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Art Biennale - Venice, Italy

Art Biennale - Venice, Italy

Illuminations: 54th International Art Exhibition,
June 4th - November 27th, 2011
Conference website: http://www.labiennale.org/.

Reviewed by Yvonne Spielmann


Every two years the Art Biennale Venice reinvents itself, new title, new director, curators, new locations and more novel countries that participate first time. However, the event itself has established a certain tradition that goes on undisputed, namely the presentation of art rubriced by national identity in separate pavilions that each have their own, country-specific curators. In addition, the Biennale director-curatorship (Director: Bice Curiger) sets the tone for the range of diversity regarding the presentations in the post-industrial spaces of the Arsenale. This flagship show together with the exhibition in the Giardini main pavilion is surrounded and eventually outnumbered by a growing increase of other national pavilions and extra events that do not fit into the limited space/settings of the Giardini where the national pavilions house "their" own art shows. The extra events are given the title "collateral events" that sound promising but by no means feed any content-related expectation; it is rather another tag or selling point attached to art works that are mostly presented in old palazzos that sometimes are more worth seeing than the shows presented therein.

On the whole, this year's Biennale had no striking highlights, no interferences, or political statements that would disrupt the rubrics of nationality and also the many countries that have their location outside the Giardini, for the majority do not reflect the sites of Venetian palaces or any cultural-historical specificity of the site. This, to remind, has been quite different in past years, when for example, the Spanish pavilion was only accessible with a valid Spanish passport. This year, the same pavilion shows an assemblage of multimedia performance acts and related documentation, the pavilion turns into an unstructured media theater with no clear beginnings or endings, and it has nothing new or challenging to offer hereby. In contrast, other individual national pavilions and individual artists reflect on urging matters, such as the global war zones, networked, intercultural communication and ethnic-cultural specificities. Also, a significant tendency to deal with religious matters cannot be overlooked. The overall aim is to focus on aesthetic-artistic matters, not so much on media conditions. The days of the Arsenale when it was bursting with video works with competitive sound levels seem past. Today, the interesting media arts are either concerned with processes of self-reflexivity and/or political-societal matters, the hype of technology is definitely over.

This year, the British pavilion has undergone the most radical transformation. Mike Nelson was allowed to remove the original roof, and inside he built a completely new and different wooden structure that is hiding the existing walls. The new structure disrupts the idea of a pavilion and transforms the place in a Turkish building site with an open courtyard - all of which reminds the initial site in Istanbul where the artist did show his work at first in 2003 at the Istanbul Biennale. The "work" in Venice now tells a nomadic story of cultural transfer that has effect on the sites where the transfer takes place; here it results in the transformation of a defined art space into a labyrinth consisting of small rooms, dead-end corridors, filled with tools referring to trading, craftsmanship, arts and household tools. Walls are plastered with photographs of the original site of the exhibition. Clearly, this place stresses the contemporaneity, non-fixity, and instability of territory. In another direction, the Greece pavilion radicalises pressing matters of identity in relation to place and space, but the stress is on the convergence of economy and politics. "Beyond Reforme," the title chosen by artist Dohandi for an empty Greece pavilion, represents the state of the art of Greece seen as "blank" and "sold out" in mental, political and economic terms. The outside of the building is covered with a wooden construction that looks highly provisional, and the entrance sign reads black letters: “sold out.” Inside, the space is empty, more precisely: The floor is flooded with water, a wooden runway above water level leads across the space. At the focal point opposite the entrance an opening in the wall sheds bright light - another reminder of nothingness. There are clearly no signs of change or progression, except our activity of moving across the space that in its purity is aesthetically appealing.

Another work with water is represented by Italian artist Fabrizio Plessi in the Venice Pavilion that consists of over-life size boat-like structures that are erected to upright sculptures. Monitors that replace the ground level of the ships reveal streams of flowing waters as if we could see through the bottom of the ship. This kind of imagination reminds one of the early days of media arts when such surprise effects did catch attention, but in the context of the 2011 Biennale the position has a historical tone although Plessi's work is of 2010.

More to the present state of media art, we are immersed into multi-dimensional effects of animation in the Japanese pavilion that is turned into a three-screen and multi-mirrored black-box environment wherein everything, including our presence, is subject to reflection. We are encompassed into the media presentation of animation shorts that refer to aesthetics of Japanese manga and anime and develop imaginary creatures, features, flora, and fauna against the backdrop of Tokyo-density of cityscape. The animation is fluidly developing and surrounding us with a culturally specific view on the convergence of nature and media in a dream-like mode with lots of humor, enjoyable fictional creatures, and surprise effects. There is also another layer of experience, when we leave Tabaimo's animation world and go below the building, we see that in the middle of the animation screening room reveals another projection site. An additional cylindrical projection of form and formless bubbles, water, and creatures is presented below the screening room in the open space below the building (the basement level of the Japanese pavilion is open to enter - but has rarely been used by artists as an extra installation space). Here, the animation is everywhere; it shows the state of the art or our present: It blurs inside- outside relations and has become a ubiquitous component of our lives.

