177 Days of Running
First impressions: scroll down
The more complicated matters become, the more things pile up and meanings get difficult to decipher, the more it becomes necessary to devise an itinerary of one’s own and to select a grid that is completely personal. In a situation where certainty and clarity are lacking, where there is no opportunity to gain a detached view, it becomes essential to follow Ariadne’s thread, which guides us like a red line through the wanderings of the labyrinth. But it has happened to me numerous times, that on coming out in an exhausted state from one of the biennials or one of the documenta, to encounter an art critic, curator or journalist firing comments like a machine gun: “It’s weak this year…a festival of mediocrity…a heap of material without meaning and an absence of any curatorial idea or guidelines whatsoever…” or things like that.
My immediate reaction has always been: “Why don’t you change your job?”, and “It’s time you learnt how to look”, or even “Get your brain involved and use it”. I’ve also thought then that you could seek to develop some sort of measure for quantifying the combined efforts of all the artists in order to contradict this type of judgment which sounds more like prejudice, and which often has not, in fact, been based on genuine experience that has been explored in depth by someone who has sought to understand what is in front of them. You could, for instance, ask all the artists present how much time they had invested in the works on display, and for how many years they had worked as artists prior to being invited to participate in the Biennale. The sum of hours/days/decades, or indeed centuries, could almost be a quantitative indicator, even if – admittedly – it is no longer a measure of quality. It has taken some time to understand that this position of the critics is probably – more than inability – to some extent a kind of survival reflex. To review in totality a show such as the Biennale, with 83 artists (of which 32 are women and 32 under the age of 35), 89 pavilions and 37 collateral events is simply impossible, and to pretend to be able to manage to do this is a form of megalomania. I think that the only way of getting out of this is to make precise selections based on themes, trends or reflections which may have been sparked off by particular aspects of the various curatorial concepts, rather than specific works or pavilions. Therefore among the boundless variety I decided to investigate three themes: the problem of light, the notion of Nation and the principle of interaction.
The title of the exhibition curated by Bice Curriger, ILLUMInazioni remains ambiguous even after a second glance: vague, undefined, and in certain aspects contradictory. You read of the important role that light has played in art since the very beginning, and in a heightened manner during the Renaissance and in the Baroque period. But not only: on one hand, the title alludes to the idea of the lamp of Enlightenment, that is the role of rationality in human knowledge, and on the other, to its opposite: light as a suggestion of divinity and mysticism. The Biennale opens, in fact, with three paintings by Tintoretto, artist experimenter par excellence, and who represents the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque. In the works by the Venetian painter, light has an essential role and notwithstanding its minimal presence, creates the most powerful contrasts. Light becomes divine presence and by the grace of pure gold brings the invisible into the realm of the visible.
In confrontation with Tintoretto we find a contemporary position which pushes beyond in its radicalness: the works of Bruno Jakob, where the painterly gesture becomes completely invisible, given that it has been executed in water. Thus the visible passes into a sort of transcendence of the invisible, and other than the artist, no-one will ever know what has been depicted there. Not all of the artists of the Biennale have executed the games with light, the play of its presence or absence, quite so subtly. Amalia Pica, for example, reproduces the phenomenon of the cumulative mixing of color, where two bands of complementary colors (here red and green) create white light where they intersect.
James Turrell, on the other hand, is definitely the undisputed master of “painting” with light in space. In his installation Bridget’s Bardo – The Wolfsburg Project from 2009/2010, on show at the Arsenale, a changing light which picks up the colours of the Tintoretto floods a room raised above the ground, to which one gains access by means of a stairway. The stupendous and stunning phenomenon is that the coloured rectangle on the wall appears as if it were a flat projection of light, however it is actually an opening which leads to an internal space coloured by light. Thus a strange form of spatial confusion is created, a potent ambiguity between bi- and tridimensionality which makes the neurons of the brain go into tilt and you lose practically all sense of orientation in space.
