The 53rd Venice Biennale - Making Worlds

Andrei Molodkin, Le Rouge et le Noir, 2009, Multimedia Installation, Artist’s collection, Courtesy of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow


The 53rd Venice Biennale: Making Worlds

The clear winners at this year’s Venice Biennale are The Collectors at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions, Steve McQueen at the British Pavilion (if you could manage to get a time slot to see the work) and Bruce Nauman at the American Pavilion. In the 53rd Venice Biennale, worlds were indeed made, deconstructed, imagined and remembered. There were video works that made me laugh, collateral events that seemed more about industry than art, installations that made me wonder and performances that made me turn away with an uninspired “humph”. However, I can’t say that I was more or less impressed by Making Worlds than any other large-scale exhibition.

Unable to extract a clear objective from the vague opening statement by curator Daniel Birnbaum (which is to be expected when over 90 artists are represented,) I anticipated a quieter Biennale with a focus on the financial crisis. Instead, I felt like I had Richard Sanderson’s Dreams are My Reality running through my head for most of the week. I only saw one work directly referencing the financial crisis, Ranier Ganahl’s I Love New York/Toxic Assets at the Fear Pavilion. What I did see was dreams, fantasy-scapes and artificial worlds, lands of the future and childhood remembrances. In the fashion world it’s said that as the stock markets go down, hemlines go up. It seems to me that in the art world when the stock markets go down artists withdraw into worlds of their own creation.  

The Ukrainian Pavilion

Ukrainian Pavilion, Exhibition View, Photo by Florian Denzin

Although dreams are subjective, Illya Chichkan and Mihara Yashiro at the Ukrainian Pavilion recreated the sense of displacement elicited by dreams. The lower level of the offsite pavilion was filled with sand while the upper level was left intact, lights dimmed, shutters closed - letting no outside light in - and filling sporadically with fog. The only real movement in the otherwise stagnant rooms came from two large kinetic works clanging and clashing, and the quiet whir and blur of the sweet, almost prepubescent girl roller-skating through the 18th century rooms. I’m still wondering how Wladimir Klitschko, who is the reigning World Heavyweight Boxing champion, decided to curate such a subtle and refined pavilion.


The Russian Pavilion

Gosha Ostretsov Art Life or the Torments of Creation 2009 Mixed media installation, detail Artist’s collection Courtesy of the Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow

I was particularly looking forward to the Russian pavilion this year, and although I wasn’t captivated as I have been in the past, the pavilion, named Victory Over the Future was certainly an impressive display. Walking into Andrei Molodkin's darkened room holding Le Rouge e La Noir, I first thought there was some mechanical failure in the equipment: the smell of warm oil permeated the heated air as two pumps rattled and hissed, intermittently injecting a pair of glass sculptures in the form of Nike of Samothrace with dark liquid (blood and oil respectively). After they were filled, the liquid ran down the inner walls of the small sculptures, draining out, only to have the process endlessly repeated. Each sculpture was projected onto the walls of the room, with a third projection creating an overlap of the two works. The imagery was pregnant with meaning - oil and blood make the world go round. A soft-spoken man quietly asked me my opinion of the work; I only later realized it was Molodkin himself. He told me that the both the blood and the oil were Russian in origin, the blood being donated by Russian soldiers who fought in Chechnya.

The lower level of the Russian Pavilion held work by Gosha Ostretsov which took me back to my childhood exploration of abandoned buildings and steel mills - if these were combined with a haunted house at an old fashioned amusement park. The overall feeling was one of both delight and anticipation. The opposite room was lined with works from Pavel Pepperstein. His small watercolors of various structures, both historical and fictional delineated a imagined timeline. Titles like Communist stand-by station ‘Jupiter’ erected in 2737 and Means of communication in the style of 3111 only served to confirm my thoughts that artists are more than ever envisioning the future of the world and humanity.

Punta Della Dogana

Pitor Uklanski, Exhibition View, Palazzo Grassi, Untitled (Dancing Nazis), Photo by Florian Denzin

The debut exhibition at Punta della Dogana, Mapping the Studio, opened one day before the press preview at the Venice Biennale, and unquestionably stole some of the spotlight. French billionaire François Pinault has all the heavies of the modern art world in a collection he’s been steadily acquiring over the last 30 years. However, I question how much of it is due to his personal taste, and how much of it should be attributed to a very talented team of curators. 

