, which perhaps could have been executed just a little bit better. The Greek might have lacked the financial resources. Leaving the Greek pavilion, it becomes clearer that displaying art of international high quality does unfortunately often require a certain financial backup these days. It is a development in contemporary art that cannot be overseen. It has often been criticized, but in reality it is unavoidable.
Spain is alive and seems to want to say something. With the title “The inadequate”, it proposes performances curated by the artist Dora Garcia in collaboration with other artists and curators. As Garcia says: “the inadequate aims to replace the idea of a national pavilion with a pavilion curious about the context where it is placed.” Relevant is here that there are people seriously concerned about things. They shake you up, trying hard to bring a message across. A performer is screaming, talking aloud to the world. His words do not seem to belong to any language, which might be the core essence of this performance. Beyond understandable vocal language, a message is being brought across. Language is no barrier, in this case we understand that they are humans who care about something and want to make us understand, to make us feel. And we do. There is energy, unusual things are happening. Spain seems to have taken this Biennale with refreshing seriousness. With the engagement of all the people involved, this is what we always thought art is about: humans with high integrity who are trying to communicate with other human beings. With this presentation, Spain can stand proudly in this Giardini.
Over in the big space of the Arsenale, just a few names stand out among the 83 artists invited. It starts with the display of a wooden house on stilts, by the Chinese Song Dong. Then Slovakian Roman Ondàk, with his time capsule used for a representation of the 33 Chilean miners returned to above ground last year. Like with many other works that are displayed here, it is difficult to grasp the artistic aspect of the works, other than it being human structures. Again, it is unclear what each artist seems to be about. If this is a representation of what mankind is about, then it is a sad sight.
The promising piece by James Turrell seems to be under construction, but without seeing him you can be sure that it is quality, that it would have been the highlight of the Arsenale. Urs Fischer’s human ‘marble’ figure is a big candle burning down. Is this the final end of the past? Or the end of us humans? Do you want to free us or yourself from the past, from beauty, from aesthetics? This work can create impact but for us it does not go further than a gimmick impact. At least, we become curious of Fischer’s message here, with this burning-down object. Another interesting work is a film by Christian Marclay, “The clock”, a 24 hour movie made of small film-cuts showing the exact time you’re actually watching it. It is a fantastic topic: time. But what is Marclay’s message? Does it need little pieces of film to bring awareness about time, space, existence? Of course you might reach a large audience, one that is sensitive to this kind of work. But cheap tricks wear off very fast and in order to make a significant impact as an intellectual presentation of mankind in contemporary art today, we should be caught in a more sincere way.
A nice contrast is offered by the Latin American pavilion, titled ENTRE SIEMPRE Y JAMÁS, where different artists are presented. Each artist has something to say, and they seem to be dealing with the difficult relationship between the western cultures and the developing countries. Several of these artists are about aggressivity brought upon them. Claudia Casarino reminds us about the Paraguay women history and the treatment made by the Spanish domination. María Rosa Jijón from Ecuador about the independence of confederation of indigenous people of the Amazon basin on IIRSA. Human teeth in the sculpture by Adán Vallecillo from Honduras. Fernando Juan Herrán from Colombia who contemplates the poor districts that go by different names, depending on the Latin American countries they are in, he presents photos showing traces of humans creating houses, steps to their home. Everybody here seems to be fighting with their past and the importance of history. The subject of this whole pavilion is very clear. It’s a collective show made with artists who tell us the relevant transformations in politics and in society. As much as the subject matter should be taken seriously, most of the participants give us a history lesson, but here it became a piece of art.
With works by Katharina Fritsch, Sturtevant and Asier Mendizabel, the Arsenale goes out like a candle, without highlight. If you look close enough, all artists probably have an intention for making their work. Some, however, require you to look really very closely and the concept might be a tiny personal issue, that does not have any substantial, ongoing meaning that goes through the whole oeuvre. Of course, also at this Biennale people should have a fair chance to present their work on a platform. But maybe all these works are not meant to be works of art and should be more understood as objects made by people who are trying to find a way to express themselves. The whole Arsenale trip is like a puzzle to us. We try to find a meaning. But on the other hand, we feel that this exhibition is a missed chance to reach other humans, a public.
Outside of the Giardini and Arsenale there are many so-called collateral events, some of them impressive some of them less. We ourselves are the curators of the exhibition PERSONAL STRUCTURES at Palazzo Bembo, part of an ongoing project that is initiated by the Dutch artist Rene Rietmeyer and dedicated to the subjects of time – space and existence. For us it was a seemingly easier task than for Bice Curiger, so it would be unfair to compare both efforts to each other. We could choose each artist ourselves, could present him within a certain context and even had influence on the artworks which were displayed. With each artist dedicating his whole oeuvre to the concepts of time, space or existence, gives an exhibition like ours a much more homogeneous feel to it. Having a palazzo with 24 rooms means each artist can make his own strong statement within a given space. PERSONAL STRUCTURES is an impressive total, and is in no comparison to an exhibition at the Arsenale where in one very large space many artworks have to be displayed side by side. Our exhibition stands on its own and together with the other collateral events, it enriches the Biennale as a total. Therefore it is without doubt that visiting Venice and seeing the Biennale including several of the collateral events is important in order to stay up to date with what is happening in the artworld as a total.