Contrary to Turrell, the neon pyramid of Mai-Thu Perret stays the way it is, even if it is reminiscent of the Swiss artist Emma Kunz who played at being Demiurge (the “artisan” god in Aristotelian thought) by means of geometric forms. Despite the best of intentions, this blinding, freezing and purely technological light does not emanate any transcendental aura whatsoever. In Spazio Numero 13 by Fischli-Weiss (2011), a full moon illuminates – indirectly, by the reflected light of the sun – archetypical forms of architectural constructions placed on white pedestals: clay tubes, corners and walls. The two Swiss artists are so faithful in their 360 degree inquiry into the man-made forms that, like fake readymades, these acquire the status of a work of art. Naturally, light plays an important role in all the photographic works, like the marvelous shots by Luigi Ghirri (Passaggi di cartone, 1972) or the series depicting everyday life in Shanghai by the artists Birdhead (Song Tao and Ji Weiyu). In the work by Urs Fischer, the principle of illumination is instead transmuted into three gigantic candles: the chair in his studio, his friend Rudolf Stingel and Il ratto delle Sabine, a remake of a Baroque sculpture by Giambologna. It is impossible not to think of the memento mori and the vanitas of paintings of the 17th century, seeing that the three sculptures in the form of candles will have disappeared by the end of the Biennale and all that will remain will be a shapeless mountain of wax which has set hard again.
Cinema, which more than any other medium consists purely of light and without any fixed supporting structure, is capable of recreating a total illusion, surrounding us in a world of limitless fakery. It’s not by chance that the film ‘The Clock’ by the American artist Christian Marcley won the Leone d’oro prize as the best contribution to the Biennale of 2011. His endless work, a 24-hour montage made up of tiny pieces quoted from various films in the history of cinema, all of which have in common that they speak of time or display a clock, is a stroke of genius. Only after some time you realise that the hour portrayed in the film corresponds to real time and hence creates a factor of real perceptive displacement: so much so that the viewer, and with them the reality of the present, begins to form part of the film. We find ourselves as if tele-transported to bygone times; more than ever, the one who watches not only identifies with whoever is performing, but enters completely into the representative space of the film.
A magical atmosphere, conversely, is created in Spazio elastico by Gianni Colombo, a work of 1967, already shown in the Biennale of 1968. Fluorescent elastic cords, lit up by ultraviolet light, are strung out in a darkened room. Not one line remains fixed in the space, the coordinates of the three dimensional grid wobble and as a result spatial perception is severely disturbed. This conceptual work of the 1960s brings us directly to the contribution of Kristaps Ģelzis in the Latvian Pavilion. Since 2007, he too, a conceptual artist class of 1962, has been conducting a very special investigation into the medium and the perception of painting. From one aspect his works make us think of the ‘colour field painting’ of fellow countryman Mark Rothko, from another they link up with experiments with light and its effect on perception. The colour emanating from the paintings that almost completely cover the walls of the space is not the colour of the water painting, nor of its backing, the paper (both completely white). The color that can be perceived comes from a phosphorescent ultraviolet light fired into space, which has the capacity of falsifying the appearance of everything that it finds there. The viewers and their outlines thus are caused to be part of the painting and interact with the pictorial space. The paintings of Ģelzis manage to become ‘all over’ and envelop the viewer by means of light, like a spider entraps the fly with its filaments. Victim of the deceptive effect of UV rays, the viewer remains locked inside the painting, and in the end participates in the work. The question of the truth or falsity of things, the problem of delusion of perception or, as Descartes said, whether there exists a wicked little devil who misleads our senses, once again remains open. And perhaps it’s better that way. I prefer questions to answers, interrogation to affirmation.
The false suffix to ILLUMInazioni leads us to confront another subject: Bice Curriger chose to “problematize” the theme of ‘Nation’ (a term already problematic in itself) by means of five questions that she posed to all the artists present, in the principal exhibition as well as in the pavilions. I noticed that the majority maintained that the artistic community is not a Nation. And as regards the question of how many Nations they had within themselves there were two main responses: “many” or “none”. Answers to the question: “Where do you feel at home?” were obviously very varied: “Where my children are”, “In the Antarctic”, “By the sea”, “Wherever”, “In a warm place”, “In the writings of Robert Walser”, “Where there is a sense of relief” etc., but leafing through them I did not find a single person who specified their own country as their Nation.
