Review of 2013 Venice Art Biennale


Few things can be more rewarding for an art teacher than seeing someone being transformed by the experience of art. I was thinking about this in May, while at the opening of the 55th Venice Art Biennale. It struck me that over the last fifty years, Venice has transformed itself from a city with a life of its own into being what tourists expect to find during their visit. Meanwhile – and in the same timeframe - art has been changing itself into what the ordinary punter probably wouldn’t recognise as art.

The Venice Biennale is the oldest and biggest contemporary art jamboree. In recent years, art biennials (and triennials) have cropped up all over the world, but this is the only one where attendance for the preview by the many makers and shakers of the art world is more or less obligatory. You first notice them in the departure lounge at the airport. They are easy to identify: whether or not they are wearing their favourite colour –black – they will be sporting something a little quirky, such as an attention seeking pair of spectacles, or show-off shoes. In their number will be an assortment of gallerists (what art dealers prefer to be called), representatives of the main auction houses, curators, PR specialists, those who work in public museums and galleries, as well as an army of critics, scholars and not forgetting the artists. For three or four days they even manage to outnumber the tourists in the east end of the city, where the greatest part of the Biennale takes place. For ach new biennale more of them turn up, for contemporary art might be a minority interest, but it is far from marginal. And at the high end it is about big bucks.

There is never enough time to go to the many attractions on offer. There are eighty-eight national pavilions. It used to be a kind of World Cup of art, with nations vying with each other for the prize for the best. The prize still exists, but (unlike in sport) a good part of the art world finds this association with nationalism quaint and rather embarrassing. This is reflected in some nations presenting work by artists from other countries and this year the Germans and French swapped pavilions. Twenty-eight of the national pavilions are located in the Giardini, a wooded parkland which can be a pleasant contrast to the unremitting hard surfaces of the rest of Venice. Having traipsed round all of these, the eager art lover still has a further sixty to find, many of which will be scattered all over the city.

The other main part of the Biennale is a very extensive selection by a curator. This presents a personal take on the state of contemporary art and it is a real fillip for any aspiring artist to have been included. The biggest chunk of it is situated in a vast, long, single-storied, proto-industrial building of the Arsenale. It takes stamina and a dogged determination to march from one end to the other and at the same time try to take in the art on the way. One’s senses are forever bombarded by an overabundance of images, flickering screens, dark and light spaces and an almost overwhelming choice of things to look at. Most artists are represented by a profusion of works and sometimes each work can itself be of multiple images. This cannot be art for the educated eye to leisurely scrutinise: it is art as spectacle, art to be glanced at. As I diligently made my way along it, I was conscious of this constant stream of people taking quick glimpses as they whizzed by. Every hundred yards or so there will be at least one artist’s film to watch, which, no matter how dull, provides a welcome chance to rest one’s feet.

As if this wasn’t enough art for even the most gluttonous art addict, there are forty-seven officially sanctioned collateral exhibitions and many other unofficial events and shows. And then there are the parties. Each pavilion, every exhibition will have its opening. Added to this will be receptions hosted by all sorts of arts organisations, museums and private dealers. Some people will network, others will luxuriate in the endless hospitality and many do both. If anybody so wished, they could spend the entire day and night consuming Prosecco and various accompanying nibbles.

Not for many years have national pavilions simply been receptacles to which artists dispatched their most recent work. Rather, working with a curator, artists will produce an artwork for this particular venue and few will miss the opportunity to put something inside which has instant impact. A typical national pavilion will present an array of ‘found’ objects together with some photographs, some text and a film to watch. These will be linked by a theme which might be obvious, but is much more likely to only become apparent when you read the accompanying blurb. It might be thought provoking, it could be mysterious, but it will very rarely be concerned with traditional aesthetic concerns such as (heaven forbid) beauty. This year, most of the Spanish was filled with large heaps of building rubble, which visitors were forced to skirt around, while upstairs there was an accompanying film about reclaimed land in Murano, an artwork by Lara Almarcegui. The Belgian contained a fibreglass recreation of a giant elm tree lying on its side, the work of Berlinde De Bruyckere. In the Hungarian, Zsolt Asztalosh presented photographs of unexploded World War 2 bombs found in that country, together with a film which leisurely documented all the sites where they were discovered. Note how artistic practice is borrowing from academic disciplines or modes of administration in systematically recording and presenting things.