Some of my favorites included Rudolf Stingel, whose large scale works combine simplicity and recognition of art as a process, and other contemporary classics such as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Charles Ray. Pitor Uklanski’s works, in Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, maintained a pleasant fusion of the sinister and humorous. Uklanski’s paintings at Punta della Dogana glistened with resin, each work consisting of only one color and bearing an ironic title, such as Untitled (Friendly Tumor). Pitor Uklanski’s Untitled (Dancing Nazis), on the first floor of Palazzo Grassi, made it almost impossible not to tap your feet to the throbbing beats of pop music and pulsating light patterns on the huge dance floor. It was impossible not to react, that is, until you noticed the 200 or so photographs of Nazi’s glaring out from the wall behind the dance floor. Some of the play list including ridiculous pop hits such as What’s Your Fantasy from Ludacris, Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F and This Is How We Do It by Montell Jordan.

If I could voice one serious complaint about this otherwise compelling exhibition it would be this – the placement of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s work Fucking Hell. The work itself was fascinating, 9 detailed boxes, each about 128 centimeters by 128 centimeters filled with truly horrific scenes. The brutal imaginations of the brothers filled each of the boxes with scenes of fiendish skeletons in a Nazi filled nightmare. Each miniature figure is unique, and you can almost hear the pigs snuffling and vultures shrieking while the ripping of flesh from bone and cartilage fills the air. Pigs are sacrificed, skeletons whip a never-ending parade of Hitlers’ and emaciated figures hang wide-eyed from makeshift crucifixes. I realize that something needs to come next, but when my eyes are still burning and my head still reeling from the spectacle, it’s galling to step through the next doorway into the world of Cy Twombly. The reverie of the exhibition is broken and it takes at least one room to recover. Perhaps Fucking Hell would have been better placed before the stairs to the second floor, giving the visitor at least of moment of recovery time.  


Jake and Dinos Chapman Exhibition View, Punta della Dogana Fucking Hell Photo by Florian Denzin

Additionally, I have to wonder how the Venetians view this French center for contemporary art. Venice has long been celebrated for the Biennale and has grown into a European destination for sensational contemporary collections as well. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection - and now Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana - are more than strong collections; they’re some of the best in the world. Are Venetians happy to have the revenue these spaces generate, or are they baffled, as I would be, that one of the most prominent spaces in Venice is not reserved for an Italian collection?  



All in all I was satisfied with the 53rd Venice Biennale. Of course, in an exhibition of this caliber it’s not difficult to find a multitude of stirring works. I can’t, however, decide if I would again go for the opening week. More than one conversation was started with a discussion about how to sneak into a private party, complaints of about the lack of free wine and food or where to get the best tote bags. It was distracting to say the least. On the other hand, the spontaneity of the opening week was thrilling. One of those completely Biennale moments was running into some of the performers from Memory Space. Lan Hungh, a Taiwanese performer living in Berlin, invited me to come along to performance of John Cage pieces by Margaret Leng Tan. The day had been long and I was enjoying my conversation with the Travelling Light curators Debra and Chiara from WW Gallery, so I was tempted to pass. Deciding that Venice only happens once every two years I went along with the group, being led through the wandering streets by a Milanese waiter with a clear sense of direction. We arrived late and as we quietly found places to sit I smirked. A woman perched on a small table tinkling away at a toy piano. I rolled my eyes wondering what was next thinking “typical Cage”. My smug attitude quickly faded into appreciation for her performance of Cage-Kaprow-Fluxus. Every motion was thought out and intentional and I appreciated being able to see such a provoking tribute to Cage and Kaprow pieces. The performance ended and as we headed back to our temporary homes, one audience member howled her appreciation at the full moon as we shook our heads grinning thinking “typical Biennale”.

Alicia Reuter

Alicia Reuter is a freelance art historian and critic living and working in Berlin.  She is currently working on a project examining the use of contemporary art in advertising.

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