Even if the questions may seem a little banal (as someone had noted), the responses on the other hand were significant and express a growing phenomenon which has become increasingly evident over the last few years. The notion of Nation is losing importance in a “glocal” world, in which both the local and the global seem to take precedence over the national. Years ago, Italian critics collected signatures in favor of reinstating an Italian Pavilion at the Biennale (and, as we know, they succeeded) and I know of quite a few Italian artists who refused to sign, saying that the national pavilions should all be abolished.
In recent years you could see, for instance, “foreign” artists representing a country: for example, in 2005 Gianni Motti, an Italian artist who lives in Geneva, represented Switzerland. In its current form, the multicultural aspect is often evident in the creation of collaborations between artists from various backgrounds. In the main exhibition, curator Bice Curriger has created the so-called “parapavilions”, in which four artists had been requested to come up with architectonic structures which, in turn, would host other artists. In this way Song Dong opened a remake of the Peking house he was born in to artists Asier Mendizabal, Cyprien Gaillard and Yto Barrada. Monika Sosnowska constructed confined spaces in the shape of a star in which you could admire the (extremely political) photographs of South African David Goldblatt and a sound installation by the young Londoner Haroon Mirza. Hidden behind the title Extroversion was an intervention by Franz West, who had brought the kitchen of his house in Vienna to the Biennale, turned it inside out and installed the original wallpaper and works by artist friends that are usually hanging there. This intervention was the catalyst for the Austrian artist being awarded the Leone d’Oro for lifetime achievement.
The card of interactions between artists and persons of diverse origin this year is played also in various national pavilions. For her project L’inadeguato, the Spanish artist Dora Garcia has invited predominantly Italian artists and critics to take part in readings, to conduct workshops or to organise debates on the subject of marginalisation, in a programme which is to take place for the duration of the Biennale. The events at the Spanish Pavilion, branded by Pier Paolo Coro as “the Italian Pavilion in exile” (see the accompanying interviews), may remind someone of the non-stop interactive activities of the Progetto Oreste at the Biennale of Harald Szeemann in 1999. The Danish Pavilion, too, was open to international participation. In the exhibition Speech Matters, 18 artists from 10 different countries examine the state of the art of freedom of speech and the press in the world: a well-made show which transcends the notion of country by considering themes which could seem taken for granted, but are instead shown to be of relevance for the whole planet.
If the two pavilions already mentioned stand out with intelligent moves and manage to stay clear of ideological, illustrative or propagandistic positions, Thomas Hirschhorn in the Swiss Pavilion occasionally approaches the danger of a message that is a bit too direct. Even if the sculptural language of the artist, who is resident in Paris, has advanced and greatly broadened over recent years, occasionally it falls into the trap of illustration. It is not enough, these days, to leaf through magazines and to see images of human brutality on the screen or in photos to feel less emotionally distanced to these shocking facts: by now we are almost too “used to” these types of “scandalous” images which we receive in a continuous flow from the press and in consequence we tend to be hardened and desensitized towards them.
The political work which succeeds in being possibly the most moving, because it has something of the brutal truth in it, is to be found in the Egyptian Pavilion: 30 Days of Running in the Space, a project by artist Ahmed Basiuny, in which we see other than his virtual trajectory in an empty space, film footage of his last two days of life in Tahrir Square in Cairo. This document makes us participants in the revolutions of 2011 which finally managed to overthrow the old dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. The images of the popular rebellion are startling, especially when you discover that the artist, 33 years of age, has paid with his life. The eventful film segments speak to us of a world in midst of change, freeing itself from chains and leaving behind it new martyrs and creating new prophets.
