Shedding light on ILLUMInations: An artist's take on the 54th Venice Biennale
The 54th Venice Biennale has raised the bar. It touts more national pavilions than ever before, a high percentage of female participants and an equally large number of artists born after 1975. Visiting the Giardini, Arsenale, off-site pavilions and countless collateral events can be a daunting task, further complicated by the disorienting experience of navigating the city of Venice. It comes as little surprise then, that many reviews gloss over the Biennale, offering vague overviews of this extensive exhibition. Unsatisfied with blanket surveys, I resolved to approach my account by drawing attention to a select few artists whose contributions not only stand on their own, but also take the weighty Venetian context into consideration.
Initially recommended to me by a stranger in passing, the Mexican Pavilion, an offsite venue in the Castello district, proved a welcome surprise. Showing the work of Melanie Smith, the extensive Palazzo Rota Ivancich contained several video works, paintings and curiosity cabinets, addressing ideas of modernity. The piece that captured my attention was a 35mm film created with Rafael Ortega, entitled Xilitla Dismantled I. For this work, Smith documented Las Pozas, a folly built by the eccentric poet Edward James. A product of James' affinity for Surrealism, Las Pozas is a grouping of 36 concrete sculptures erected between 1962-1984 in the subtropical rainforest near Xilitla, Mexico. Smith's documentation of the ruin, filmed and projected vertically, turns the screen on its end and gives both the image and the medium a decidedly unfamiliar feel. Using mirrors, fireworks and dramatic theatre-style lighting, her film animates this placid environment, offering her audience a dizzying array of abstract snapshots of Las Pozas. By cropping, overlapping and reflecting specific elements of the sculptures, she attempts to visually dismantle this anachronistic Surrealist endeavor. Although intended to disassociate the site from its ‘exotic’ references, her techniques serve to increase the mysterious nature of the location. Her film casts a magical air over Las Pozas and provides just enough information to create a sense of desire in the viewer. After watching Xlitla Dismantled I, I have a strong urge to visit this place.
Another off-site venue, the Pavilion of Luxembourg, created a comparable sense of place through a series of disorienting, surreal, maze-like chambers. The experience of moving through this space was not unlike walking through the city of Venice itself. Artists Martine Feipel and Jean Bechameil made architectural alterations to the pavilion that rendered it simultaneously Escher and Dali-esque. Floating staircases, bulging columns, walls that appear to sag and sway, chairs that slump over under the weight of invisible occupants and drawers that appear to ooze out of their cabinets, all come together to create an overwhelming sense of disarray. Mirror tunnels, secret doors and swelling plasterwork add an eerie fun-house feel to the pavilion. The dizzying quality of Feipel and Bechameil's installation is heightened even further by the pinwheel and herringbone inlay of the parquet floors in the renowned Ca' del Duca palace. A swinging chandelier hanging from the ceiling in one room momentarily upsets one's sense of balance and raises the question: "What happened here?" The work in the Pavilion of Luxembourg mimics the grandeur and history of Venice, its architecture and its present-day disintegration. Similar to the paradoxical presence of the Biennale in the languishing city of Venice, the insertion of Feipel and Bechameil's wonky architecture into the Ca' del Duca evidences an injection of something novel into an environment steeped in tradition. Their installation speaks not only to decadence, but also to the new possibilities that can develop from within collapsing systems, prompted by the way that we perceive and orient ourselves within them.
Equally as transformative as Feipel and Bechameil's architectural strategy is Markus Schinwald's contribution to the Austrian pavilion. His work converts Josef Hoffmann's white cube into a labyrinth, with walls hovering waist-height above the floor. Similar to the ‘floating’ houses of Venice, the partitions suspended from the ceiling create a series of tight passageways through which the audience winds its way, encountering niches where the artist has installed paintings and sculptures. The narrow maze of corridors contributes to an intimate viewing experience, offering visitors a sense of discovery when turning corners and happening upon works. Schinwald's paintings are late 19th century masterworks that he purchased at auction, restored and then added to, altering the physical characteristics of the sitters. In one piece, a chin cup attached with wires to a figure's ears appears to balance the rest of her facial features. In another painting, small chains tug at the corners of a woman's mouth, apparently reinforcing her reluctant smile. Despite much speculation, the viewer cannot ascertain whether these prostheses were added to improve a sitters 'flaws,' to underscore differences between historical and contemporary notions of beauty, or to draw attention to present-day forms of physical manipulation like plastic surgery. Just as he adds prostheses to the paintings, Schinwald does likewise to the pavilion itself. Addressing its modernist handicaps, his architectural appendages alter the way the audience moves through the space, encouraging viewers to experience the pavilion anew while simultaneously heightening the impact of the work within.
If there is one factor that unites all of the work in the Biennale, it is the location. Love it or hate it, the city of Venice has the power to create a strong, lasting impression on visitors, which inevitably influences one's perception of this event. Schinwald's labyrinthine structure parallels the maze-like streets of the city, Feipel and Bechameil's melting house of mirrors is reminiscent of the sinking, slumping architecture of Venice, and Melanie Smith's filmic gaze, presenting snapshots of an ‘exotic’ ruin, seems to reference the touristic lens through which many people view the city. Far from co-opting the pieces however, the city of Venice serves to increase the potency of these works, leaving one with unforgettable impressions of the Mexican, Luxembourgian and Austrian pavilions at the 54th Venice Biennale.
Emmy Skensved is a Canadian artist currently based in Berlin, Germany. She holds an MFA from the University of Waterloo and a BFA from OCAD University. She has exhibited her work across Canada and Europe, including solo shows at Greener Pastures Contemporary Art in Toronto and September Gallery in Berlin. Her review of Kathrin Sonntag’s Double Take at Galerie Kamm won second prize in the 2011 C Magazine New Critics Competition.