Next to the Japanese view of "Teleco-soup," a 'natural' media mix by young female artist Tabaimo, who graduated from the prestigious Kyoto University of Art and Design, we find the solid structure of the German pavilion that has been converted into a "church" dedicated to Christoph Schlingensief, who had passed away recently. The building and its interior exhibition support the setting of a memorial that transports a debatable personal incorporation of the relationship between art and religion. The interior church-like space is flashing with monitors, films, videos, photographs, and overloaded with further over-mediated samples, like films and video documentation by and with Schlingensief also in the side-rooms. This creates highly problematic personification of religion and in effect is only once more stressing Schlingensief's unreflected megalomania. The setting provokes distance, in particular where the attempt is made to connect the artist's life and work to the historically preceding art events of the fluxus group, to which this work has no connection, whatsoever.  For whatever reason, that the German pavilion receives the Golden Lion for Best National Participation needs further explanation and can only be justified by blunt facts that dead artists are more valuable in the art market.

In contrast to dead-end memorials, we can enjoy 24 hour cinematic pleasure with Christian Marclay's film screening around the clock, for which the audio-visual artist from US won the Golden Lion at the "Illuminations" exhibitions in the Arsenale. Marclay, a known artist of compilation films and audio-works with samples, has searched years through film materials to compose a film of samples that gives the exact local time minute by minute. Marclay has spliced together, extensively sampled uncountable sequence, scenes, shots, portions of shots where the exact time of our viewing is given so that the given time in the fictional context exactly equals the local screening time. Notably, at 3 pm we see a clock in the film showing 3 pm, and this proceeds minute by minute, 24 hours long. It is amazing to think of cinema in this way: seen as whole containing all possible times.  The setting of the film also highlights self-reflexive modes of the medium where fictional time and timing of the fictional event that is screened are conflated. In this lucid representation of time measurement and measured time, the time of the film and the filmed time are the same.

The Silver Lion was awarded to Haroon Mirza from UK for works that display technological circuits of light, tone, and energy but do not have any reflection that points outside the closed circles. Like Plessi's works, these pieces are interesting in themselves, but we have seen many alike in the emerging days of media technology.

One of the most surprising, truly participatory, and interactive installations was presented by the Lithuanian Pavilion, a work that received a Special Mention. The point is that artist Darius Miksys does not need any complex or complicated media technology; on the contrary, his work is grounded on the idea of an archive.  Miksys' "Behind the White Curtain" stores all art that have been selected and awarded by the state of Lithuania. What may sound like an odd idea of national representation becomes a lively interface because the actual "exhibition" before the white curtain consists only of the pieces that we, the audience, visitors, are selecting from the catalog of the complete works that were awarded in Lithuania. The works that are picked by us will then be brought from the storage and set up in front of us and remain there till future visitors will change the settings. Without interaction and participation there would be nothing on show at all, and this gives an interesting comment to the curatorial practices as they are underlying the machinery of the concept of the Venice Biennnale and also lead to categorisation based on nationality. An additional  Special Mention was received by another conceptional installation work: a series of trash cans presented by Swedish artist Klara Lidén that reveals at a closer look that they come from different countries across Europe, and in this respect we are made aware that our waste.  Trash is also culturally specific and can be classified according to national origin. This work provokes reflection also on the usual practices of some first world nations to "sell" their waste to other countries.

Among other works outside the Giardini and Arsenale, only a few strike in terms of making connection to the location. We may call the installation by UK artist Karla Black (representing Scotland) site-specific in her work in the rooms of the Palazzo Pisani use pastel colors –– light pink, yellow, green, and blue that coincide with the color decoration of the ceiling and walls of the rooms in the Palazzo to form a spatial-architectural environment. Black's work is highly ephemeral: She employs powder, soil, paint and plaster, soap, dust, and paper and cellophane to create temporary structures within existing building structures that refer to matters of compulsive beauty, on the one hand, and to artisanal-craftsmanship practices of converting the material world into something else, on the other hand. Everything seems to be lasting herein only for the moment.  The dust, the soil, the paint would blow away if wind comes in. The artwork holds this balance between "work" and "non-work" and amuses us with the choice of light colors that support the light-weight of the installation.

Anish Kapoor with his site-specific installation "Ascension" in the Basilica di San Giorgia points one step further into immateriality and manifests the convergence between seeing and believing in almost literal terms. Kapoor has chosen the Basilica that houses the famous painting "Last Supper" by Tintoretto and also Tintoretto's very last painting (in a side chapel). Into this context, Kapoor brings the idea to visualise the invisible, when he installs a cylindrical container at the intersection between transept and the nave of the church that pours smoke into the open. Because of a huge ventilator machine that is mounted below the cupola of the church right above the opening where the smoke comes out, the smoke moves up in direction of the ventilator and forms a dust column that is more or less visible, depending on side winds.  The ventilation machine on the top is supported by four wind machines on the side that keep the smoke within the circle and allow us to view the interplay between visibility and invisibility.  The work deliberately refers back to the biblical motif of "ascension". Although this work may be perceived as a commentary on Christianity, it also makes reference to the dual concept of media appearances with respect to visibility and invisibility of its material base.

The matter is further pushing the boundaries when it comes to the first time representation of a Roma Pavilion that is hosted by the UNESCO in Venice. The installation has many works of video documentation in interview-style where Roma people report on issues of housing, education, travel, and income. In addition, the installation also finds a spatial expression for not being at home, because a wooden-metal structure is almost literally cutting across the building and indicates another option for connecting spaces in a rather nomad-like structural network, internally and externally. It will be interesting to follow if and how this initiative will develop in the future.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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