A Quest for Enlightenment? – The 2011 Venice Biennale

by Ceren Erdem*

“ILLUMInazioni” (ILLUMInations), Bice Curiger’s title for the 54th Venice Biennale, reveals her quest for new connotations. It implicitly sets up two contexts: Light and national borders. Still considered one of the preeminent showcases in the world for contemporary art, this year’s iteration includes 83 artists from around the world, 32 of which were born after 1975 and 32 are female. Nevertheless, given her stated thematic, Curiger takes an unconventional step and centralizes the work of an Old Master, Tintoretto, whose paintings she finds unorthodox and experimental[1], distinguished in particular by their dramatic lighting. Displayed, albeit very poorly – lacking the right lighting in the largest gallery of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, The Last Supper (1592-94), The Stealing of the Body of St. Mark (1562-66), and The Creation of the Animals (1550-53), suspend the expectations of visitors to the Biennale while simultaneously providing wide opportunities for comparisons with the historical and cultural frame of Venice.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Last Supper, 1592-94, The Stealing of the Body of St. Mark, 1562-66. Installation view.

It is challenging to keep the attention of the usual suspects of the Biennale. The two main exhibition areas, the Arsenale and the Giardini, are bogged down by their own historicity, having long ago fulfilled their mission as hosts. Some visually striking inclusions aside, Curiger’s exhibition is quiet, inviting the audience to think and experience the Biennale in its entirety, rather than remain rooted by a single intellectual focus. In a way, “ILLUMInations” comprises a collection of Curiger’s favorite works through which diverse meanings are reflected, implicating how we as individuals perceive the world and our experience of illumination in engaging with an artwork.

Curiger’s curated exhibition in the Arsenale begins with two immersive installations. The first is Chinese artist Song Dong’s Para-Pavilion, which is constructed out of used doors, panels, and roofing, which together create a parallel between the space of the Biennale and neighborhoods of Old Beijing. Merging the personal and the public, Dong’s Para-Pavilion contains the work of Asier Mendizabal, Cyprien Gaillard and Yto Barada. Walking out of this labyrinthine structure, one then immediately encounters Roman Ondak’s installation, Stampede (2011), a pitch-black room that has the effect of immediate discomfort, that is until the visitor recognizes his or her own image on the screen. Searching for the exit, almost blinded, the viewer is then faced with a replica of the rescue capsule that helped save 33 Chilean miners who were almost buried alive.

Para-Pavilion by Song Dong. image © designboom

As a reference to Curiger’s theme of illumination and her reverence to art history and Tintoretto stands another work, Urs Fischer’s life-size replica of Giovanni Bologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1583) reproduced as a wax candle. Playing with the title of the Biennale, the candle-cum-sculpture looms high above, melting into a heap over the course of the exhibition. This gesture of negation of iconography stands as one of the “tourist attractions” of the exhibition along with two additional candles of Fischer’s friend, artist Rudolf Stingel, and the artist’s own studio chair.

Urs Fischer, Wax!, 2011. Installation view.

Other artists in the exhibition in whose work light is a major component are James Turrell, Mai-Thu Perret, Meris Angioletti, Navid Nuur and Monica Bonvicini. Their inclusion can be considered Curiger’s attempt to hold the exhibition together thematically and to implicitly reference Tintoretto. While light is a common element connecting the works, time is another element that accomplishes the same task. Following Fischer’s contribution is Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video work The Clock (2011), which is composed of a stream of clips appropriated from various films and television shows each containing a clock or reference to time, spliced together seamlessly so that their succession corresponds with the real time, linking the past and the present. At the work’s initial showing at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, visitors had to wait online, in some cases for hours in order to gain entrance to the work. By contrast, in Venice, comfortable couches in the Arsenale provided an accesible and comfortable setting to experience this detail-oriented masterpiece and a convenient respite from the chaos of the surroundings.  Throughout the lengthy venue, Dayanita Singh’s black-and-white paper archive photographs are memorable signs to remind us of the aftermath of our presence. Franz West’s Parapavilion, which reconstructs the kitchen from his studio stands as his challenge to his own work by inviting the audience and other artists to interact with and deconstruct this domestic environment, for example  Singh’s work appears here once more in the form of her photographic projection Dream Villa.

Dayanitha Singh, File Room, 2011.

In addition to the Biennale’s increased expansion, with more country pavilions popping up outside of the Arsenale and the Giardini and spread all throughout the city this year, Venice also played host to an art-world spectacle.  For the duration of the preview days, the city became the scene of an over-extravagant and enormous celebrity gathering, turning the preview days into a non-stop party in a huge theme park. Maurizio Cattelan provided a critique on this phenomenon from within the Biennale infrastructure,  recreating his 1997 work Turisti, which featured a flock of stuffed pigeons installed throughout the Giardini’s Central Pavilion   The 2011 iteration, entitled Others, included  more stuffed pigeons resting on the ceiling, 2000 to be precise, and possesses a dual connotation – first, of the indifferent residents and/or pigeons of Venice and secondly, of the growing flock of visitors gathering around the Biennale.

Maurizio Cattelan, The Others, 2011.

Escaping Tintoretto’s omnipresence, Monika Sosnowska’s disorienting Para-Pavilion breaks the monotony and contains work by Davis Goldblatt and Silver Lion winner young artist Haroon Mirza. Letting artists pursue mutual inspirations, Para-Pavillions are a well-thought curatorial move and may even be Curiger’s best intervention.

Cindy Sherman’s gallery of Murals presents the latest work by the artist and is comprised of a series of oversize, costumed characters juxtaposed against rural scenes. Wallpapered around an entire gallery, the, work is far from the fine-tuned, finished look of her well-known photographs.  In the adjacent gallery, Norma Jeane’s project room gathers a crowd for a ‘political’ play.  The artist provided a huge block of plasticine in the colors of the Egyptian flag and invited visitors to  use the material freely, thereby manipulating the artists’ assumed authority in the creation of meaning. However, during the preview days, the majority of responses to this political gesture were only as elaborate as kindergarten works. Despite the words about number of young artists in Curiger’s exhibition some of which pursue a rather modern artistic approach, it is not surprising that the works of established artists were placed strategically to lend the exhibition credibility. Does standing on the side and trying to let the audience speak comprise the right maneuver in Venice where the expectations to synthesize contemporary art production and its implications are at their peak? Do we need concrete frameworks to be able to digest a grand scale exhibition, that is to say,  do we always need to be guided? Either way, Curiger failed to construct a curatorial frame, regardless of whether it might end up exciting or boring the audience, and instead caused many to leave with the dry taste of randomness.

Norma Jeane's project room

Pavilions in brief

Among 89 national pavilions, the USA has a dominance in Giardini with Allora & Calzadilla’s witty installations both inside and outside the pavilion making a critique of the notion of national representation and the flow of “professional audience.” An upside-down army tank parked outside roars from time to time with a treadmill attached to its tread. Leading no where, so as the athlete running on it, it is impossible not to see this tank and think about the USA’s military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The pavilion’s strength bases on the performativity. Artist duo’s installation of wooden business class seats inside the pavilion turned into interesting scenes for the critique of the art professionals’ travels worldwide when professional gymnasts challenged the audience with grift, complicated moves.

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, Gloria, 2011.

Christof Schlingenshief’s Fluxus church brought the German Pavilion the Golden Lion with its immersive setting full of multiple videos by the artists as well as an autobiographical play on artist’s own suffering from cancer.

Christoph Schlingensief: A Church of Fear

Christian Boltanski highlighted the link between birth and death with a print office structure where rolls of a common newborn photographs travels all around the installation reminding the freshly printed newspapers. Mike Nelson brings Istanbul to Venice, with a tribute to his work in 2003 Istanbul Biennial. His extremely detailed work turned the British Pavilion into a rundown caravanserai in Istanbul with many workshops inside and a small courtyard in the middle. Respecting the tremendous quality, one wonders whether this repositioning is timely or we are stuck in artist’s nostalgia.

Christian Boltanski, Chance, 2011.

Mike Nelson, Magazin: Büyük Valide Han, 2011.

Poland made a surprise by commissioning an Israeli artist, Yael Bartana whose striking videos depict a call for 3 million Jews to return to Poland to create a multi-cultural society that would overcome the marks of Poland’s anti-Semitist history.

Egypt pavilion reminds once more the impossibility of disconnecting life and art. Honoring artist Ahmed Basiony (1978 – 2011), his shootings of the events in Tahrir Square with his digital and phone camera, the events which led to his death on January 28th at the very same place, were shown together with one of his live performances a year ago where he performed a particular demonstration of running.

If Schlingenshief’s work stand on the opposite edge of Curiger’s tranquil curatorial, Thomas Hirschorn’s Crystal of Resistance at Swiss Pavilion stands on the other. More luminous than the whole international exhibition, this extreme Hirschhorn installation questions, in artist’s own words “First: Can my work create a new term of art? Second: Can my work develop a ‘Critical corpus’? Third: Can my work engage – beyond the art audience – a ‘Non-exclusive Public’?[2] Surrounded by innumerous cell phones, digital tablets and monitors mingling with mannequins, popular magazines and images from wars, this work can be the right place to start questioning how to look and seeding Hirschhorn’s questions in mind while dissolving in the “exclusive public”.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Crystal of Resistance, 2011. Photo: Anna Kowalska

[1] Bice Cruger’s explanation on basing the Biennale on Tintoretto’s work can be followed on the press release on http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition/54iae/
[2] Excerpt from the artist’s statement. http://www.crystalofresistance.com/

*Ceren Erdem is a second year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.