2011 Venice Art Biennale

Reviewed by Nicholas Houghton

There are many biennials round the world which showcase contemporary art, but the Venice Biennale is the oldest and by the far the biggest and most prestigious. It has two main components. The first is a large, curated exhibition, this time displaying the work of 83 artists, housed in the massive Arsenale and in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. The second is 89 national pavilions, the most prominent of which are located in the Giardini. Nations that don’t have permanent pavilions find space elsewshere in the city. There are also 37 peripheral exhibitions and events.

The Biennale attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors during the six months it’s open. But for the opening some of the world’s richest billionaires show up and moor their vulgar yachts close to the entrance to the Giardini. This year Roman Abramovich, a Russian multi-billionaire, upset many Venetians by bringing his latest ship – Luna – which dwarfed all other yachts and the surrounding buildings. The vessel seems be saying one thing: ‘money: I’ve got an awful lot’. It’s gauche, it’s brash, it’s oversized and it’s right in your face, right by the entrance. No matter what your political views, it’s hard not to let such an apparition bring up the topic of politics.

Then, on entering the Giardini, one is always accosted by people handing out a variety of free bags, usually advertising an exhibition, art organisation or event. This time the must-have free bag carried the message ‘Free Ai Weiwei’. It was all too easy to make a well-meaning, hollow gesture by carrying this bag, without giving any thought to the broader narrative lying behind the detention of this prominent Chinese artist. It’s highly doubtful that carrying these had anything to do with his subsequent, conditional release and perhaps a little ironic that the bags were made in China. All the same, politics was in the air.

Freedom of speech was explored in the Danish pavilion, curated by Katerina Gregos. In the work of 11 artists from around the world, the issue was shown to be complex and nuanced. Many other national pavilions alluded to politics and current affairs, but none did it so well. Many showed newsreel. In the Belgian pavilion, these were being shown on a series of video screens. Onto these, Angel Vergara, the artist, dabs abstract splodges of paint, so that we gradually see less and less of the film behind (we don’t see a brush, so perhaps it’s not really paint but simulation). It’s as if a Greenbergian art for art’s sake is obliterating the real world.

The Egyptian pavilion shows recent footage of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. This was shot by the artist himself - Ahmed Basiony - and where the artist himself was shot dead. This is juxtaposed with an older film of Basiony fully enclosed in polythene, running on the spot until the oxygen runs out and he collapses. What does this lack of oxygen symbolise? Is it a premonition of his own death? This is poignant, but only because we know of his death. It doesn’t make these images of the demonstration better than any we saw on television news.

Moreover, the running on the spot is very similar to work being done 40 years ago, the only difference being that a grainy, black and white video has been superseded by glossy, coloured, digital film. In the Israel pavilion, the issues Sigilit Landau

address are water – or lack of it – and some sort of reconciliation with the Arab neighbours. He imagines a bridge made of salt joining Israel with Jordan and not therefore with those Palestinians living in areas such as the Gaza strip. I found myself applauding his sincerity almost as much as I wished for a little less naivety.

Away from the main venues of the Biennale is the Roma pavilion, the very existence of which is a political statement. A video there by Daniel Baker and Paul Ryan called ‘Mirror Mirror’, presents a multiplicity of issues around gypsy art with subtlety and clarity. Prejudice against nomadic peoples by sedentary populations is a fundamental topic in anthropology and early history, but with Roma people persists to this day. These artists help us to re-assess our prejudices about gypsies and their art in such a way that at the end of the video one feels changed. This is political art at its best.

Many works at the Venice Biennale presented a theme: some more political than others. For example, in the French pavilion, Christian Boltanski had chosen the theme of life and death and, it seemed, the population explosion. From that, he had come up with three ideas. The first was to have had constructed a massive scaffolding with an endless spool of photos of the faces of new born babies twirling around, as if on some sort of a production line. (For some reason, they were all white, which doesn’t even represent the French population.) The second was to have two large digital displays, the one counting all the babies born in the world since the Biennale opened and the other counting all the deaths. (The total for the births was rushing ahead of that for the deaths.) The third idea was to show a mosaic made up of fragments from photos of many different faces, all constantly moving. Some were of old people, some of young. We, the viewers, could push a button and the display would stop for a moment and the aim was to try to stop it at a time when all the bits were of the same face. The three ideas seemed in desperate need of development; they had barely moved beyond the theme. One can easily imagine a not very creative curator in a science museum coming up with the same ideas.