The Estonian Pavilion was home to a political work of a completely different kind, but which poses the same questions regarding the representation of social and political facts. Liina Siib takes as her starting point the phrase A woman takes little space, found in a literary article in an Estonian magazine. Through a series of photographs and video installations, the Baltic artist explores – not without a sense of humour – whether women really take up little space. We see women in their (restricted) place of work, a video of a mother at home, pictures of prostitutes who have been interviewed about their relationship with their own body, and finally there is reportage on two pastry-cooks from Tallinn. Notwithstanding the precise research of materials and the great idea of presenting private and intimate aspects of the feminine world through mutations of the exposition space in a (fake) apartment, there is no denying a superficial and demonstrative aspect of this approach. It may be that it deals with a range of issues that have already been reviewed and indulged in, but not only that, as the works don’t manage to hide their formal weaknesses: the videos seem to have been filmed amateurishly and the photographs are all frontal shots, making one think of a family photo album.
Interactive art, a strong contemporary trend which creates connections between the agents, and which puts into action multidirectional reflections by means of exchange, moves further away from the idea of art as an object or a physical item. The branch of art goes beyond mere collaboration between artists who invite one another to do so (as in the parapavilions of Bice Curriger). It creates a dynamic system of unforeseeable situations in continual transformation, and hence turns into a game with precise rules, of which the development or the outcome cannot be predicted.
An example of this is the intervention Who is afraid of free expression by Norma Jean in the principal pavilion of the exhibition ILLUMInazioni. By means of an interactive installation, the artist presents a direct translation of the events from Tahrir Square in Cairo. The public is invited to express themselves personally, by creating forms, writing and drawing on walls with plasticine which lies at the centre of the space in the form of a tricolor red, white and black cube, the colors being those of the Egyptian flag. In this way the artist, in a light and playful manner, has succeeded in recreating an integral aspect of this year’s revolutions: the populace (here the viewers) who unexpectedly take matters into their own hands and unleash a creative energy which previously had been oppressed and invisible.
The Lithuanian Pavilion also, was assigned a Special Mention from the Venice Biennale jury for “its conceptually elegant, and productively ambiguous framing of a nation’s art history” and created an intelligent game on the interaction between the works by various artists and the public. In the project Behind the White Curtain by artist Darius Mikšys, the public is invited to play at being curator. Starting with a white catalogue, the visitors choose from 173 works by artists who have been recipients of Lithuanian state grants over the last 20 years, those which they would like to see on display. Assistants with white gloves then go off to get the chosen works from a depository behind the marquee and place them in the exposition space, and there they stay until the next visitor gives instructions to remove them.
Darius Mikšys in this way underlines the relative and transient aspect of culture, and at the same time brings into focus the role of state curators who decide which art is worthy of enjoying support and which is not. With this device, the Lithuanian artist offers the latest version of the Duchamp readymade, in a game where each of our moves makes us co-responsible and puts to the test our certainties of “…what is a (valid) work of art and what is not.”
The 2011 Biennale has succeeded in making us reflect and consider fundamental questions about belonging, about interaction, about what is right, about criteria of evaluation and decision-making power. Thus, all in all, every visitor will be free to express themselves and to decide what to bring home and what, on the other hand, relinquish to the city on the lagoon.
Translated from Italian by Terēze Svilane
First Impressions on the Venice Biennial 2011
What I liked the best was the American Pavilion. I was very surprised that for the first time they have openly criticized their own culture. It used to be about beauty or whatever, but this time it is about American politics and I was very impressed and happy to see that. The exhibition of Bice I found extremely cold, especially the one in Giardini.
I’m very surprised by the work of Thomas Hirschhorn. For me it’s one of the highlights of the Biennale, and I’m also surprised because it really does not look like a Swiss contribution. It has strong content and it is strong visually, it’s something really very interesting; it’s more than interesting – it’s touching. I also liked the Austrian Pavilion with Markus Schinwald: this is a very quiet one, well realized, with lots of reflections, a conceptual work. And then in ILLUMInations I liked the work by Italian
artist Luigi Ghiri: small, very beautiful photographs.
