whitehot | ILLUMInations: The 54th Venice Biennale
Germany - Christoph Schlingensief
Germany’s Pavilion Christoph Schlingensief was awarded the Biennale’s top prize: the Golden Lion. Although he’s not well known outside of Germany, there his death from lung cancer on August 21, 2010 was mourned as a significant cultural loss. When he died, curator Susanne Gaensheimer and Schlingensief’s wife and collaborator Aino Laberenz decided to carry on with the pavilion by showing existing works, instead of the carrying on with the developmental sketches Schlingensief had produced up to that point. There are three themes to the pavilion: in the right hall are six films from Schlingensief’s three decade long opera oeuvre, and in the left hall are works and images from his African opera village initiative near the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou.
Denmark – Speech Matters
With a focus on issues of free speech, the name given to the Danish Pavilion was Speech Matters, focusing on issues of free speech. The Danish Pavilion drew from pool of international artists, appropriate to the theme of free speech. Of the eighteen artists shown in the pavilion, including Americans R. Crumb and Taryn Simon, Han Hoogerbrugge from the Netherlands, Zhang Dali from China, and the international group Agency, only two of the artists are Danish. Keeping in line with this international approach, Greek-born, Brussels-based Katerina Gregos was selected to curate the pavilion, which is possibly why the result is so striking, clearly sticking to the issue at hand: free speech. The pavilion does an excellent job reflecting the ongoing debate over what free speech means, continuing what was started in Denmark with the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy in late 2005.
Japan – Teleco-soup
Sometimes it is tempting to take a cursory glance at the work in a pavilion and tramp across the gravel paths to the next country. Other times, a pavilion will stop you in your tracks, and reading the press release to understand the work results in an absolute and breathtaking understanding of what you’re seeing. One such case is the Japanese pavilion, which is simultaneously complex and simple. Simply put, Japanese artist Tabaimo has scanned thousands of hand drawn images into a computer resulting in a handmade animated work, which is projected on the walls of the pavilion.
China – Perversion
Addressing China’s contribution is tricky. As a friend pointed out it brings up a central and ongoing debate about the Venice Biennale: the pavilions at the Biennale represent nations but at the same time fail to be representative of the nation. At another point we found ourselves in a discussion with a young British artist flanked by two dainty Chinese artists. When asked what we thought about the Chinese Pavilion a German colleague critically remarked, “Well, it’s very politically correct.” The Brit looked him over and returned, “That is a very politically correct answer.” The truth of the matter is that my colleague was right, the pavilion is very politically correct. In the face of the “Free Ai Wei Wei” bags that were being passed out, the overall feeling was that Chinese art should be shunned, exiled or boycotted, but in doing that, visitors would miss out on what is still a rich display of creativity. Just because it doesn’t criticize the government doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. Or does it?
There is plenty to be found outside of the Gardini and the Arsenale. The Palazzo Grassi’s The World Belongs to You is an essential stop outside the Biennale, as is Karla Black’s installation at the Palazzo Pisani Santa Marina. Where she represents Scotland with masses of pulverized cosmetics. James Franco’s Rebel film installation had a huge buzz, no surprise there, although disappointingly wasn’t ready in time for the press opening. Unfortunately, Anish Kapoor’s Ascension in the Basilica di San Giorgio also encountered some problems at the opening and had to be temporarily shut down. However, in principle, these two off-site works should definitely be worth a visit.
Hong Kong - Frogtopia Hongkornucopia
In the rush to get into the Arsenale it’s easy to glance at the solid wooden door across from the entrance where it is loudly and zealously proclaimed to be the entrance to the lair of the Frog King. Frogtopia Hongkornucopia shows the work of Kwok Mang-ho, also known as the Frog King, China’s only (officially sanctioned) performance artist.
Singapore - The Cloud of Unknowing
The Cloud of Unknowing from Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen will stop you in your tracks. Visitors climb a flight of stairs into a vast darkened Hall of the Saints Filippo and Giacomo in the Museum Diocesano di Venezia. On the floor are four strategically placed and grossly oversized designer white beanbag chairs. Immensely comfortable, it’s a relief just to kick your feet up. A cloud of smoke fills the room from behind the screen as the film begins. Without quite understanding what is happening, the viewer is sucked into the lives of eight tenants living in Singapore public housing. As their narratives unfold into each other, a multitude of central themes emerge: man’s relationship with nature, man’s doubt in a search for the divine and the sacred and transcendental. The work is named after a fourteenth-century primer on monasticism and draws heavily on Zen texts and theoretical painting. Completely spellbinding, we don’t know if we’re watching devils, saints or something a little closer to home.
Back at the Gardens
There are a multitude of noteworthy works at the 54th Venice Biennale, including the para-pavilions, architectural structures conceived of to hold works by other artists. Chinese artist Song Dong’s dramatic rebuilding of his parents century old home was the first work in the Arsenale, but of these para-pavilions, Polish artist Monika Sosnowska’s was the strongest.
Found in the International Pavilion in the Gardini, Sosnowska playfully used the space she was given to create a star-shaped space called Antechamber. The points of the huge star she’s created leave no functional room for hanging work as the tips taper off into thin darkened points, symbolizing the failure of the architecture. However the larger central space inside the star has been divided in to areas that hold the work of Londoner Haroon Mirza and South African David Goldblatt. The show within a show demands consideration. The sonic and visual tension of Mirza’s Sick requires a few turns, and it is no surprise that the 34 year-old artist won the Silver Lion for promising young artist. David Goldblatt’s Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime portraits are a moment of gripping reality. Goldblatt succinctly summarized the usually harsh lives of his subjects through a small text underneath the portrait. In the Ex-offenders series he presents photos of real people, often in the location of the crime they committed, whether it was shoplifting or murder.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief