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ILLUMInations: The 54th Venice Biennale

Urs Fischer, Untitled (Rudolf Stingel) (detail), 2011
Life size candle
54th Venice Biennale: ILLUMInations; Photo: Florian Denzin

ILLUMInations: The 54th Venice Biennale

ILLUMInations, the 54th Venice Biennale, is an overwhelming presentation of revealing contemporary art by a mostly young roster of artists. While this should be enough, the exhibition fails to live up to its title by offering visitors a clear theme. This isn’t a new complaint for the Biennale, after all, with all the organizations, governments and individuals involved, is it even possible to maintain themes other than 'contemporary', 'international' and 'art'? Swiss curator, art historian and editor Brice Curiger was given the honor, or task, of curating the now of the here and there international scene.

Once again it is the Americans, Brits, Germans and the French who seem to rule the Biennale, with accolades to the Danish and the Swiss Pavilions. In her review of the Venice Biennale for the New York Times, Roberta Smith astutely points out that the spaces of the Gardini Pavilions (and I might add, much of the Arsenale) are filled with “ . . . overwhelming chunks of the real – found, made or remade – and heavy doses of life and, in some cases, death.” This is indeed how the British (Mike Nelson), German (Christoph Schlingensief) and Swiss (Thomas Hirshhorn) Pavilions are perceived. Portrayals of death, violence, oppression, acceptance and rebellion have always been a part of art; at this year’s Biennale they seem to be a highlight.

American Pavillion, 54th Venice Biennale: ILLUMInations, 2011
Photo: Florian Denzin


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.

In the central space of the pavilion A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within is presented. It is his own reckoning with his ongoing illness. Projections of x-rays show cancer riddled lungs, movies he shot during his illness play over every wall of the darkened space and in the center of it all stands an alter to his disease, where visitors can pay service by sitting in the pews set up in front of it. The piece is oppressive, not to mention sweltering and steamy in the Venetian heat, but a few moments reflection on an artist’s ruminations of his mortality is a rare opportunity. Many artists use death as an impetus to creation, but few are actually so close, and so reconciled to it, as was Schlingensief.

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.

A well in the center of the space is part of the original design by architect Takamasa Yoshizaka, which Tabaimo integrates seamlessly into her Teleco-soup. Through it she turns the world upside down, so visitors peer down into the well but out onto the sky she projects below. It dawns on visitors slowly that they are underground; by looking down they are looking “up” to the sky. The experience is as surreal as the name of the work. Teleco-soup is a play on words meaning both telescopic and that things are going in reverse, essentially that we have entered into an “inverted soup.”

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?

Regardless of the attempts at political correctness, in the Chinese Pavilion protests and declarations still came through. The first work in the pavilion is Pan Gongkai’s Snow Melting in Lotus where traditional calligraphy is projected streaming across the walls in a long white tunnel. The visitor follows a wooden pathway through the space, and the calligraphy tumbles to the ground, seemingly morphing into Western letters, which physically litter the ground. Visitors took these and not so surreptitiously spelled out “Free Ai Wei Wei.”

Collateral Events and outside the Gardini

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.

Kwok Mang-ho, Frogtopia Hongkornucopia, performance, 2011
54th Venice Biennale: ILLUMInations; Photo: Florian Denzin

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.

Benny Chia, Tsang Tak-ping and Wong Shun-kit curated the Frog King’s “utopia” in association with the Hong Kong Fringe Club. The courtyard installation is a complicated overhead network of simple everyday materials. Crepe paper dangled from a web of string, plastic bottles filled with buttons served as noisemakers, pots and pans were placed about to clang together like three year-olds and twenty-liter water jugs came with small wooden bats to beat them with.
The experience of a Frog King performance is over the top, but at the same time, it had the feeling of being carefully planned and controlled. Regardless the performance brought the visitors together in an explosion of clapping, beating on water cooler jugs, shaking plastic bottles filled with buttons and clashing of pots and pans in a cheerful, festive, over the top and all encompassing release for everyone participating. The reactions, smiles and outbursts of the audience became a part of the performance, especially when the artist gently encouraged viewers to throw stacks of colored paper into the air. The work had the feeling of being unfinished, but also as though it never could be finished.

If the frog is both the artist’ symbol and artistic persona he certainly embodied it fully. During the course of his performance, he hopped from place to place, exuding intense purity and raw energy, completely and utterly playful, laughing, smiling, shouting and bellowing.

Ho Tzu Nyen, The Cloud of Unknowing, installation view at Museum Diocesano di Venezia,2011
54th Venice Biennale:ILLUMInations; Photo: Florian Denzi

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.

Monika Sosnowska, para-pavilion Antechamber, 2011
54th Venice Biennale:ILLUMInations; Photo: Florian Denzi

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.

All in all the Biennale does what it should do. It is a glimpse of what is happening now on the international arts scene, an a little bit of insight into what the future holds.

ILLUMInations, the 54th Venice Biennale runs through the 27th of November.

International Pavillion, 54th Venice Biennale: ILLUMInations, 2011
Photo: Florian Denzin


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.  alicialreuter@hotmail.com

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