I had never seen so many people at a Biennale opening. I haven’t seen the pavilions of Japan, Germany and Great Britain, and I won’t see them because I can’t stand in line for two hours. Given that, I very much liked James Turrell at the Arsenale and Boltanski at the French Pavilion. My overriding impression is nothing exceptional. The exhibition by Pier Paolo Calzolari at Ca’ Pesaro, however, is most beautiful, as well as the installation of Prada.
Cora von Zezschwitz:
I just arrived this morning and from what I have seen I really appreciated the work of Melanie Smith at the Mexican Pavilion, because there were certain objet de curiositè that englobe the artist as she works, there are certain objects that are found objects and certain objects that are made objects – curiosities. And I think that it englobes the way how artists work, because they work sometimes with things that inspire them and they can make the meta objects of these things that surround us. I thought that it was very nicely done, and that it was an interesting way to show art nowadays.
The overall impression I have is positive, as regards the Biennale itself. ILLUMInations is quite interesting, even if it is a bit linear and flat. I haven’t yet visited the International Pavilion here in the Giardini, however I like the one in the Arsenale. As regards the pavilions, there are always the highlights and then, on the other hand, the pavilions for passing through. Austria and England are among the highlights. I found Great Britain really impressive: you couldn’t recognise the pavilion any more.
It’s difficult to say something in general. As a whole the art seems too feeble or tiring vis-à-vis the city of Venice, forever marvellous and enchanting. I wonder whether art really has become more boring or less surprising, or whether I have become more jaded with the passing of years. One very subjective impression was that many artists would seem to have a new message, but they wrap it in customary artistic vocabulary from which the viewers have to decipher the message all over again. Why build a labour-intensive installation such as the one in the British Pavilion? Why re-construct, like for like, an old Turkish house in order to obtain the effect of a chamber of horrors, with a photo of Atatürk that bears resemblance to Count Dracula? While in the Bangladesh Pavilion you can visit a genuine old house with a real workshop and real works of art? But the pavilion that I liked most of all by far was the Czech one, because it was very odd. You went into a kind of garden house; it smelt of an ancient art academy, there were old-fashioned sculptures and shelves around. On closer look you discover, for example, an unfinished sculpture resting on crutches with the neck wrapped in plastic and a head that is completely inadequate in relation to the rest of the body. In another place there is a woman searching for her dog under the table and, in order to do this, skims across the flat surface of the table with her arms. It’s about sculptures of the artist’s father, mixed up with different elements. This very ironic work highlights in a very intelligent manner the changing fashions of art. As far as the Polish Pavilion is concerned – extremely controversial – we are still in discussion…
I was extremely surprised by Boltanski, because I had expected something else, a sort of déjà vu, but instead I liked his installation a lot, it was full of humour. I also liked the work by Han Hoogerbrugge, his animation in the Danish Pavilion. Hirschhorn, the Swiss Pavilion, extremely powerful! He won because of his political engagement.
Francesca Marianna Consonni:
Usually I endure it all, my senses get massacred by the works, however this year I felt alright because I began to see artists dragging out of all this crisis some meaning which they reflected upon. Yesterday we visited Andorra, a very interesting pavilion.Spain at last has shed itself of the terrifying monument that is the aftermath of the idea of crisis, but it is a revolting cover-up, like putting powder over the scabs. Now instead we can see not only the scabs, but also the suggestions of healing.
Pier Paolo Coro:
I hope that this is the last time that the Italian Pavilion is left to politics. This business must stop. For me the most beautiful pavilion that I have seen is the Danish one, this year too they are the winners. They have made a work that speaks of the plurality in learning about art from various world perspectives and this is extremely beautiful. It really is the one and only illuminating thing at this Biennale. The Spanish Pavilion is also beautiful, because you could say that these days the Italian Pavilion is in exile. Then there is the most powerful departure at the Arsenale with the work by Roman Ondak, it is extraordinary, but then little by little everything vanishes to nothing.
