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La Biennale di Venezia

52th International Art Exhibition
"Think with the Senses - Feel with the Mind.
Art in the Present Time", curated by Robert Storr, US
From June 6th through November 21 2007
Venice, Giardini and Arsenale and other venues

Reviewed by Yvonne Spielmann
Institute of Media Research
Braunschweig University of Art, Germany


In 2007, La Biennale di Venezia is the first station of a series of high calibre European art events that continue with Art 38 Basel (Switzerland), documenta 12 in Kassel and the Sculpture Projects Muenster, both in Germany. While the latter happens once every 10 years and documenta takes place every four years, the Art Biennale at Venice because of its shorter invervals is supposed to reflect the pulse of the present time every two years. Under the directorship of it's first American director, Robert Storr, the art exhibition in Italy aims to open up to previously hardly acknowledged and widely underrepresented cultures and countries and presents special showcases of Africa and Turkey. Because in Venice the site of the Giardini has the national pavilions that were built in a different spirit and witness a historical past of thinking nations, these roots in modern art nowadays need to be complemented and broadened in the spirit of internationally and interculturally interconnected art scenes.

Because of the special situation at Venice, Storr, at the press conference, emphasized the international dialogue and the mutual communication with the competitors at Basel, Kasssel, and Muenster, which he finds important in order to present a more appropriate perspective as curator that aims to overcome the national foci in the country art shows. But Storr was also very clear that although we have a large and growing number of artists from Asian and African countries, it would be short-sighted to think that culture has become international. In addition, one has also to reflect that artists don't necessarily work in the countries where they come from. Therefore, the Biennale exhibitions that Storr curates himself at the Arsenale want to look at spaces between cultures and tend to explore places where we can sense the genealogy of styles and positions.

Apparently, this rather broad conception spreads out into many, too many areas and thus in reverse is in danger of encompassing a plentitude of cultures and genres like a showreel. Evidently, this Biennale is not pulling together a stringent topic. And the ambitiously driven centrifugal approach to widening the spectrum between thinking and feeling manifests in rather blurred forms of staged and documentary performances, photgraphs, films, and video installations. This mix is not always comprehensive. Although the idea of a single focus or center is voluntarily abandoned, we nevertheless find that a larger number of exhibited works in a rather straightforward manner depict war scenes, effects of devastation and bordered, abandoned or ruined landspaces. Most of these depicted or constructed scenes show traces or leftovers of formerly inhabited spaces (the difference between document and fiction is not important here) and are now emptied of humans and/or animals. Another effect of the warfare is visible in photographs of borders. Surprisingly, however, such conceptual approaches to connect war and art seem arbitrary and are not aesthetically convincing. The same tendency, however, is one, maybe the only thematic connection between some of the national pavilions at Giardini that otherwise are centripetally concerned with their individually national art scenes the pavillions promote.

Here, in the nationally curated art exhibitions at Giardini, the larger number of country shows seem by and large uneffected by challenges to the idea of national art shows and prefer to play it safe. In particular, the pavilions of USA, Great Britain, Germany, and France showcase well-established and in the art market successfull artists with works that more or less emotionally touch upon the personal and more or less naively (or not at all) address issues of national identities. Like a memorial show, the US pavilion stages photographs and floor pieces by Felix Gonzales-Torres that stand in a conceptual tradition and address almost universal issues of citizenship, community, society and democracy in a plain, almost positivist manner. The 'educational attitude' of the work relates back to 70s and 80s aesthetics. Also, because the show presents the oeuvre of the deceased artist Gonzales-Torres, it focuses the past not the present or future ——as one might have wished, but not expected.

In contrast, Tracey Emin's overtly sexual and textual provocative drawings with scripts are extremely playful, lively, enjoyable and personal. The main room in the British Pavilion assembles small drawings that could be taken from a diary or notebook and thereby reiterate the older concept of art to make the personal political. By the same token, Isa Genzken in the German Pavilion aims for a personal statement but fails to strip the 'message' off private myths. The work complex consists of assemblages of objects and references, ranging from astronaut suits, to suitcases and various toys, some sprayed over with metallic silver color. The title "Oil" is not more telling than the objects and loosely references to the precious resource and the ongoing war in Iraq. But everything in this incomprehensible work complex remains metaphorically vague and may have meaning or not. More interesting than this inside is the outside of the pavillion. Genzken has wrapped the pavillion's Nazi architecture with orange color construction net so that the monumental architecture this time is ripped off its historical connotation. In a similar approach toward personal statements, French artist Sophie Calle once more combines text and photographs and organizes her show in the French Pavilion around the intertextual connections between text and image. Like in previous works, the photographs have a legend, but this time the work is more straightforward and reading a letter in the image is extended by texts that rather explain the reading. The ambiguity has escaped Calle's work.

Undoubtly, Sophie Calle reflects the French culture of literacy when she presents her work within the genre of letter writing and reading. Both, reading and writing letters are an integral part not only of French literature, but also hold a prominent position in French cinema. Calle adds another aspect with the comlimentary two-screen video installation. The different screens represent the cultural specificity of Eastern and Western non-verbal communication. While an Asian dancer on the left screen is performing the content of a letter she has read in a traditional dance, the woman on the right screen translates the content of the letter in gesture language. These two silent, unspoken languages interact much stronger than photography and text, althgought the latter has been Sophie Calle's preferred medium in almost all of her previous work.