If the Biennale is any guide, then too many contemporary artists seem to be taking this identikit, ABC approach to making art: identify a theme and come up with an idea to illustrate it. The result is always banal and the loftier the theme (e.g. life and death), the more disappointing and not up to the job the idea can appear. This isn’t a plea for mystery, but it is for subtlety. You can have greater impact when you approach a topic obliquely, or feel your way into it. The best art reveals more about itself each time it’s viewed and can often produce surprises for the artist who made it. Duchamp himself cautioned that it can be all too easy to produce art, especially a readymade and for that very reason artists should restrain themselves and think long and hard first.

Boltanksi’s work shared another characteristic with much of the art in the Biennale: it provides spectacle. Almost as soon as I entered the Giardini, I heard the loud, moaning sound of a machine. This turned out to be an overturned tank, outside the USA pavilion, an artwork by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. On one of the tank’s tracks, an athlete was running, using it as a treadmill.

Everyone noticed it, but you stop and look at it for a moment or two and move on. It is probably part of the perceived pressure to impress felt by those responsible for the national pavilions that encourages artists to provide spectacle. It is doubtless also one of the consequences of a very crowded, competitive art world that artists feel the need to provide spectacle to get noticed, especially since those viewing the art have become immune to shock. Is this all bad? It certainly

seems so where the spectacle appears to be so far ahead of the ideas it is illustrating. In front of one work after another, I kept thinking: more is less. Spectacle can easily be flashy and shallow, like Abromovich’s yacht.

However, in the Central pavilion, Bice Curiger, who curated the main exhibition, had brought together three iconic Tintoretto paintings from other locations in Venice. These huge canvases provide spectacle a plenty. They’re not without their vulgar side. And they are flashy. Yet they rewarded lengthy examination in the way so much of the contemporary work on display at the Biennale did not.

Bice Curiger named her selection for the main exhibition of the Biennale ILLUNInations. Some works were about aspects of illumination. At the entrance to the Arsenale, Martin Creed had reprised his work of an electric light going on and off. However, since it was in bright area in broad daylight you’d never have known it. Perhaps that was the point this time. About halfway along the vast Arsenale exhibition space there was a lot of attention being paid to three, realistic - in the way that figures at Madame Tussauds are realistic - wax sculptures by Urs Fischer. One was of an ordinary office chair, one an ordinary looking man standing up and the third, a much bigger replica of a Mannerist, 16th century sculpture by Giambologna of the rape of the Sabines. What attracted people, was that each had a wick which was alight and it became apparent were giant candles, slowly melting and destroying themselves, hence illuminiating and dissolving all at the same time. I presume that by the time autumn and the end of the Biennale approach, all that will be left will be blobs of melted wax. There must have been a reason for selecting these three things to replicate and dissipate, but what that is escaped me.

As the Tinotorettos reminded us, illumination is closely connected to darkness. Walking through the exhibits was a constant chiaroscuro of bright galleries followed by dingy spaces where a film was being projected. At one end of the Arnesale, the film was The Clock by Christian Marclay. This artfully splices together clips from well known movies which include glimpses of clocks or watches, not as background ornament, but because they are playing an important role in the plot. These clocks synchronise with the time that Marclay’s work is being shown (you could project it on your wall at home in place of clock). The film lasts 24 hours and it is so addictive that I could imagine someone watching it for all that time. Marclay won the award for best artist and I don’t think too many people were complaining.

Overall, Curiger’s selection was not too illuminating. It contained few surprises (apart from the three Tintorettos) and many established artists, such as Cindy Sherman, who as their careers progress do more of the same only bigger (and with more assistants?). Curiger favoured lens-based media and sculptures, but that’s hardly surprising since so do many contemporary artists. Sometimes, it did feel I was wading through too much irony. But some irony might have evaded the cognescenti. Attending one of the many parties which accompany the event, it did occur to me that while contemporary art has abandoned any interest in beauty, the art glitterati are clearly paying a lot of money to try to achieve it when they stand in front of a mirror or their peers. And sometimes I’d walk through Venice and the many layers of cliché couldn’t prevent me from noticing how ravishing the city can be. Why shouldn’t art be allowed to be beautiful too?