At a party, an indignant, English buffer in a blazer and old school tie proclaimed to me that ‘The British pavilion is a disgrace, an absolute disgrace.’ In fact, from what I gleaned it was one of the most popular. What he would have found upsetting was that while it was drenched in Englishness, the artist, Jermey Deller, was drawing attention to some of his nation’s dirty linen. For example, he had somebody paint on the wall a giant hen harrier clutching in its talons a Range Rover car. The accompanying explanation told how in October 2007, Prince Harry and his friend William van Cutsem were questioned by police after reliable reports that a pair of these very rare and protected birds had been shot over the Sandringham Estate. (The case was dropped).

The official selection for the Biennale by the New York based curator Massimiliano Gioni confounded expectations by presenting work by many unknown artists, or by people better known for other reasons, such as Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner or Aleister Crowley. Moreover, out of the 165 named artists chosen, about a quarter are dead, which is a curious take on what is contemporary. Many of the artists he included are categorised as ‘outsider’, because they will have worked completely outside the mainstream, often have been living in institutions and probably be untrained. Some of this work was compelling, as it is hard to escape the power that emanates from its raw clumsiness. Like contemporary artists, they were not making work to please the eye, and had usually latched onto a theme, only for outsider artists this was a private obsession which might last all of their lives. Their work has an innocent sincerity which contrasts with the calculating knowingness of contemporary art.

Gioni’s selection seemed to be one alternative history of art of which, he implies, there could be countless others. The accepted, western history of art includes two transformations, one in the 1860s which heralded Modernism and one a hundred years later, which brought about contemporary art. After gazing at its navel for a time during the 1970s, contemporary art moved on from examining the art world to everything beyond. Artists engaged intensely with theory, but not with materials and making. Contemporary art might be pleasing to the eye, but rarely sets out to be - and often tries not to be (sumptuous work is often disparaged as being mere ‘eye candy’). It might be art because the artist said it is, but there are no common features that enable it to be recognisable as belonging to a certain style. To the extent there is still such a thing as evolution of style attached to contemporary art, it is dictated by changes in technology, such as being able to print large scale colour photographs or the evolution from grainy black and white videos to high definition film. Whereas the development of art used to be linear, now it is horizontal, including encroaching into media normally associated with many other art forms. Gioni seemed to be demonstrating that since contemporary art does not need to be underpinned by Modernism, from this vantage point he can draw up an alternative history of art. The authorised, linear history is an illusion, art was never going anywhere and still isn’t.

The trouble with this is that there is too much money tied up in the official canon. Not only that, all those visitors to the Biennale who were powering from one event to another in a water taxi at a hundred euros a throw (as if this were small change) have a vested interest in the creation and perpetuation of art stars. According to this narrative, like the heroic geniuses of the past, artists are like alchemists, except we now take it on trust: it isn’t because of what they have made but because of who they are. Once enough people buy into this self-anointed status, everything about them can be significant – even their unmade bed. Rather than the existing canon being abandoned, it is much more likely that a narrative of art history will be devised which incorporates outsider artists, so they can also be promoted and their work collected at the higher end of the market.

In the Doge’s Palace was an extraordinary Manet exhibition, including a one in a lifetime chance to see Olympia side by side with Titian’s The Venus of Urbino. When I told people I was taking time out to go there, they looked at me quizzically, as if I were slightly mad. I felt like somebody at a rock festival popping out to hear a bit of Mozart. It was a reminder that in its contemporary guise, art has completely re-invented itself. Outside the Palace, crowds of tourist were milling around in a Venice which, in a different way, has done much the same.