Text, video and voice-over comments are the most effective languages that Adel Abidin puts together in his multi-media installation in the Nordic Pavilion. Abidin, who comes from Bagdad and lives in Finland, in a sarcastic tourist information program invites visitors of the Biennale to visit Bagdad. Nothing is left out: The tourist guide informs that traveling is not safe, most famous hotels are targeted by fundamentalists, the major museums have been closed and one shall avoid famous restaurants and discussing religion. These safety instructions are also repeated in the video advertisement that recommends "not to speak English" or "to hang out". Posters that depict media images of hostages, devastated buildings, US military operations and victims of bombings also ironically invite us to to visit Bagdad, "much more than a holiday", and finally flight tickets to Bagdad can be booked on-line and are printed on the spot. We hope to see more of this kind of work that thoroughly misuses the media languages to mediate another view of the reality in the war zone.

While Abidini is presented in the Nordic Pavilion because he lives and works in Finland, it is not clear why UK artrist Sam Taylor- Wood is presented in the Ukrainian pavilion. Because of this, however, the Ukrainian Pavilion not only shows post-communist work which reflects warfare and Boris Michailov who in the West is well-known for his staged photographs of exploitation. This time, however, he presents a rather formally composed triptychon with a woman seen from behind who looks out of a window and thus multiplies the voyeurist perspective of the onlooker onto her buttocks. Completely unconnected to this are the video works by UK artist Sam Taylor-Wood who digitally in time stretches in four different pieces a short segment of a single movement. The work operates with video standstill and creates funny effects when the instability of the processed image becomse visible and quicker movements - like the jump by a ballett dancer - in the video are stretched to very slow motion. The resulting effects of tableau vivants merge painterly tableaus and electronic slow motion and transform body movements into an almost dreamlike, unreal stage. This happens, in particular when the classical dancer who captured at the peak point of his jump seems to be flying in free space and is placed in the video above a woman lying on a couch. Here, surrealist and realist imagery converge through technological effects without pretending to be anything else but mediated art.

The creation of reality in front of the surveilling media cameras characterizes the approach by Aernout Mik's installation pieces "Citizens and Subjects" for the Dutch Pavilion. Three multi-screen installations present staged and documentary situations of emergency and catharsis around the globally crucial topics of migratiuon, civilian rights, safety and security. We see real and training situations of evacuations, special police forces who arrest immigrants and encounter protesters. For the viewer, it is hard to understand what is going on, but the visual representation of the chaos in each of these situations tells us more how fragile and unpredictable the organizational structures are that we live in - in the Western world, of course.

The Latin American Pavilion under the summarizing title "territorios" showcases a larger variety of media and genres in works that are created by Latin Amercian artists, both in reference and in contrast to Eurepean and Western art traditions. These contributions are interesting insofar as the previous Biennale in 2005 already demonstrated a strong, coherent and thoroughly curated show of the Latin Americas that took place in another palazzo. This time, the highlight is Mariadolores Castellanos from Guatemala, who constructs the hybrid figure "A Través de los Marés" with a solid wooden block in the form of a skirt that is at the top completed with a a traditional woman's corset and covered with plexiglas in the shape of a female torso. This female figure in her immobility reflects conventional gender roles but at the same time also crosses Western attributes of colonial culture (corset) with natural resources of the colonialized country (the wood).

An insight view into the poor housing conditions in Cuba is presented in Rene Francisco's video work. The video is the documentary part of a social work project in which the artist asked an old lady in wheel-chair about her needs and desires and organizes the transformation of a dirty backyard into a lovely garden. The most radical work, however, comes from El Salvador. Ronald Moran designs a cotton wool-wrapped "Children's Room" in which under the cover of complete whiteness warlike toys can be discovered all over. There is no child in this white cube. Reminiscence of war games and potential violence is represented through the toys that have entered the children's room and evoke another reality beneath the thick layers of cotton. With the implementation of war toys in this innocent space, the artists also in a demonstrative gesture rejects the idea of an artistically defined space (such as the white cube).

Conceptually related, at the Arsenale, the African Pavilion demonstrates growing self-confidence and self-representation of the so-called underdeveloped countries. The situation in the African countries, however, is a special one as African art is hardly visible and even inside but also outside Africa hardly known apart from examples of exotic and decorative craftmanship. Some pieces in the showcase reflect the colonial histories, while a narratively composed video film depicts a conversation among black men, obviously immigrants, of how to relate to the white-Western societies wherein they live with surprising, funny, but also serious suggestions for changing one's own situation. What becomes clear is that the African arts are still regarded as marginal and would need strategic support in order to become truly African and not express only an appendix to Western standards of contemporary art world. The Biennale presents one step in this direction, and it will be interesting to see further development of this initative at the international art shows in Venice and other venues.



Updated 1st July 2007

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