The nations half of ILLUMInations brings up the chestnut about the relevance of national identity for a globalised, contemporary art world. National

states as we know them are a nineteenth century invention and it always seems amazing how enduring they are, even as what they are becomes more and more confused. (Are they about race? Surely not. Shared cultural values? Definitely not. About a territory? But borders are not fixed, as a Mexican will know only too well.) As real wars and proxy wars such as the Olympic Games testify, the nation state is a powerful concept. To some extent the Venice Biennale has long been a kind of art Olympics, with nations putting a great deal of effort and expense into their national pavilions. Each artist, it seems, is showing their work for the greater glory of their nation.

Some pavilions deliberately confronted this trend, such as the Danish pavilion filled with work by artists from many nations. The Netherlands pavilion chose to emphasise community instead of nationhood. Italy bucked all trends and seemed to be trying to be the worst pavilion (ever?) – and succeeded easily. It set out to turn its back on contemporary art by presenting row on row of the kind of pictures you find on the walls of a cheap hotel. This reminded us that no matter what reservations we might have about certain types of contemporary art, the solution can never be to try to turn the clock back and wish it all away. The hole left by an absence of contemporary concerns is always filled with kitsch.

The stock in trade for pavilions appeared to be for the curator to present an artist’s work in the form of some carefully arranged readymades, some very large colour photographs and to show a film or video. In the German pavilion, the (recently deceased) Christoph Schlingensief had done this but also thrown in everything else but the kitchen sink. This won the prize for the best pavilion, but I found it a case quantity overwhelming quality. The Canadian pavilion showed the work of Steven Shearer, which went to prove that one and one doesn’t always add up to two: in this case it was definitely zero. He is showing paintings and drawings rather in the style of Edward Munch, but without Munch’s facility with paint, or emotional intensity. This is expressionism without the expression, so that all that’s left is the hollow vocabulary of the ism. As if to acknowledge this would be a selection of bad paintings on their own, they are accompanied by a giant poem which decorates the whole façade of the pavilion. The poem is full of expletives and very adolescent. No matter how ironic the set of paintings and poem are supposed to be, the more I contemplated each in the light of the other, the worse it became.

A development of recent Biennales has been for the chosen artist(s) to produce a specific work for that nation’s pavilion, rather than there being a presentation of extant work. Some artists, such as Thomas Hirschhorn at the Swiss Pavilion couldn’t really do anything else. In his case he’s used his trademark tape and foil to make a statement about digital technology and the crystals on which all our laptops, mobile hones and information society depend. But he also reminds us that this in turn relies on cheap labour. The New Age association with crystals as agents of healing might imply that Hirschoorn believes there are solutions. Unlike Marclay’s Clocks, you feel it’s the kind of work which could go on forever. This always sounds alarm bells because it indicates that it is formally flabby. It is site specific, but you feel any site would be given similar treatment and if you let him loose on the Arsenale, he’d fill the whole space all with tape and foil.

Mike Nelson in the British pavilion also installs his trademark work. His speciality is to transform a gallery space, so that it becomes a highly realistic copy of an interior elsewhere, usually including one room being duplicated. His work is part of a branch of contemporary art which makes things which are look more real

than reality and refers back to long tradition in western art. With skill and attention to detail, spaces are reproduced and placed in another context. Nelson here has combined scruffy, dilapidated rooms from one building in Istanbul and a second in Venice. As always, the people who inhabited these rooms are absent and replaced by us, the visitors. It’s like walking round a film or stage set. But in this case there is no play to be performed. The work is about memory, about a temporary recreation of what can’t be preserved. The very fact of being a fake reconstruction forces you to look more closely than you might if it were the real thing. And the more you look, the more you realise it is a fake. By making it so realistic, Nelson has also made the reality he describes so accurately elusive and unreachable.

The overblown sameness of so much of the work on display reminds us that seeking attention isn’t the same as being creative. Creativity doesn’t come out of endless, unrestricted possibilities, it comes out of having to find a way out of tight restrictions. When contemporary artists are given endless freedom the result can be homogeneity.

Storr, R. (2009), ‘Dear Colleague’, In S. H Madoff (ed) Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 53-67.