I think it’s probably the worst Biennale I’ve ever seen and it’s partly because you can’t concentrate on it. It’s very overwhelming, very hard to keep up with all the things that are going on, but also very interesting because it’s like the art is being deregulated. So it seems that it is more about side projects than official projects and it’s very hard to tell one from the other. In some ways this is interesting. Probably the most disturbing of all is the Italian Pavilion, where you’ve got this crazy thing. Two years ago it already seemed really bad, whereas the one this year is kind of unspeakable or one that leaves you speechless at the end of it. It’s impossible for us to understand how Dario Fo or Bernardo Bertolucci – people like this – would want to participate.It seems that the Biennale is traditionally about the unknown, or trying to work with the unknown: what they’ve done in this exhibition is to take what is already known into the space to flatten, to overtake, overwhelming everything else. It’s a kind of passion for ignorance, a form of destruction.
The fact that there are more countries than last time is a sign that effectively contemporary art has become a system for getting validated through international acceptance. Here we are in the Central Asian Pavilion and the artists of Central Asia, about whom we knew absolutely nothing, not even where to find them on the map, yet they have a language that is very similar, perhaps a bit more naive than that which we see at the Palazzo Grassi, for instance. This is of great significance; it indicates that there is a kind of koiné, a type of dialect which involves everyone to some extent. This dialect does not inspire differences, but rather approval. But there is a risk of a homogenization that is based on models that in reality are the dominant hegemonies. I always draw on the example of the Central Asia Pavilion: in reality everyone would like to be in the building next door, that is Palazzo Grassi. And so in some way they make their works according to that model. But this is not a problem of the Biennale, it’s a global problem, a consequence of globalization.
My impression is that I always miss something when I go to the Biennale.
We are still exploring the Biennale,this afternoon we were at the Mexican Pavilion – Melanie Smith, deconstruction of architecture. This is an almost utopian architecture in the jungle, designed throughout the 1970s and 80s and then eventually abandoned. But it’s a very cleverly done project about how to see and think of space, time, and the environment. Otherwise I have been very happy to assist at conferences. There was a human rights activist from India, Dr Vandana Shiva, speaking. Unfortunately not a lot of people were present for such a major person. We also visited the Roma Pavilion hosted by UNESCO, and that was very important because here they questioned how to address contemporary issues in different ways. That for me has been the most striking part.
What’s interesting this year is that there is so much to see. There is usually too much to see in the Biennale and we are used to that, so what we have created is the situation where we can walk into a pavilion, you walk in, you walk around and you recognize something, you get it quickly. So there are not really a lot of situations where you actually want to stay in the space, or maybe the environment is not created in the way that keeps you in the space. And I think that this is something that’s been lost
perhaps in this Biennale. Then, of course, there are fantastic things to see: the Polish Pavilion, the German Pavilion with really interesting references to history, to Joseph Beuys, and Fluxus, and previous things. And I don’t know why in some ways there used to be a problem for some years that the art fairs were trying to be like biennales – now it’s like the Biennale is trying to be like an art fair. There is this funny kind of shift.
At the moment we are standing here at the Pavilion of Switzerland, represented by Thomas Hirschhorn. I like the pavilion of Thomas very much. Among other nice and interesting pavilions that I saw was the French Pavilion with Christian Boltanski – very interesting. And I saw a great video piece by the Finnish artist VesaPekka Rannikko in the Finnish Pavilion. The German Pavilion, too, is very interesting. Of course there is a complicated background to making an exhibition with Christoph Schlingensief now, but I think it’s a great opportunity to understand his work.
Normally I perceive the Biennale as a Eurovision song contest, which for me is very political, where song is only a pretext. If, in the past years, to find artists like Liam Gillick representing Germany was something extraordinary, then now it seems to have become a normal occurrence.
I found it to be a beautiful and interesting Biennale, however for me the passion was missing. And if we are talking of highlights, for me the Swiss Pavilion with Thomas Hirschhorn was absolutely among the best because it had everything in there, it had an incredible power. Now also we are in the Austrian Pavilion by Markus Schinwald, whom I’ve always liked and I am once again happy to see this beautiful work. Among the works in the exhibition curated by Bice I liked very much the photos by David Goldblatt: they were exceptional!
Material prepared by Zane Oborenko and Barbara Fässler
Translated from Italian by Terēze Svilane